October 14, 2019

What’s in a name – British, Hindu or Muslim?

Ayodhya (Pic Credit: Wikipedia)

There’s nothing new about renaming of cities in India, the trend dating back to Indian independence from British colonialists back in 1947. For the last seven decades, India has been trying to sweep the last remnants of colonialists – British, in particular, and although met with some criticism, the reverting of anglicized Indian cities to their historical names has been applauded. Hence Calcutta became Kolkata, Bangalore became Bengaluru, Madras became Chennai and Bombay became Mumbai to assert self rule in India. Even the French Riviera of the East – Pondicherry became Puducherry, shunning its reference to the French colonial era in India.

Some naysayers of name changes in India, especially the English-spoken elites and outsiders have long argued that changing a city’s name after it has gained universal recognition is a deliberate attempt to hurt its brand image. Really? Since when did a country become a company, and its name a brand? However, there might be a grain of truth in this argument or else why would Bombay Stock Exchange not be renamed Mumbai Stock Exchange, and Madras High Court refuse to be called Chennai High Court? Case in point is also IIT Bombay which should have long renamed its prestigious institution IIT Mumbai. Whatever said or done, there will be a cost to re-educating outsiders about India’s past glory and cultural opulence.

In recent times, the bigger controversy is changing of Muslim names to their Hindu counterparts. Biggest examples have been the renaming Uttar Pradesh’s cities of Allahabad to Prayagraj and Faizabad to Ayodhya. The ruling Hindu nationalist party BJP is going beyond renaming cities and reaching out to airports and streets. Prime Minister Narendra Modi justified the name changes on grounds that his government was merely giving the Indian cities their original names back – names which had been changed by Muslim emperors that ruled the Indian sub-continent after 1857, predating the British rule.

In the words of Raghav Awasthi, Lawyer and member of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh): “Our nationalism is about the unity and integrity of our beloved motherland. It is about enlightening the people about the great traditions of ‘Bharat’ (a legendary Hindu king) and India’s cultural heritage. Our aim is cultural unity.”

The questions that beg to be posed now are why there is so much opposition to changing Muslim names as opposed to British ones? Does India deliver a death blow to its secular image by bequeathing Hindu names to cities conquered by Muslim invaders? The answers to these complex questions are not easy. They delve in the rich historical past of India and in the psyche of its plural diversity.

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