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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 51 New Delhi December 8, 2018

Deconstructing the Politics of Renaming

Sunday 9 December 2018, by Arup Kumar Sen

Renaming cities and places is nothing new in world history. The socio-political context of its happening is important. Catherine Epstein in her book, Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths (Wiley Blackwell, 2015), drew our attention to what happened in Poland under Nazi occupation: “Throughout Nazi-occupied Poland, Poles were deemed to be second-class persons... They lost all property rights and were subject to a special, stringent criminal code... Nazi policies in western Poland offer a primer for ethnic cleansing. Immediately, the Nazis removed all Polish signs and inscriptions. They renamed cities, towns, villages and streets.”

Rulers of different countries have their own modalities of governing their territories and populations. The politics of renaming is being practised in some BJP-ruled States in India. Recent months have witnessed name changes or such proposals for Allahabad, Mughalsarai and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The latest addition is the proposal to rename Ahmedabad as Karnavati in BJP-ruled Gujarat. What is common in this politics of renaming is the replacement of names carrying the signature of Muslim heritage by Hindu religious names and icons. Regarding the renaming of the city of Allahabad as Prayagraj, Alok Rai, a son of the soil, reminded us: “It is true that the name Prayag antedates the city of Allahabad—but Prayag is merely a place, the riverbank where the Ganga and the Yamuna meet. This confluence has been sacred to Hindus from ancient times—but it is still not a city. It is at best a pilgrim settlement, home to pandas and their prey... This city (Allahabad) is, we know on credible evidence, of medieval origins, and grew to affluence with the peace and harmony that was guaranteed by Akbar’s fort, overlooking the great waterway that carried the agricultural produce of the Doaba to distant markets.” (The Indian Express, November 5, 2018)

Similar is the story of renaming Ahmedabad as Karnavati. To put it in the words of Sharik Laliwala (The Wire, November 9, 2018), “Karna-vati, the site of an erstwhile city supposedly near Ahmedabad, derives its name from Karnadev Solanki (a Chalukya dynasty ruler), whereas Ahmedabad is named after Ahmad Shah I, the founder of Ahmedabad city and the most well-known king of the Gujarat Sultanate... Tommaso Bobbio in his recent work, Urbanisation, Citizenship andConflict in India: Ahmedabad 1900-2000, writes that ‘historical sources and chronicles of the city (Karnavati) are vague and (do) not allow us to ascertain either the dimension or the exact location’ of Karnavati.”

The recent history of Ahmedabad including the anti-Muslim pogrom in the city should be kept in mind in understanding the politics of renaming. When the American-born historian, Howard Spodek, who first visited the city in 1964 and made Ahmedabad his second home, was asked to comment on the title of his recent book, Ahmedabad: Shock City of Twentieth-Century India, he said: “How could I end my book without mentioning the riots that left almost 1,000 dead in Ahmedabad at the turn of the century?... This pogrom, one of the worst in India since independence, made Ahmedabad a shock city for India, in both senses of the word.” (livemint, August 10, 2012)

A violent paradigm of governance went side by side with the politics of renaming in UP. The Yogi Adityanath Government came to power in the State in March, 2017. Let us see how is the State being governed under his leadership: “Over a thousand encounters in a year. That’s the record in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. Since March 2017, 49 persons have been killed in over 1100 encounters, more than 370 have been injured and over 3300 arrested across the State...” (The Hindu, March 31, 2018) The PUCL filed a petition in the Supreme Court “alleging that the incidents of encounter killings (are) taking place in the State in blatant violation of Rule of Law, legal and constitutional protection available to the citizens, under Article 21 of the Constitution”. (Live Law.in, July 2, 2018)

The proposal for renaming the iconic Mughalsarai Junction railway station as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction was given by the Yogi Adityanath Government, which was later approved by the Centre. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, an ideologue of the RSS and co-founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP, was found dead in mysterious circumstances near the Mughalsarai station in 1968. The BJP President, Amit Shah, inaugurated the renamed station in August, 2018, and said: “Today is a very big day for the Bharatiya Janata Party as Mughalsarai station, where Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya was killed, has today been named after him.” (The Economic Times, August 5, 2018).

The most spectacular instance of renaming is Yogi Adityanath’s pre-Diwali announcement that Faizabad district would henceforth be known as Ayodhya. He also announced that Ayodhya will have its own airport named after Lord Ram and a medical college named after Ram’s father, King Dashrath. He said: “We all know that all Ayodhya has is this temple. People come here to worship Lord Ram and no one else. There was a temple, there is a temple and there will always be one. No one doubts this.” (The Indian Express, November 8, 2018)

The Faizabad district comprises the twin towns of Faizabad and Ayodhya. The land question in Ayodhya is yet to be settled in the court of law, and it carries contested religious meanings. The latest development in the Supreme Court on the issue is as follows:

After the Uttar Pradesh Government’s plea for early hearing of appeals challenging the Allahabad High Court order in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit, the Supreme Court...ordered listing of appeals before an “appropriate bench” in the first week of January 2019 to fix a date for hearing. (The Indian Express, October 30, 2018).

We do not know how the Supreme Court and constitutional experts will respond to the proposal of Yogi Adityanath, renaming the Faizabad district as Ayodhya. However, there is no doubt in our mind that renaming of cities and places in contemporary India has deeper implications for the emerging character of our polity.

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