New whine in old cities: What’s in a name?

Scores of cities in the country have been renamed, or proposed to be renamed, over the decades. The recent revival of this spree focuses attention yet again on the relevance and rationale of such exercises.

If you thought you were born in Ahmedabad, prepare to forget it soon. You need to get used to the identity crisis that could befall you when your birthplace suddenly becomes Karnavati.

However, there is always consolation: Cousins from other cities might be sharing your distress. After all, Hyderabad is soon to become Bhagyanagar and Aurangabad will become Sambhaji Nagar.

Would that really achieve anything?

You may be mourning the expiry of a name that always reminded you of your first standard teacher, your grandparents’ legacy or the first experience of flying kites in a steely wind.

Then again, others may ask, what’s in a name?

That of course raises another question: If there really isn’t much in it, why are we trying to find something in a new name at all? Why do we even want to rename it?

Ahem, Ahmedabad!

Well, new names are all about information.

You, the Ahmedabadi, had better learn that a Hindu king, Karan Dev, established the city in the 11th century and called it Ashaval. A Chalukya ruler called Karna, from Anhilwara, defeated the erstwhile Bhil king and started ‘Karnavati’ city by Sabarmati river. Then another Sultan called Ahmed Shah, who ruled till 1442, changed it to Ahmedabad, capital of the Gujarat Sultanate.

Ahmed Shah’s change of name in the 15th century  was hugely resented by the modern BJP Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister, who felt that the name reminded us of “hardships” and was a “symbol of slavery”. The renaming would then be some kind of gallant revenge in order to restore “our pride, our self-respect, our culture, our autonomy.”

So, his party moved a resolution on May 11, 1990, to rename the only Indian city in the World Heritage list. Though his act of valorous vendetta hasn’t materialised yet, the ‘restoration’ is expected to happen before the 2019 elections.

And it’s not just Ahmedabad. About 100 cities and towns in the country are now eyeing a rejuvenation of pride and toast to past glory through similar means.

The name, the name

Now educate yourself some more. Tell your friend from Aurangabad that Sambhaji, the elder son of King Shivaji, was beheaded by Aurangzeb, so the city had better get back to honour Sambhaji, not the executor.

Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar was supposed to have been implemented in the late 1990s, with the BJP-Shiv Sena demanding it. According to the BJP-Shiv Sena combine, the name change was a “popular” demand from the people of Marathwada. But it is highly probable that you never heard that so-called “popular” cry, unless you were within the microcosmic circles of the political party. Well, you have heard of it now, at least.

And Bhagyanagar, which is er, Hyderabad, will remind you of goddess Bhagyalakshmi. She resides in a small temple near Charminar and has been the centre of attention during riots and controversies. Now Hyderabad will cease to exist, and we shall have a city to frequently remind us of that goddess.

Maybe this will stop the riots. Or maybe, it won’t.

‘Remember’ history 

Let us look at Ayodhya, which is rocking the news, having replaced Faizabad. It’s all about ‘history,’ as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath wants to focus on its importance as the birthplace of Lord Ram.  However, it should be noted that it was not Awadh’s first Nawab Saadat Ali Khan, who changed Ayodhya’s name to Faizabad. The temple town merely got added to Faizabad district by the British. It is therefore difficult to look at the renaming as anything but an election gimmick.

In April 2016, citizens of Gurgaon came to know that their city in Haryana was once a village given as a present or ‘guru dakshina’ from the Pandavas to their Guru Dronacharya. So it became Gurugram.

However, now that the Guru is no more, why the name change? While Gurgaon is a rustic Haryanvi word that makes you feel plebeian and uncultured, Gurugram, according to local BJP chiefs, strikes a connect with the Vedic era and makes you proud to be ‘Sanskritised’.

In 2011, Madhya Pradesh wanted to rename its state capital Bhopal as Bhojpal, in order to mark the millennium of King Bhojpal’s coronation. However, this was turned down by the UPA government.

And ‘forget’ history

A name that gives you some kind of history lesson is fair enough, perhaps.

But interestingly, while many of the renamed cities have some real, or creative links with the past that are acceptable, it is not clear why history is in fact disregarded during many renaming sprees.

In August 2018, for instance, the Uttar Pradesh government suddenly decided to become a ‘scholarly’ party. Hence, the historic Mughalsarai Junction Railway Station, which is a century old and evokes nostalgic whiffs of eras reminiscent of Mughals, elephants and horses suddenly got renamed after RSS pracharak Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.

This was because he had been found dead near the station under mysterious circumstances. While that could evoke sympathy, it really isn’t a pleasant memory of gallantry or goodness, only sympathy at best and scorn among critics at worst. By any means, the renaming cannot be termed Advantage History.

Similarly, the Hazratganj Chauraha, so named after ‘Hazrat’, Lucknow’s Nawab (1842 – 1847) Amjad Ali Shah is now called Atal Chowk in honour of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In another parallel, Aurangzeb Road became A P J Abdul Kalam Road.

Bareilly, so named by Basdeo, a Kaehriya Rajput in 1537, will soon be called Nath Nagri after the Hindu Nath sect followed by UP’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. 

Interestingly, Biharis, even BJP members, do not want to call Patna Pataliputra. For them, the city is much more than just an old memory from the ancient Hindu era. “It has the legacy of Europeans, Sikhs, Muslims and several other social influences,” points out historian O.P. Jaiswal.

Other reasons, clear and not-so-clear

To be fair, renaming cities is not something that has been spurred by the inclinations of the present government. The practice is old and has been quite a rash over the years among all parties. Madras became Chennai and Calcutta got a cosmetic spell-check and a nominal transformation to Kolkata in 1995.  These demands met regional aspirations.

During the BJP-Shiv Sena rule in 1996, Bombay became Mumbai, a name that honoured the local goddess, Mumba Devi.

Months after assuming power at the Centre in 2014, the BJP-led NDA government agreed to officially rename Bangalore as Bengaluru, along with 11 other cities in Karnataka, accepting U R Ananthamoorthy’s regional, ethnic and cultural aspirations.

In the immediate, UP CM Yogi Adityanath has been extremely enthusiastic about fishing out new names for cities in the state. Just before the 2019 Kumbh mela, Allahabad was renamed Prayag, a backlash to the earlier renaming of the city to Allahabad or ‘Abode of God’ by Akbar. Congress spokesperson Onkar Singh lamented that this would certainly affect the history of Allahabad as an important nerve centre during the freedom movement.

The CM, on his part, has said that there is a “need” for the renaming, even though critics are not clear how renaming of cities could be a matter of such priority in a state where children are dying due to lack of oxygen. Still, the belief is that it is the government’s right to rename any city or road, in order to “rectify” earlier mistakes.

Many critics have been sharp and scathing. BJP ally O.P. Rajbhar said that if Yogi is really interested in changing Muslim names, then he should change the names of Muslims in his cabinet too!

The real interest in renaming cities seems to be to milk the issue for votes. The Congress cry is that the renaming of cities just before the 2019 polls is meant to secure the Hindu vote.

What is the process to be followed for renaming cities?

The process is not simple! Sardar Fateh Singh, Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, wrote on September 11th, 1953, that name changes should not be encouraged. There needs to be a “compelling” reason, which cannot include local patriotism or linguistic reasons, he said. If there are valid reasons, the proposals should be sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs, according to him.

Consent to the change can be granted only after no-objections are given by the Ministry of Railways, Department of Posts and Survey of India. They need to confirm that no town or village in their records has a name similar to the proposal. After that, a state can be renamed through amendment of the Constitution with a simple majority in Parliament, while a village or town needs an executive order.

The government’s guidelines state that the same process should be followed to change the names of villages, towns, cities and even Railway Stations.

Since April 2017, 51 proposals have been submitted of which 41 have been approved, one from Nagaland has been rejected, while the rest are being considered.

How much does it cost?

While no survey has been done on the costs involved, the renaming of cities certainly doesn’t look inexpensive. After all, a lot of money has to be pumped in if you want to update all the national and international databases and give new addresses to the public places, homes, buildings, sign boards and commuting locations such as buses, railway stations and airports. Then you need to update maps, re-orient GPS systems, change letterheads and reprint business cards.

Some institutions may, of course, just choose to continue how they were. And for good reason too…sure enough, the Bombay Stock Exchange, Bombay Gymkhana club or the University of Madras all mean pretty much the same to those who go there even after the Bombay became Mumbai and Madras took on the Chennai mantle; those who like the brand like them still.

What is the point of all these changes then? Have they improved your historical knowledge? Well yes, sometimes. They made you get to know all about Shyamala, the goddess of Simla. And it was perhaps only during the renaming to Chennai that you heard of Damerla Chennappa Mudirasa Nayaka, who owned a village called Chennapattanam. But then again many new names are not based on real history.

Have they improved cities? Not really, they’ve only changed famous brand names.

Have they improved lives or lifestyles? Only for politicians who liked being in the news.

Have they restored your pride and culture? Maybe, if you wanted to live in Prayagraj. Or perhaps if you ever wanted to take revenge on a Shah of the 15th century. Otherwise, it has just left a lot of people wondering what all the noise is about and even made some of them pretty irritated.



    The Indian Politicians are doing IRREPARABLE DAMAGE while doing the Name-changes of cities & towns, WITHOUT understanding the difficulties of the Airlines for having to put up the NEW LABELS along side the old ones for the bagages .. While in the USA, I heard the bickerings of the Postal counter-clerks while booking the consignments destined for India, as they had to verify the NEW NAMES WITH THE OLD ONES and they used to curse that India is the ONLY NATION indulging in this game !!

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