Shakespeare was wrong. His choice of the rose as a metaphor to assert the irrelevance of a name is now a test case in the toxic garden of Indian politics. Juliet immortalised social rebellion by falling in love with Romeo. In the play that bears her name, she asks defiantly, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.” But contemporary politicians are in a hurry to prove the Bard was looking through rose-tinted glasses. The world over, nomenclature anoints history by invoking the soul and simulacrum of the cities of antiquity. The timeless landscape of India is no different.
The stench of invasions and humiliations has so often corrupted with fear the desolate streets and plundered homes of fallen cities. They’ve left behind alien imprimaturs of conquest on institutions, edifices, provinces and even railway stations. Conquerors changed revered names to impose their seemingly religious, cultural or community superiority. All city names given or changed by the Mongols, Khiljis, Lodis, Mughals and the British are alphabetical symbols of their oppression and contempt. Reviving the original names could be a credible nationalist strategy to reclaim our love of heritage and connectivity with the past. Yogi Adityanath, the austere mahant and saffron-clad chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has set the tone by turning green names into saffron monikers. He sees the restoration of the old names of Allahabad and Faizabad as the glorification of Indian heritage, thereby reviving the cultural unity of the population. So far, the renaming ceremonies are confined to the state and tiny city level. Going by the tone of the new narrative, a movement to replace India’s name with Bharat or Hindustan cannot be ruled out in the near future.
The BJP has discovered there is everything in a name, especially votes. Though the rechristening follows precedents adopted by other political parties, the timing and selection are religiously inspired. Yogi renamed Allahabad and Faizabad as Ayodhya because they fall within the geography of the Hindu faith and its pilgrimage trail. Coincidentally they had Islamic names. Allahabad is now reincarnated as Prayag Raj while Faizabad lost its district authority after merging with Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram.
Yogi isn’t the first leader to adopt name changes as a sound strategy to revive forgotten idols, icons, deities and cultures from India’s golden past. Since independence, over 100 cities have found new names based on local traditions and traditional beliefs. The practice of excavating old monikers from the dustbin of the past started from the south in 1969, when Dravidian leader CN Annadurai led the state Assembly to dump the colonial ‘Madras’ for a new ‘Tamil Nadu.’ The proud gesture was meant to resurrect and redefine the Tamil ethnic and linguistic identity. The fever spread. Orissa became Odisha. The princely state of Hyderabad became Andhra Pradesh. More recently, Mamata Banerjee ‘s government dropped the ‘west’ from her state’s name, settling on just ‘Bangla.’
About one-third of Indian cities have acquired new names since 1947. Bombay was changed to Mumbai, Bangalore to Bengaluru, Calcutta to Kolkata, Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram, Simla to Shimla, and Gauhati to Guwahati. Now BJP leaders are clamouring in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat to rename Ahmedabad as Karnawati, though Ahmedabad was a new city founded by Sultan Ibrahim I in its vicinity; history belongs to the winners. As the countdown to the general elections begins, regional saffron luminaries are poring over state maps, asking for sweeping name changes.
Almost all parties have come around to the view that the patchwork quilt of India could be dyed monochrome by restoring the old names of cities and places that were eponymous with saints of yore, deities, kings and social reformers; thereby erasing names that are reminders of slavery. The RSS has been forever in favour of an extended Hindu Rashtra that includes major parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. So far saffron power is yet to raise the demand to rename India as Bharat.
Both, the BJP and Congress, believe in the concept of Bharat as India’s true identity. But the Congress seems to prefer India over Bharat. There are no official records of how India got its name until it was constitutionally legitimised in tandem with Bharat. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote in Discovery of India, “Often, as I wandered from meeting to meeting, I spoke to my audience of this India of ours, of Hindustan and of Bharatha, the old Sanskrit name derived from the mythical founder of the race”. Four years later, when he signed the Constitution of India in 1950 along with other Constituent Assembly members, the racial identity of the newborn democratic republic as a fellow traveller of Bharat was complete. Article 1 (1) of the Constitution notes: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”. While India would be subsequently repeated in other sections of the Constitution, Bharat rarely makes an appearance.
Yet why did Nehru, who called himself an Indian by birth and an Englishman at heart, prefer Jai Hind over Jai Bharat as the official national slogan? ‘Jai Hind’ was coined by Zain-ul Abideen Hasan, son of a Hyderabad collector and a student living in Germany. There Hasan met Subhash Chandra Bose when Netaji was seeking support to set up INA. Bose was also looking for a forceful phrase of salutation for his cadres. Hasan, who subsequently joined INA, suggested “Jai Hind!” - the war cry to unite disparate regional forces in the name of a yet-to-be-born nation.
But why wasn’t Jai Hind given any place in the Constitution, though it remained in the Indian national idiom as a slogan of unity? Did Nehru see India and Hind as alternative names of free India? No explanation exists. Bose chose it for his army, but why did Nehru, who was ideologically opposed to Bose and his idea of the freedom struggle embrace it? An uncharitable explanation is that the slogan was coined by a Muslim and thereby had a secular halo. Did Nehru reject Bharat because he believed it to be a mythical creation and not a symbol of India’s geographical and cultural unity?
Today it’s even more surprising that the political dispensation led by the BJP is sticking to Jai Hind even as they swear by Bharat. Their leaders chant Bharat Mata ki Jai at every function, but do not demand a name change for India. Why has Modi now, or Vajpayee earlier, not replaced with Jai Bharat the Jai Hind that resounded through India’s freedom years and from the ramparts of the Red Fort? Bharat defines our ancient cultural affinity more strongly than India. Bharat is an inclusive adhesive while India is a divisive label devised by elitist anglophiles to enforce their ownership of the nation. Modi and his ideological partners could find more endorsements on the poll road for New Bharat than for New India.
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