Renaming frenzy dividing people, eroding brand value

The rationale of renaming say Aurangzeb Road was that the Mughal king was a brutal invader and the people today need not be reminded of him.
Express Illustration by Sourav Roy
Express Illustration by Sourav Roy

There’s a furious debate raging on whether ‘India’ or ‘Bharat’, and the right-wing government is signalling there will be more of it as it wants to “dismantle the trappings of colonialism”. The Opposition rightly smells a rat as they figure it is to counter their recently christened alliance I.N.D.I.A.

The renaming business is not new. It’s been on since Independence. Every now and then there is a frenzy of renaming roads, cities and institutions. In fact, renaming is a busy pastime on the international canvas as well. The most recent is ‘Turkey’ renaming itself ‘Turkiye’ as it didn’t want to be mixed up with a bird popular on the US dinner menu at the time of Christmas and Thanksgiving!

On a more serious note, there is nothing wrong with getting rid of names that are symbols of subjugation. Soon after Independence, the central avenues in Delhi named ‘Kingsway’ after King George V and ‘Queensway’ after Queen Mary became Rajpath and Janpath. The timing was right as the physical vestiges of the British monarchy needed to be removed. But how far back in history do we go? Where do you stop?
Last September, Rajpath was rechristened again as ‘Kartavya Path’. Union Minister of state for External Affairs, Meenakshi Lekhi, justified the move by saying “…after 75 years of independence, it is felt that the name of Rajpath needs to be changed, in tune with the values and principles of democracy.” This is vague and unconvincing. Rajpath is a stately name and has nothing to do with colonialism.

Targeting Muslim symbols

It is now 75 years after Independence, and the symbolism of ‘colonial’ names has long expired. Yet the renaming game if anything has gathered force. It is no secret. The frenzy is mainly directed against Muslim names.

Sample the names that have been changed in recent times: Allahabad has become Prayagraj, Faizabad district in U.P. has been renamed Ayodhya, and Mugalsarai, also in U.P., is now Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar. More recently, after the Eknath Shinde-BJP government took over in Maharashtra, Osmanabad was renamed Dharashiv, while Aurangabad is now Chatrapati Sambhaji Nagar. Aurangzeb seems to be a favourite target, and the central road in Lutyens Delhi is now A P J Kalam Road.

The rationale for renaming Aurangzeb Road was that the Mughal king was a brutal invader and the people today need not be reminded of him. But then by the same measure, shouldn’t edifices like the Taj Mahal built in the Mughal period also be torn down?

The fact is India is a cultural-national identity that has been built with layers of assimilation since 300 B.C. First, it was Alexander and the Greeks who swept in, followed by Persians, Mughals and Afghani marauders. Many stayed back and married and became ‘Indian’ over time. And talking of Aurangzeb’s cruelty, were the Peshavas less cruel to their enemies?

Those were the norms of war and statecraft 500 years ago and cannot be used as a reason to go on a renaming spree. ‘Allahabad’ or ‘Aurangabad’ are as ‘Indian’ today as is ‘Prayagraj’ or ‘Sambhaji Nagar’. Scratch the surface and all this is nothing but an insidious attempt to polarize communities and incite hatred against the minority community.

Rejecting a petition in February this year to form a committee under the Home Ministry to rename cities as per their ancient nomenclature, a Supreme Court bench of Justices K M Mathew and B V Nagarathna chided the petitioner, Ashwini Upadhyay, “Do you want to go back to the past, keep the issue alive, and keep the country on the boil? Your fingers are pointed at one community. You must remember India is a secular country.”

Eroding brand value

A city’s name is not a slip of paper that can be plucked and juggled at will. They have decades of history and culture encapsulated in them. Bombay and Mumbai were used interchangeably till a Shiv Sena government in 1995 decided to play its regional card, and rechristened the city ‘Mumbai’.

The etymology of the two have different origins. ‘Bombay’ comes from the Portuguese word ‘Bombaim’ or ‘good bay’ while ‘Mumbai’ has its roots in the reigning ‘Mumbadevi’ deity of the local ‘kohli’ fisherfolk. The official class and the elite used ‘Bombay’ while the Marathi-speaking ‘Mumbaikar’ called it ‘Mumbai’. It could have gone on that way; but by forcing ‘Mumbai’ on ‘Bombay’, the financial capital had 600 years of history and billions of dollars of brand value shaved off. Today, foreign businessmen still struggle with the new name.

The Congress did something similar with Delhi’s Connaught Place. In 2013, it was renamed Rajiv Chowk, after the former PM, Rajiv Gandhi. Its Georgian architecture and sprawling, circular design represent an era not in sync with ‘Rajiv Chowk’. No wonder, after a decade of renaming it, the heritage precinct continues to be Connaught Place or just ‘CP’.

Renaming is an expensive business too. Some experts have compared renaming cities to the rebranding of flagship products and names of companies, and have worked out a cost formula. Though the formula is not entirely reliable, renaming ‘India’ to ‘Bharat’ could mean a hit of over Rs 14,000 crore. The flip from Allahabad to Prayagraj is believed to have drained the exchequer of Rs 300 crore. For all these reasons, we hope the renaming industry will slow down.

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The New Indian Express