Do we gain from renaming places?

Do we gain from renaming places?
Photo: iStock

Renaming cities and roads has been an on going process in independent India. Changing colonial names has been done ostensibly to give us a sense of ‘Indian identity’. But the same cannot be said for a series of name changes and more and more demands for them by the BJP government and leaders. The recent renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj and Faizabad to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh make onlookers like you and me primarily raise two questions; Why? And were these really necessary taking into account the situation in India and particularly in UP?

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath justified the changing of name from Allahabad to Pragyaraj. "People ask me 'what is in a name to which I reply, 'why did your parents not name you Ravan and Duryodhan?'. Name is of utmost importance in this country (India)," he reasoned.

Similarly, he justified the renaming of Faizabad to Ayodhya and said he will continue to do so. Ayodhya is our honour, prestige and pride," Adityanath said at an event in the town, while declaring the new name amid loud cheers from the audience. Adityanath said people in India want Lord Ram's name to be attached with their name. “Ayodhya is identified with Lord Ram,” he also stated.

The CM also said the state would decide on a location for a statue of Ram that could become an Ayodhya landmark. He also promised to open an airport in the district that would be named after Ram.

All these are nothing but attempts to erase the history of a particular period, of a particular religious group and a grave attempt to create division within the society. Many instances including the recent renamings are indirect ways of creating an 'us vs them' mindset and telling them, ‘they don’t belong here’.

Let us make sense of some historical facts to have some better understanding of the situation.

Allahabad was initially known as Prayag and it was Mughal Emperor Akbar who ordered a fort to be constructed there. He named it as Illahabas or Abode of God. It was Emperor Shahjahan who later changed the name to Allahabad.

Shahjahan's reign is widely considered to be the golden age of Mughal architecture. He was responsible for the construction of Taj Mahal, Red Fort, large sections of the Agra Fort, the Shalimar Gardens, parts of the Lahore Fort and so on.

We cannot conclude that the Mughal era was a dark period of history like some vested interests are arguing. And even if it was, history is never about highlighting only the positives or what we consider as positive and completely ignoring the negative. History is about interpreting the past just as it is. By claiming that they are retrieving the ancient culture by changing place names, the right-wing outfits are obfuscating the history of these places.

Such dangerous trend is not restricted to UP alone. In 2017, Maharashtra state board revised history textbooks of class 7 and 9 by removing almost all the traces of Mughal rule, instead focussing on the Maratha empire founded by Shivaji. The same trend was seen in Rajasthan.

We should ask ourselves what is to be gained with such parochial measures. Will these benefit people in any way? We doubt such steps are attempts to divert attention from the real issues of this country, particularly in UP?

India today faces serious economic, social and political and environmental issues. Inflation is constantly increasing, Rupee is weakening and a third of the world’s poor live in India. It is said 121 individuals account for 22 percent of our country’s GDP. India also performs below the global average in most development indicators. Social evils like dowry, female foeticide, rape and atrocities against low castes still prevail in India and there has even been a spurt in such cases recently. There are also frightening environmental concerns and numerous other worries.

The situation in UP is more disturbing than anything else. In the Niti Aayog Health Index, UP is the worst performer in healthcare. Around 50 out of every 1,000 children born there die before they reach the age of five. It also performs poorly on other development indicators. It records the country’s highest Infant Mortality Rate and second highest Maternal Mortality Rate after Assam. About 48 percent of typhoid deaths, 18 percent of tuberculosis deaths and 17 percent of cancer deaths in India are reported from this large state. Lack of health infrastructure is also acute. Women’s safety is also a serious issue. Illiteracy, weak or inadequate infrastructure, law and order issues and poor sanitation are also other concerns for the state.

The central and state governments should tackle these issues rather than spend the money to change names and build statues. Those who don't do so are like Emperor Nero who ‘fiddled while Rome burned’. 

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