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Monday, March 12, 2001

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Dropping names

In these days when history is like putty in the hand, something to be shaped at the sweet will and pleasure of the people who find themselves in power at a given point of time, it's only logical that geography has to willy-nilly keep up with the changed terrain of discourse. Name dropping, consequently, becomes quite the fashion. In the first flush of independence, much of the naming game was dictated by the worthy cause of removing the odium of Empire from the nation's consciousness. Consequently, many a Queen's Road and King's Avenue in many a city of the erstwhile Raj got transmogrified into Mahatma Gandhi Road, Bhagat Singh Marg, or some such variation in a brave, new India. Such excisions and their replacements were entirely in order. Just as the marble statues of a severe Queen Victoria holding her sceptre and frowning down on her brown-skinned subjects had to be brought down from their pedestals at city corners and replaced with a bespectacled Gandhi with trademark staff, old familiar streets andsquares had to celebrate a new nationhood. After all, as Raj Kumar sang, dil hain Hindustani -- the heart undoubtedly was Indian.

Implicit in this great drive to Indianise was the longing to render names of towns and cities more familiar to the local tongue. `Trivandrum' existed because the sahibs couldn't get round to saying it as it should have been said -- `Thiruvananthapuram'. There may even have been traces of regional chauvinism in the decision to make Bombay into `Mumbai', Madras into `Chennai' and Calcutta into `Kolkata', but it was a regionalism that cut across religious lines. What is disturbing about the recent proposal of the Rajnath Singh government in Uttar Pradesh to rename Allahabad as `Tirth Raj Prayag' is its blatant attempt to pander to a religion-specific constituency. Such a move is out of sync, not just with the sentiments of other religious groups in the state, but with the idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution.

This is, of course, not the first instance of this kind. While Ahmedabad, named after Ahmed Shah, awaits christening as Karnavati, an earlier BJP chief minister from Uttar Pradesh had attempted abortively to rename Mughalsarai as `Deen Dayal Nagar'. This obsession to wipe out every vestige of Muslim presence in the country is of course peculiar to the political votaries of Hindutva, but they should know that it is a misguided project they are espousing for the simple reason that this country is not theirs alone. Not surprisingly then angry responses to Rajnath Singh's impetuousness have been quick in coming. While the All-India Muslim Forum shot off a fax to the President protesting the move, the All-Indian Muslim Personal Law Board proposes to campaign extensively against it. This is an entirely unnecessary controversy and something that a state like Uttar Pradesh, with its serious problems of misgovernance, can hardly afford. Rajnath Singh had, doubtless, canny electoral calculations in mind when he pulledthis one out of his hat. But since when has religious chauvinism been a substitute for good governance?

Copyright © 2001 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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