The Tribune

By FS Aijazuddin

The name game & room for dissent

Renaming Aurangzeb Road or secularising Allahabad as Prayagraj, Faizabad as Ayodhya and Ahmedabad to Karnavati are understandable as political sops. Would it be unfair to suggest that had Dalhousie or McLeodganj also been included in the list of targets, the other changes would not have appeared so religion-specific?

To the fastidious aesthete Oscar Wilde, fashion was “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.  Changing the names of cities takes a little longer. 

Time has forgotten when Indraprashta became Delhi or when Roman Londonium evolved into the city we know of as London, or when Bucaphala on the banks of the Jhelum river yielded to a modern city ignorant of its Greek ancestry.

Later, changes — each driven by its own imperative — have been better documented. For example, 19th century Lyallpur began life honouring the British administrator Sir James B Lyall.  In 1977, it was told to rename itself and recall instead the contribution of a 20th century benefactor the Saudi King Faisal bin Saud.  A year later, the metropolis of Montgomery caught the infection and converted to Sahiwal. 

In India, history is cyclical. Revisionists search for innovation in the crucible of tradition. Kashi becomes Banaras and then Varanasi; Waltair turns into Visakhapatnam, Madras into Chennai, Trivandrum into Thiruvananthapuram.  Modern scribes are not intimidated by such elongations. What took minutes to transcribe manually can be done in a second on the computer. Pronunciation, however, can pose a problem for foreigners, just as changes for political reasons causes disquiet among historians.

Gambits like de-toxifying Aurangzeb Road but renaming it after another Indian Muslim Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (wasn’t Aurangzeb also born an Indian?), or to secularise Allahabad as Prayagraj, Faizabad as Ayodhya, and Ahmedabad into Karnavati are understandable as political sops. Would it be unfair to suggest that had Dalhousie or McLeodganj also been included in the list of targets, the other alterations would not have appeared so religion-specific? 

These changes concern the Muslims in India. It is their voice that should be heard, not of their co-religionists in Pakistan who may figure in the Indian electoral process but do not vote in it. In Pakistan, many streets and localities still retain their pre-1947 names. e.g. Kot Radha Krishan or Gajjumata.  A newer generation of Pakistanis do not regard being anti-Indian as the credential for being pro-Pakistani. They are Pakistani. Period. It is the same reality that Prime mMinister Atal Bihari Vajpayee acknowledged in his famous speech at Lahore after visiting the Pakistan Day monument in 1999: “Pakistan does not need India’s thapa or seal of endorsement. It exists.” He added: “We wish it well and hope that it will prosper, just as we expect it has similar feelings for India.” Such sagacity has remained a high watermark in the history of India-Pakistan relations. Vajpayee addressed his remarks as much to reassure Pakistanis as to remind his fellow-Indians that being anti-Pakistani does not make for a better Indian.  

Today’s world, thanks to fervid nationalists, has become a playground for pessimists. The US is riven with dissension. Europe is a mass whose edges like some icebergs are crumbling. Russia, like Great Britain after the Second World War, is in a state of mourning, lamenting a lost empire. The Saudis are rapidly degenerating into another Vatican, its authority challenged by impatient elements of an unquiet modernity. And China —unlike the US, the UK or the Soviet Union — remains a singular monolith, lumbering unimpeded towards the 22nd century.

It seems ironical that at this time, extremists in our countries should see in street or city names unacceptable religious connotations or in a petty argument over the use of a common tap the ominous slur of blasphemy. How odd also that the Netherlands, despite its minute size, has shown the capacity to accommodate Geert Wilders and now Asia Bibi. 

The writer is a Pakistan-based historian