Gods have many names. While the significance of each name is sui generis; each of them adds to the larger glory of the divine being; and there are other characteristics to the names, they are interchangeable, synonymous, and together, all of them, symbolise the largeness, the infinity, the multitude.
People, you and I, are not gods. Hence we must live with one given name all our lives, but there are many sub-plots to this basic identity granted to us as a noun. Some people change their names, some names get morphed, some sobriquets, some honour, some shame sticks to us as names. In an earlier era, far more politically incorrect, adjectives stuck to us as names too. And then, there are nicknames, shortened versions, endearments, insults that become loveable through long association, or nostalgia.
The significance of names that places have is a saga too. For example, India has many names, like any Hindu goddess, and each is equally beautiful, equally significant and yet, describes and captures only some of the majestic aura, and rich splendour of our great land and nation. India, Bharat, Meluha, Aja Nabha Varsa, Aryavarta, Dravida, Jambudvipa, Nabhivarsa, Ilavativarsa, Bharatvarsha, Hindustan are just some of them. The name changed over time, but the old ones lingered on too.
Delhi is another example of a place that has many histories, a different destiny across eras, and a different name too. Each one kept adding, the old ones remained in vogue too. From the Indraparastha during the era of Mahabharata, Lal Kot, Siri, Dinpanah, Quila Rai Pithora, Ferozabad, Jahanpanah, Tughlakabad and Shahjahanabad, were some of its avataars. Before it became Delhi, the capital, but not without its other variations too — Dhilli, Dihli, Dhilli and Dilli (the heart of Hindustan).
Allah has 99 names. Jesus Christ has a total of 198 names and titles. Lord Rama has 108 popular names, and a total of 1,000 names, each with a different meaning and connotation, each celebrating a facet and unique dimension. Many of our most important rivers, mountains and lakes all have more than one name.
But since names have meaning, and crucially represent identity, they have emotions. And emotions are useful politically. It may take a bard to introspectively quip — what is in a name but the names of political leaders, and dynasties, are loaded with connotation. They are like brands. In the modern era, every identity is unique, and every name must be nurtured, groomed, and can be encashed.
In modern day politics, Gandhi, Bhutto, Kennedy, Bush, now Trump, or Modi are all very powerful and evocative currencies. They represent the emotion of collective association of millions of people over years, even decades, and therefore, very useful, and contestable.
In India, names of cities have given politics a good theme to run. Like a serial on OTT, with several episodes and with a capacity to re-run and return for another play. Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai and Calcutta became Kolkata; and each one of the changes created political upheavals, but the conclusion was unmistakable — if India, any party or leader who leads a movement to change a modern or more recent name in favour of an older version, they are rewarded handsomely.
Since the BJP took over the reins of India, and in a way unmatched since the time the Congress ruled during the first decade of the Republic, it has allowed the Hindutva to direct strong interventions regarding nomenclature amendments. The BJP has chosen two distinct sets of names to make a very different kind of statement.
For example, when the Race Course Road was renamed as Lok Kalyan Marg, or the name of Rajpath was changed to Kartavya Path, it was a win of subaltern, Hindi and native identity and values triumphing over elitism, Anglicised value systems, and an eradication of yet another of a billion colonial vestigial leftovers. It has been an important, and often undervalued stream of Modi politics — the exhortation of the premium of native values, punishing and putting the elite in place, and extended to actions like the removal of red light beacons on cars or a stern eviction of former ministers’ from bungalows and ending the practice of overstaying.
But a more significant facet of the exercise of change of names was when the name of a street like renaming the Aurangzeb Road to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road, or a city like Allahabad, (some called it Ilahabad) to Prayagraj, it was clearly a different kind of triumph — the more politically volatile, and by some measure, more lucrative; and more emotionally significant.
Serious effort is being put towards the revivalism of Hindu era identities and pride; which by itself is very welcome. A better understanding of history, a great appreciation of culture and heritage, of any era, is a wonderful thing. But where politically the rift is visceral, and irreconcilable, is the view of Indian history, in which, while the secular and liberal view has seen the British reign as foreign but the Islamic period before as domesticated, and Indian, the BJP and RSS view of Bharat having suffered over a thousand year slavery of foreign yoke.
Tipu Sultan or the Mughals are therefore enemies, who plundered India, its Hindu people and culture, vandalised its heritage, and therefore naming a road, or a city, from those times would be as horrible a crime to tolerate as having a street in Kolkata after Lord Curzon or a town in Punjab being named after General Dyer. Changing the name of the Mughal Gardens located in the Rashtrapati Bhavan to Amrit Udyan is yet another episode. Not the first, not the last....