Renaming places in India: Rationale and Challenges – Explained, pointwise

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The Supreme Court has recently dismissed a PIL that sought a renaming commission focussed on “ancient India”. The court issued a strong statement in favour of the “rule of law, secularism, and constitutionalism” and warned against intolerance.

About the SC ruling on renaming places in India

A PIL has been filed and sought the Court’s intervention in restoring the original names” of places renamed by barbaric invaders”. The petitioner had contended that several roads, public places and cities in the country are named after foreign looters and argued that the benevolent nature of Hinduism had resulted in wiping out of it from Pakistan and Afghanistan”. 

However, the court dismissed the PIL and said that the country cannot remain a prisoner of the past”. The bench criticised the petitioner for going by the playbook of those who invoke history selectively” to create schisms in society”. 

Must Read: Listen to the court – SC warning against renaming places by abusing history, and invoking it selectively, is valuable and timely 

What are the constitutional provisions for renaming places in India? 

  • The Constitution of India provides for the renaming of a state under Article 3. 
  • Article 3 provides for the formation of new States and the alteration of areas, boundaries or names of existing States.
  • The procedure of renaming the state can be initiated by either the Parliament or the State Legislature. 

How has India renamed places since Independence?

Renaming places in India
Source: TOI

Renaming soon after Independence

In India, Kingsway became Rajpath (now renamed Kartavya Path), and Queensway Janpath, in an effort to wipe out the colonial past. Names of well-known freedom fighters Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Pandit Nehru has replaced those of viceroys and British royalty in statues or institutions. 

Renaming places for the sake of linguistic correctness: Names of towns or places which had become anglicised were restored to their original colloquial usage. Thus, Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata, Madras became Chennai, and Bangalore became Bengaluru, to name but a few.  

Renaming places to project pride in a regional hero: For example, to celebrate Shivaji, Victoria Terminus became Shivaji Chatrapati Terminus. Other well-known landmarks named after him like the Prince of Wales Museum. 

Renaming places since the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines

Memorialising leading members of the political party made for another wave of renaming places: For example, Connaught Place named Rajiv Chowk, Mughalsarai (UP) named Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar, etc. 

By 2022, an estimated 57 cities and at least nine states were renamed, among them United Provinces becoming Uttar Pradesh and Madras state becoming Tamil Nadu.

What is the rationale behind renaming places in India? 

India’s rapid development: India is expected to add another 416 million people to its cities by 2050, taking the urban population share to 50%. This will be associated with major infrastructure expansion. Each new project, street, or square will need a new name.

Sense of ‘Indian identity: Changing colonial names has been done ostensibly to give a sense of ‘Indian identity’. For example, Waltair was the name given by the Britishers to the city of Visakhapatnam, quite evident by the etymology. 

Admired for generosity and kindness: For example, the renaming of Aurangzeb Road to Dr APB Abdul Kalam road for universally admired generosity and kindness. 

Communal pride and identity politics: Renaming places consider as a powerful tool for promoting a particular brand of identity politics. For example, Faizabad district (UP) was renamed as Ayodhya. 

Political changes: Renaming places can become a testing ground for political changes that go beyond symbolic politics. 

Read more: Why terming medieval rulers as “invaders” and “outsiders” is wrong?

What are the advantages of renaming places in India? 

Preserving culture: For example, Gurgaon was changed to “Gurugram” because that was the name of the city in the past. “Gurugram” comes from the Mahabharata story of Guru Dronacharya. A similar reason is given for renaming Allahabad as “Prayag”. 

Renaming can help to revive civilisational consciousness and restorative justice in India, which has been the victim of invasions and colonialism. 

Control the values inscribed into the public space: Renaming places contributes to the construction of a natural order of things” it continues to be important for governments to control the values inscribed into the public space. 

Economic benefits: Words have power, and names can act as economic multipliers. For instance, US data indicates homes on ‘Lake’ streets average 16% more than the national median home value.

What are the challenges in renaming places in India? 

Sows confusion: In a global economy, changing names after they have gained universal recognition sows confusion. Many places recognise and respect this fact and have maintained dual identities for centuries one, in the language of their peoples and another, which is directed at a global audience. 

Only tangible changes: Renaming results in tangible changes, but several intangible aspects of places continue to be associated with the lived reality of communities. For example, Varanasi may today be the official name of the historical city, but culturally, its idea will always be Banarasi”. 

Cultural genocide: The renaming of places and reclaiming of monuments are part of a large and long process of cultural genocide. A community feels diminished if it is made to think that it has not made any genuine, original contribution to the life of a nation of which it is a part.  

The economic cost associated with a name change: All the name change costs public money, from revisions in signage to official documents and assorted data sets.

Read more: Our urban spaces need renewal, not new names 

What should be done while naming or renaming places in India? 

The court’s warning against misusing history and its command to uphold “the concept of fraternity established in the Constitution’s Preamble” must be heeded. 

Re-educate present societies: The remedy for the historical guilt of a leader or a community does not lie in renaming a few buildings or removing statues but in the re-education of present societies in the wrongs they represented.

Revamp philosophy of naming: With India’s projected urban development and infrastructure expansion, India needs a revamped philosophy of naming to avoid wasting social capital and the court’s scarce time. 

Keep politics out of it: Need to get out of the cross-party obsession with history when naming streets, squares, and airports. Political parties should not use popular belief as a political stunt, making the situation worse. 

Prioritise growth: Lawmakers should prioritise growth rather than prolong social division and fragmentation.  

Follow global protocol: Top airports around the world and most have straightforward geographical titles. For instance, Amsterdam, Beijing, Dubai, Incheon, Los Angeles, and Munich.

Similarly, in many countries, streets are named by their simple number and direction. All of this is both user-friendly and conflict-reducing.

Can pay homage to nature: Singapore Changi Airport has been permitted to be named after a legendary tree, and around 300-odd streets named after Oak in California. India can follow a similar approach.

The government and civil society need to make sure that cultural landscapes include names, symbols, languages, and scripts from all of India’s different castes, religious communities, and other groups so that all Indians can truly feel at home in their own country. 

Sources: The Hindu, The Wire, Hindu Business line, Indian Express.

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