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The Power a Name Holds: A Look at the Sweep of Renaming in India

After India’s Independence Day on August 15 of this year, India’s cities and towns began to change. Not with any political or social movements, but with the names these cities once had. Bombay is now Mumbai, and Calcutta is Kolkata.

This isn’t the first time India has renamed cities and towns. Historically, many countries have renamed cities so what India is doing isn’t that unusual. In the span of three years, India has seen multiple cities have changed names. Not only have these cities have their names changed, but the history has been changed in this process.

This was seen in May 2015. Street signs in New Delhi that had Urdu or Muslim names were painted black. A radical Hindu organization Shiv Shena Hindustan claimed ownership, and later, one of the streets that bore the name of a Mughal emperor was changed to the name of an Indian ex-president.

This was seen again in April 2016. The government of Haryana renamed the city of Gurgaron to Gurugram after a Hindu figure from a poem who Indian Dalti’s viewed negatively.

Most recently in August 2018, the Hindu nationalist party Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) renamed the Mughalsarai Junction Railway Station after the right wing Hindu Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.

India appears to be renaming cities and towns to keep the identity and culture of the country present. Traditional names that may have been named wrongly or renamed by British colonizers are going to be changed. That should be good however, what is unusual is the parts of India being renamed.

To encourage the Hindu nationalist party that is rapidly growing in India, the BJP is renaming traditional Islamic sounding cities to more Hindu historical names. The BJP claims that people are upset and wanted the names to be changed to more traditional Hindu names, however there has not been any joy or anger from citizens about the name change.

Why is this important? Because India is choosing to look at only one part of its history, one aspect of its culture. Choosing to rename things because the British appropriated the name or misinterpreted it strengthens one’s history, invokes pride in one’s nation. It is choosing to ignore a number of people who contributed to the country and culture, and erase them from being remembered in little ways such as cities and streets that is problematic. This may not be affecting Indian citizens, but it may be. Either way, the removal of Muslim Indian heritage is not acceptable.

Photo: Prakasam R

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Mia Boccher
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