ven old New York was once New Amsterdam, why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way,’ goes the famous song called ‘Istanbul’ (not Constantinople).
Every now and then, cities shake off their uncomfortable pasts and change their names. Canton is Guangzhou, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City. In the late 1990s, states across India also decided to break with colonial histories, and go with older or indigenous city names. Bombay, Madras and Calcutta chose new identities, and so did Bangalore and Cochin. It is another matter that some of the old names still trip off the tongue; officially, the new names are what matter.
But now, BJP governments across India are on another renaming spree. From Mughalsarai station and Aurangzeb Road, now entire towns and districts like Allahabad and Faizabad are being rebranded to convey a mythic landscape of Prayagraj and Ayodhya. Ahmedabad might become Karnavati. Even the fate of Hyderabad and Aurangabad is in doubt.
This new rash of renamings is different from the earlier attempt to Indianise British names. Now, the agenda seems to be to erase all Muslim-sounding names and replace them with names that evoke past Hindu glory. It is to suggest that these “alien” names were imposed by past invasions and conquests, and that this wrong is now being avenged.
However, the fact is, Faizabad was always located outside Ayodhya, built from scratch by the new nawab as the capital of Awadh. There was no historical wrong, no assault on an existing Hindu heritage. The word Awadh itself is a tribute to Ayodhya. “So in the case of these cities, there was no ancient past being erased. The very names call up a history of confluence,” says cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote.
“The renaming has overlooked syncretic traditions of both Faizabad and Ayodhya.