Great importance is now attached to names. It is assumed that names capture the totality of reality. So, if Shakespeare were to ask, “What’s in a name?” there would be a blast of an answer- “Everything.”
So, Allahabad is Prayagraj, and with that the city stands washed of its historical association with the hated name of Akbar. Mughalsari railway station is soon to be re-named after Deendayal Upadhyay. Not long ago, Gurgram was Gurgaon; Mumbai, Bombay; Begaluru, Banglore; Chennai, Madras, and so on. The most delicately beautiful proposal among all is that of re-naming Shimla as Shyamala. The good thing about India is that the scope for re-naming is almost endless, insofar as this paper revolution is driven entirely by the psychology of rejection in respect of the past. It has nothing to do with what is afoot in the present.
It is not merely cities or railway stations that are re-named at will. Rahul Gandhi is referred to, in all anti-Congress propaganda material I receive, as Rahul Vinci. Before that he was “Pappu.” To the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul are not individuals but the generic “mother-and-son.” To Sambit Patra, the BJP spokesperson, Rahul is “clown prince,” and so on. Re-naming is a colonial phenomenon and it was expressive then of the right of the master to exercise his authority arbitrarily, heeding only his convenience. Thiruvananthapuram, for example, sat a bit too awkwardly on the Anglo-Saxon tongue. That clumsiness was eased by changing it to Trivandrum.
There is nothing wrong about re-naming cities, institutions and even individuals. In fact, it is a welcome thing if it is effected with a view to either reviving fading historical memories, or to acknowledge what is of general value in personalities, historical or contemporary. Change is integral to the flow of life. But changes of this kind are not arbitrary or unrelated to the realities taking shape over a period of time. Generically, an infant gets re-named, if you like, as ‘child’ in the course of its growth. A child is named and acknowledged as ‘youth,’ likewise. Merely sticking the label of ‘youth’ on a one-year-old child, however, is puerilely comic.
There must be, in other words, a rationale to name-changing. Suppose we want to change the name of Delhi into Suvidhabagh, the city of good facilities. What should precede the change in name is a standardization and upgradation of civic facilities so that the change in name makes sense to the people. Irwin Hospital, in Delhi, was re-named, under the Janata Government, as Lok Nayak Jaiprakash Narayan Hospital. The change in nomenclature was effected overnight, without any change in the character or content of the institution. If tomorrow, it is renamed as Veer Sarvarkar Hospital, the inner life of the institution – its facilities, its work culture, its practice of health and healing – will remain unchanged. That makes it comic.
The psychological strategy behind the charade of re-naming is the recognition that the people crave for change. The thirst for change arises out of frustration with the status quo. Change breeds hope; even change in names and appearances. The feeling that nothing changes or will ever change breeds despair and restlessness. If lived-realities cannot be changed, at least their costumes can change. NDA-2, like its preceding regimes, came to power with a promise of change for the better – acche din. Change in names are its ceremonial substitute. Like demonetization, for example. If the promised windfall gain for the common man – overnight bonanza of Rs.15 lakhs – cannot materialize, at least he can be given the alternate gratification that those more privileged than him are hit hard. Demonetization – note – changing – too is of the same genre as name – changing.
But there is a problem. If a people are, or pretend to be, so naïve and shallow that they get hypnotized by superficial and arbitrary exercises like changing the names of cities and railway stations, sanitizing them of historical memories, they will become, willy-nilly, party to creating a climate of opinion in which diversions and distractions from lived-realities take the place of positive changes. They will get habituated to embracing illusions in lieu of good governance. In doing so, they’d legitimize a political culture in which promises can be made and broken at will and a dispensation’s iron-grip on power secured by conjuring up illusions.
I’d welcome the re-naming of Delhi University as National Takshashila University – the latter being the world’s first international university- provided there is a will to make it the leading university in the world, as Takshashila was in its days. I would deem it a comic and frivolous exercise to rename Delhi University without bothering to change any aspect of its academic culture or competence.
The tragedy with us is that we are far too sentimental to be sensible. It is so temptingly easy for a demagogue to set our emotions ablaze and to sweep us off our feet. What his calibrated words and gestures add up to does not bother us. But the divorce between words and their meanings is a dangerous thing. It undermines the sanity and integrity of public life. Every word is a symbol. Symbols are sign-posts to reality. To change the symbols, without corresponding changes in realities, is mere subterfuge.
Akin to this is the emerging trend – increasingly evident since 2014 – of eclipsing realities with fine slogans and rhetorical turns of speech. GST is good and simple tax, but petrol and diesel will not come within its goodness and simplicity. The government is with everyone and wants everyone’s development – sab ka saath; sab ka vikas- but that doesn’t mean that you will be safe from lynch – mobs, if you are inconvenient. Beti bachao, beti patao does not mean that women will be safer. What matters is that slogans fill the mouth with sound and the mind with hope. We are gravitating to a state in which smart slogans are an adequate substitute for constitutional guarantees and improvements in quality of life.