What’s In a Name? Nothing and a Lot

By Anjum Altaf

A rose is a rose is a rose – Gertrude Stein

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare


I know, I know, I know – which is why I didn’t have much of a problem when Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was remuslimed as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. A road is a road is a road and people have the right to call it what they will. Some would continue to call it by its old name, some would use the new one, and most others would traverse it quite unaware of the name at all. In any case, life would go on without much care for passing passions.

We don’t need to wander far to vouch for that: Bunder Road is still Bunder Road in Karachi and The Mall is still The Mall in Lahore. Rarely does one hear the first being called M.A. Jinnah Road or the second being referred to as Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam, all love for Mr. Jinnah notwithstanding. In fact, the longer and more pompous the new name the less likely it would replace the old one – Shahrah-e-Abdul Hameed Bin Badees was dead on arrival in Lahore and has not made a dent on Empress Road, notwithstanding all our revulsion for the queen; Aga Khan III Road in Karachi remains Garden Road to all intents and purposes, notwithstanding all our gratitude for the Aga Khan.

All this is old hat. Only those without any sense of history indulge in these kinds of instant gratifications. How well did R.K. Narayan deal with all of that many years ago – go read Lawley Road and reflect, and repent.

I really don’t have an issue if people want to denude a city of all its landmarks and turn it into a maze with no names. But I do have a problem with how this might be done. It doesn’t seem right that some minister or bureaucrat or parliamentarian or sena somewhere can mandate such an uprooting of traditions. A street really belongs to the people who live and work in it, for whom it is a part of past memories and present lives. If they wish to rename Aurangzeb Road as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road they at least have some legitimate claim to do so and they should be able to exercise that right in an acceptable manner. My own guess is that the denizens of Aurangzeb Road would not have given the name a second thought but in case they wished to rename it, they would have been very unlikely to have opted for what has, once again, been foisted on them without their participation. The same goes for the choice between Shadman Chowk and Bhagat Singh Chowk in Lahore – it is not for the District Coordination Officer to propose a change and the Tehreek-i-Hurmat-i-Rasool to challenge it in the High Court.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I must register my disagreement with the sentiment that names don’t matter at all. And here I present as evidence the case of ‘India’ – the name of a whole that was appropriated by a part to the lasting loss of many others.

Let me illustrate this by way of an analogy. A German can refer to himself or herself as a German and a European. Now imagine a new country formed by the breakup of an old confederation, say Yugoslavia, appropriating the name Europe for itself. Imagine Kosovo wanting to call itself Europe. This would not be allowed, and rightly so, because it would deprive the German of a very integral part of his or her identity. No longer would he or she be able to claim being a German and a European without causing a great deal of confusion.

I hope the point is clear. When India was divided in 1947 into two parts, the name India was appropriated by one thereby depriving me, a future Pakistani, of a key part of my civilizational identity. I legitimately wish to claim that I am a Pakistani and an Indian but am unable to do so. The terms ‘Subcontinental’ or ‘South Asian’ are second best and just do not resonate in the same way – by way of the loss just note the name of this weblog.

This eventuality is all the more egregious because India not only appropriated India, it took ownership of all the other names used for the undivided land mass – Hind, Hindustan, and Bharat. Of all these names, as far as I know, only Bharat is indigenous to the region – India was conferred by Greeks and Hind and Hindustan by the Persians, both using the demarcation of the Sindhu (Indus) River to refer to the people who lived beyond that natural boundary.

It would have been reasonable to name the two parts of the divided land differently so that both could claim their legacy without ambiguity. Pakistan chose its name for better or for worse. Today’s India could have chosen an entirely new name or Bharat, a name rooted in the traditions of the land, while ceding the other terms – India, Hind, and Hindustan as the common property of all the people who shared the civilization.

To be fair, these names were not appropriated by India; they were gifted to it by those so obsessed with purity and purification (there is an irony here, isn’t there?) that they were bereft of a sense of civilizational loss. The allocation of names should also have been a matter of negotiation but if that sensibility had prevailed our entire history may well have been different. From “Saarey jahaaN se achcha Hindostan hamara/Ham bulbuleN haiN iski ye gulsitaaN hamara” to “Cheen o Arab hamara, Hindostan hamara/Muslim haiN ham, watan hai saara jahaaN hamara” is the most apt summary of our journey.

I remain a Pakistani unwilling to relinquish my Indian heritage but the label leads to many misunderstandings – I cannot call myself an Indian in the same way a German can call himself a European. The expression of this sentiment is by no means a grand call to reverse history. I only wish to substantiate the minor claim that, in some instances, names do matter and not just a little.

A Capulet is a Capulet, a Montague a Montague – take that William Shakespeare.


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