Gurgaon, the city that has come to represent all that is right, wrong and explosive with India’s 25-year-old liberalization, has a putative new name—Gurugram.
Lying to the south of Delhi in Haryana state, Gurgaon is known chiefly as a city favoured by expats, mostly working for multinational companies.
For the few years they are in India, they can live like they do back home, inside swish, faceless apartment buildings, shopping at equally posh, characterless shops. There are English-style pubs serving expensive beer on tap, shopping malls with pretty much the same shops you would get in London and New York and nightclubs dishing out the same hip-hop tracks.
So far so ho hum? No longer. This vast, dusty urban Indian landscape of high-rise towers—home to the local offices of half the Fortune 500 companies—has just been renamed by state authorities as Gurugram. And sparks are flying.
The government of Haryana says Gurugram was an ancient village (gram is Hindi for village) named after Drona, a guru who figures prominently in the Indian epic Mahabharata. He was guru to the warring clans of Pandavas and Kauravas and is revered by Hindus.
But not everyone agrees with this view. The widely held view is that it was called Gurgaon because it had something to do with jaggery—gur in Hindi. “The second theory is that nomads used to hoard jaggery in the village in order to survive hard times during floods in the adjoining Yamuna river,” historian K.C. Yadav told The Times of India newspaper.
The government has been emphasizing the Mahabharata point of view. “This is a positive step and will only draw all of us closer to the rich heritage Gurgaon once had—which we all have forgotten about as a result of urbanization,” said Gurgaon mayor Vimal Yadav.
A Haryana government spokesman said, “Haryana is a historic land of the Bhagwat Gita and Gurgaon had been a centre of learning. It had been known as Gurgaon since the times of Guru Dronacharya. Gurgaon was a great centre of education where the princes used to be provided education. Therefore, since long, the people of the area had been demanding that Gurgaon be renamed as Gurugram.”
Opposition Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala, who is from Haryana, said in a statement: “Renaming of Gurgaon, which has an international branding, is an exercise in pure superficiality. The (state) government should instead concentrate on creating essential infrastructure and building harmony.”
To be sure, the move still needs to be cleared by the state cabinet, but residents themselves are unimpressed and want authorities to focus on the civic problems of the 1,000 sq. km city, particularly water shortage and traffic snarls.
“I’m dismayed,” a university lecturer and resident told me. “We say give us better roads, they say we’ll change the name. But what’s in a name, right?”
“Ridiculous idea,” said a Hindi film actor who lives in Gurgaon and didn’t want to be named. “Don’t know who’s responsible—certainly not the people. Wish they’d give up this silly agenda of saffronization or Hindutva or any other shade and instead of creating diversions, focus on fixing the Millennium City.”
Arguably, a metropolis by any other name would still feel as dystopic, to update Shakespeare. Still, Indian cities are making a bit of a name of themselves with their penchant to change, well, names.
Apparently, some of this has to do with stamping your nationalism and undoing the Anglicization of names introduced during the British Raj. But the slightly ironic thing is that the most cosmopolitan of the Indian cities seem to be taking the lead here.
So, Bangalore, the information technology capital of India, became Bengaluru; Madras became Chennai; Bombay was renamed Mumbai and Calcutta spell-changed into the Bengali Kolkata. These are four of the most multicultural and modern cities of India—built, destroyed, nurtured and crafted by many rulers, including the British.
In February, the Independent newspaper of Britain, decided enough was enough and, for its pages only, renamed the renamed Mumbai back to Bombay. The reason was political. “If you call it what the Hindu nationalists want you to call it, you essentially do their work for them. I’d rather side with the tradition of India that’s been open to the world, rather than the one that’s been closed, which is in ascendance right now,” said Amol Rajan, the editor of the Left-leaning paper.
Indians reacted with much anger, commentators describing the move as “infantile” and the newspaper as suffering from a colonial hangover.
In the history of nations and cities, there is a cut-off point by which they should have decided on whether to rename or not, and—if yes—which ones and why. The onus is quite obviously on developing, once-colonized countries. The rule of the thumb ought to be the sooner the better.
B.R. Ambedkar, the man who led the drafting of the Indian Constitution, including the first words of Part 1 of the Constitution—“India, that is Bharat…,”—certainly thought so.
Ambedkar stuck to his guns against attempts by some other members of the Constituent Assembly to rename India as Hind, Bharat, Bharatvarsha or Bharatbhumi.
In September 1949, after sitting through a member’s lecture in history, he said in exasperation: “Is it necessary to trace all this? I do not understand the purpose of it. It may be well interesting in some other place. My Friend accepts the word “Bharat”. The only thing is that he has got an alternative. I am very sorry but there ought to be some sense of proportion, in view of the limited time before the House.”
And so it was that “India, that is Bharat” stuck. And it remains a very useful description of a nation, as long as the two are not seen as distinct entities.
Countries that keep tinkering with their names appear to the rest of the world like an unsure and unsettled society. Maybe galloping India is work in progress but to quote Ambedkar, time is “limited.”
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1