The Law of Renaming: The Need for Mandatory Public Consultation

To understand the powers and limitations of a government when it seeks to rename a place, it is essential to examine the legal instruments which confer this power.

In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, state governments and the Centre have gone on a renaming spree.

It has been argued that most of these changes – such as Allahabad to Prayagraj, and more recently, Mughalsarai tehsil to Deen Dayal Upadhyay tehsil – have been made to places with “Muslim-sounding” names. A lot has been written on the politics of renaming and terms like “saffronisation of public spaces” have been bandied about.

But the very law that governs the renaming of places has been ignored. This is unfortunate, because to understand the powers and limitations of a government when it seeks to rename a place, it is essential to examine the legal instruments which confer this power.

Power derived from revenue legislations

“Land” is an entry in the state list of the Seventh Schedule in the constitution. The competence to legislate on “land”, a related aspect of which is to rename sections of land (cities, towns, railway stations etc.) thus vests in the states. States usually exercise this power through their revenue legislations.

For instance, the recent name-changing spree by the Uttar Pradesh government was conducted under Section 6(2) of the Uttar Pradesh Revenue Code, 2006, which states:

the State Government may, by notification…name or alter the name of any such revenue area…”.

Although the proviso to this section provides for mandatory public consultation when the government proposes to alter the limits of a revenue area, it does not envisage any such consultation when a revenue area is to be renamed. Thus, the state government can proceed with a renaming proposal without issuing notice to the public, or inviting objections from them.

Limitation imposed by MHA Guidelines

Even though the Revenue Code seems to confer an unfettered power of renaming to the state government, there is in fact a safeguard that has been placed at the Central level. In 1953, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) wrote a letter which contained a set of guidelines for renaming “villages, towns etc”. In 2005, these guidelines were modified and re-issued “to all state governments”.

Also read: Does Renaming Ahmedabad ‘Karnavati’ Have Anything to do With the City’s History?

These guidelines must be complied with for a state to able to alter names of towns and villages. When a state government feels the need to rename, it must submit a proposal to the MHA. After consultation with relevant agencies, the MHA will determine whether it complies with the directions. Only when the MHA issues an NOC to the state government, can the name be changed.

The lack of mandatory public consultation

This MHA letter contains five directions, the first of which states: 

Unless there is some very special reason, it is not desirable to change a name which people have got (sic) used to.”

The second direction is

“…the names of villages etc having a historical connection should not be changed as far as possible.”

Since these directions serve the critical public functions of protecting tradition and historical significance, it is impossible to give them fullest effect without conducting a public consultation. For instance, it is not possible to know whether “people have got used to” a name, or whether the name has a “historical connection” without seeking the opinion of or inviting objections from local residents.

At the central level, it is difficult for the MHA and other central agencies to conduct a consultation with the locals of the affected area after it has received the proposal from the state government.

While the intent of the MHA guidelines is to clearly respect the sentiment of people, the lack of any kind of public consultation mechanism renders such intent meaningless. To ensure that the spirit behind the guidelines is adhered to, public consultation by the state government should be made mandatory. This can be done through reading into the fifth MHA guideline, which requires

State Governments…[to]…furnish detailed reasons for proposing a change”.

This can be interpreted to include a mandatory public consultation, and suitable responses by the State Government to objections received to the renaming. A circular can be issued by the MHA to this effect. Alternatively, an amendment can be made to the Revenue Code mandating public consultation before a proposal to rename a revenue area is sent to the MHA.

Also read: Over the Last Year, the Centre Approved 25 Renaming Proposals

Since the MHA guidelines clearly indicate that renaming is the exception and not the norm, instances of renaming should be infrequent. The public consultation procedure will thus not be overly cumbersome for the government.

Additionally, with provisions like Section 4(1)(c) of the RTI Act in place, it is mandatory for

every public authority” to “publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public”.

In Venkatesh Nayak v Chief Secretary, NCT, the Central Information Commission interpreted this provision to mean

proactive disclosure of proposed laws/policies…to enable citizens to debate in an informed manner and provide useful feedback to the government…”. 

Mandatory publication of a name-change proposal and consideration of objections will further this spirit of democratic values in administrative policy.

Lack of compliance with existing procedure

While such changes in policy will be in furtherance of democratisation of administration, expecting this change may be optimistic. Even with the MHA guidelines in place, Uttar Pradesh did not even submit a proposal to the MHA before Allahabad was renamed. Until a court sets this aside for non-compliance with mandatory procedure, states can proceed unhindered with their agenda.

Also read: What’s in a (Re)Name?

Even in cases where this procedure is complied with, there is a possibility that the MHA may issue an NOC even though the proposal is not in compliance with the guidelines. This may occur when the same party, or parties with a similar political dispensation, are in power at the state and central levels. In such cases, the court can always strike down such NOCs as void, for non-application of mind by the  MHA. But this, at best, is a corrective measure.

It is more important, therefore, to ensure that the process of renaming involves some form of public participation, which will act as a safeguard to the arbitrary and politically motivated exercise of this power. Although it is difficult to abstract the law on renaming from the politics of renaming, the government shouldn’t be allowed to impulsively alter names which are part of history and public consciousness on a simple whim.

Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya and Ambarin Munir Khambati are third year students at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.