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I grew up in Aligarh, a relatively tiny town by Indian standards, situated about 120 kilometres southeast of Delhi. In fact, it won’t be wrong to compare Aligarh to a sleeping animal, hibernating in the northwest corner of the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Hibernation, though, is the last thing in mind when one thinks of Aligarh. Hibernation, after all, is a calming process.
I went to a Christian missionary school called Our Lady of Fatima (it was many moons later that I realised Fatima was a place in Portugal). At that time, it was the only Christian missionary school in the town. I graduated from the Aligarh Muslim University and that too from a medical school called Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College. In brief, my stint in Aligarh was marked by names, religions – identities in general – which could be my undoing in this new India.
As I was emerging from the shadows of teen hood in Aligarh, India decided to emerge from the ashes of Nehruvian socialism and the neoliberal reforms of the 90s happened. We all felt the winds of change in our tiny town. Shops became more suave. We now had access to confectionery and stationery which only ‘foreign’ uncles and aunts had brought till very recently. Television got redefined. MTV blasted out the latest songs 24×7. It was a respite from the week-long wait for Wednesdays when the national broadcaster telecasted ‘Chitrahaar’, an hour-long programme based on Bollywood numbers.
We became invested in The Bold and the Beautiful, its good-looking Spencer family and their perpetual convoluted relationship. We felt empowered to be part of a soap opera which had mesmerised our cousins in the far-off US. In fact, the US no longer seemed that far off. Many of my batchmates started to prepare for the USMLE, the medical licensing examination which transports you to the shores of the land of opportunities.
All this apparent eudaimonia hid something more vicious which was happening in Aligarh. Post-neo-liberalisation, the city, famous for its lock and brass work, had a significant erosion of both industries. The tala-nagri (lock town), as it was popularly called, saw a gradual closure of most of the over 5,000 organised and unorganised units producing locks. The livelihood of more than 200,000 workers was lost in the process. Poverty set in and migration from the underbelly of the sleeping animal became a trend.
With economic reforms and poverty came the struggle for power. Identity politics came to rule the day. Religious identity dismantled caste identity. The Babri masjid was reduced to a pile of rubble in a few hours. Curfew following communal clashes became more frequent and the binary of hate was palpable all around. An assertion of religious identity was felt by each one of us. My own batchmates became Hindus and Muslims. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 established the torchbearers for Hindutva hegemony beyond doubt.
With the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and with the emergence of an affluent (as well as a deprived class), Aligarh changed completely. It was against this backdrop that I first heard the clamour for the city’s name to be changed to Harigarh. Oddly, affluence and Hindutva combined and became the most bizarre bed partners.
While driving home one day, I saw a school on the outskirts of the city. It was called Lord Krishna Convent School. Hari, by the way, is the other name for Lord Krishna. A convent school in the name of the most famous Hindu divinity was a classic example of what identity and capitalism can do to a society. It appears that ‘Krishna’ can hold you by the soul and ‘Convent’ can propel you closer to the land of opportunities. The zest for power continued and the hibernating animal woke up hungry for sway and thirsty for the blood of innocents.
It is thus no surprise that the zila panchayat of the Aligarh district has submitted its request to change the name of the town to Harigarh. Change of names from streets to towns to districts is the easiest way of asserting power. In a book titled, Place Name Changes, 1900-1991 (compiled by Adrian Room), more than 5,000 places – streets, villages and countries – whose names have been changed across the globe are mentioned. The common thread which runs through these changes is the assertion of identity – political, religious, racial, ideological.
The most amazing story is about Czechoslovakia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the country came to be called Czechoslovak Republic (it was previously called the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic). This, according to the Slovaks, diminished their identification and demanded that the country’s name be spelt with a hyphen between Czech and Slovakia. The subsequent tussle came to be called the ‘hyphen war’.
If the assertion of identity through a hyphen could be so important for a cohort of people, no wonder replacing the name of Ali with Hari can be more gratifying to a large segment of the populace in this new India. The only problem is that similar ‘hyphen wars’ in our country can lead to more than semantic struggle. It can actually lead to murders and mayhem.
Our hyphens will be drenched in blood.
Uttar Pradesh, the most heavily populated state in India with over 200 million people, is among the worst performing states when it comes to infant mortality rate, under-five mortality rate and neonatal mortality rate. The second wave of COVID-19, which lashed the state in April-June this year, saw an unprecedented number of deaths.
In 2018, the current dispensation changed the names of Allahabad (to Prayagraj), Mughalsarai (to Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar) and Faizabad (to Ayodhya). How have these newly christened cities done in the second wave of COVID-19 this summer can be anyone’s guess. This becomes an important question because obviously, a change of name does not bring prosperity, as the common man is made to feel.
For a poorly administered state like UP, the regime fears facing the voter. Change of name thus becomes a tool of manipulation, distraction and deceit. ‘Hari’ replacing ‘Ali’ is not going to change the number of infants dying in the district of Aligarh.
A 2016-17 annual report issued by the UPNRHM said the district has an infant mortality rate of 70 per 1000 live births (it is 33.01 per 1000 live births for Ethiopia, which didn’t have a name change and is 38.6 per 1000 live births for Eswatini, which was previously called Swaziland). With a looming election and poor management of the state, Aligarh morphing into Harigarh is the easiest way to fool the voters. Nothing sells better than bigotry in new India.
Overall, in 2016, the latest year of data available, the infant mortality rate in Uttar Pradesh was about 43 deaths per 1,000 live births. UP is among the states with the highest burden of neonatal mortality, with 30 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births. (India’s neonatal mortality rate is 23 per 1,000 live births.)
According to a UNICEF report released in January 2020, UP has the highest number of estimated newborn deaths in India because of the high neonatal mortality rate and because of the large cohort of births that occur every year in the state.
I am pretty sure that even the most nationalist of my friends would not be aware of the state flower of Uttar Pradesh. It is Palash (also called Tesu) or the Flame of the Forest. The flower is known for its beauty when it blossoms. Surprisingly, the blossoms are scentless. In folklore, it is said that some people are like the Palash – physically attractive but not intelligent.
It seems that the current UP regime and its political players have taken the state flower seriously. But it would be naïve to believe that they are not using their brains in this game of re-christening cities and districts. They are armed with hate. Their hideous plans are a sickness of the mind.
In Boris Vian’s book Froth on the Daydream, a newlywed girl develops a rare and bizarre illness that can only be cured by surrounding her with flowers. I wish we could surround the current regime in UP with flowers of Palash and hope that their minds can think, see and plan with clarity and honesty.
Professor Shah Alam Khan teaches at the Department of Orthopaedics, AIIMS, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.