Rewriting History: What’s in a Name? Ask the BJP

Motto: If you can’t make history, just ‘make it up’— expunge, erase, redact, rename…

A village in Arunachal Pradesh, where our neighbour China is on a competitive renaming spree
A village in Arunachal Pradesh, where our neighbour China is on a competitive renaming spree

Avay Shukla

William Shakespeare had got most things right, especially when it came to portraying the seven deadly sins, as per their revised version in India’s Amritkaal. Whether it was ‘honour killing’ in Othello or ‘love jihad’ (by Romeo, naturally, trying to entice a Capulet to become a Montague) in Romeo and Juliet, or outstanding EMIs in Merchant of Venice, he plumbed the depths of human emotions like a porpoise.

But in one instance at least he had a mixed bag; it was when he waxed eloquent about the importance or otherwise of names. Remember Juliet’s words?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet...” Methinks the wily old bard was trying to say that names are not important, that if Romeo was called, say, Ronaldo, he would be just as handsome and score just as well (with the ladies, of course). True, but then ‘Sexpeare’ had not (unlike Orwell or Huxley) anticipated the Hindu Rashtra of 450 years later where names determine history and geography, where it is the lotus, and not the rose, which is the flower of choice and where a name can determine whether you smell of roses or dead fish. Or whether you are alive or dead, in fact.

Names in India are important. Take, for example, that one name which you utter today only at your peril—M***. It’s a deified appellation nowadays, which you cannot take in vain, or even in jest; the punishment for doing so is two years in prison. In fact, you cannot even refer to this name’s progenitor without being hauled to a far-away police station, as a Congress spokesperson found out recently.

We are told that there are about 800,000 similarly named worthies (may their tribe increase below replacement rate), give or take a couple on enforced sojourn in other countries, but only one of them actually matters. The name is well on its way to replacing other names like Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar, on the principle that if you cannot match their accomplishments then you should ensure that their names should be interred along with their bones. Somewhat like the cuckoo’s nesting strategy.

There are two ways of making history: the first is to do something by which posterity will remember you. If one can’t do that, then adopt the second way—rewrite history by changing the names inscribed in history. It’s far easier to do, requires no effort but the scratch of a pen on paper, and lo! that past accomplishment of someone else becomes yours for ever!

China has renamed eleven villages in Arunachal Pradesh, giving them Chinese names to bolster its claim that the state is part of China. As someone said, if the NCERT can rewrite past history, the PLA can rewrite current history

This can apply to stadiums, thoroughfares, buildings, monuments, universities, temples, even cities. We seem to be doing this on a war footing these days, though the Supreme Court appears to have applied the brakes on this noble endeavour in a recent case, observing that the country cannot be held a prisoner to the past.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and our government has now decided that if it can’t replace or rewrite something, then it will simply expunge, erase or redact it. A pilot project for this was first launched in the Rafale case with the blessings of the then CJI, where the pesky pricing details in the CAG report were redacted. This was then repeated in Parliament by expunging most of Rahul Gandhi’s speech so that posterity would never know who was in bed with Mr. Adani when his fortune was reaching orgasmic heights.

Then came the Gujarat High Court (where else?) order effectively redacting the Prime Minister’s graduation degree, leaving us wondering whether his extraordinary talents were acquired in a university or a railway station. And now, of course, the NCERT has taken upon itself to rewrite ‘entire Indian history’, erasing such irritating passages as the RSS’s antipathy to Mahatma Gandhi, the result of the battle at Haldighati, the 2002 killings in Gujarat, even any reference to the Moghuls.

This last bit is particularly intriguing, for if the Mughals do not feature in our history, then one will be left wondering: who did the Rajputs and the Marathas fight against? And who built the Taj Mahal, or the Red Fort, or the Agra Fort or the Jama Masjid? And where from came the biryani our politicians regularly gorge on?

Perhaps these confusing questions will be answered soon, along with other mysteries like who is occupying 1,000 sq. km of our area in Ladakh, or which country accounts for $120 billion of our imports? Just asking, since the name China also cannot be mentioned.

While we are on the subject of names, perhaps we can be excused for asking our wolf-warrior, external affairs minister Mr. Jaishankar, what is his definition of the word ‘war’, since he refuses to use it in the Ukraine context for fear of jeopardising those cheap Russian oil supplies? He has stuck to his stand (if such a posture can be called a stand) that what is transpiring in Ukraine is not a war but a “crisis”. Another instance of name-o-phobia?

For to me it appears that when two nations have been fighting each other for more than a year, when thousands of people have been killed on both sides, when thousands of tonnes of munitions are fired every day, when one country is systematically destroying the other nation’s civilian infrastructure, when 5 million people have been turned into refugees, surely, that has to be a war, right?

Or is he suggesting that we rename all the wars in the sorry history of this planet as “crises”? Eg: Indo-China crisis of 1962 (but that will involve naming China, which is a no-no by itself), the First World Crisis (1914-18), the Second World Crisis (1939-45), the Vietnam Crisis? Our minister must be a pretty bloodthirsty sort of chap if he wants some more ingredients in a conflict before he condescends to term it a war. Or maybe he thinks the world will be a much happier place if the word “war” is redacted altogether?

Unfortunately for us, however, two can play at this name game. Just this week China has renamed eleven villages in Arunachal Pradesh, giving them Chinese names to bolster its claim that the state is part of China. As someone said, if NCERT can rewrite past history, the PLA can rewrite current history.

Ah! the perils of Vishwaguru teaching the wrong lessons to the world. Perhaps it’s time, as the Walrus would have said, for NCERT to take another look at Shakespeare: replace the rose with the lotus, and hope that it continues to smell as sweet.

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