A new India where replacing ‘Aligarh’ with ‘Harigarh’ is more rewarding than social change
I grew up in Aligarh, a relatively small town by Indian standards, located about 120 kilometers 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, however, is the last thing on your mind when thinking of Aligarh. Hibernation, after all, is a calming process.
I went to a Christian missionary school called Our Lady of Fatima (it was several moons later that I realized that Fatima was a place in Portugal). At that time, it was the only Christian missionary school in the city. I graduated from Aligarh Muslim University and also from a medical school called Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College. In short, my time in Aligarh was marked by names, religions – identities in general – what could be my loss in this New India.
As I emerged from the shadows of adolescence in Aligarh, India decided to rise from the ashes of Nehruvian socialism and the neoliberal reforms of the 90s took place. We have all felt the winds of change in our small town. The shops have become sweeter. We now had access to sweets and stationery that only “foreign” uncles and aunts had brought until very recently. Television has been redefined. MTV has streamed the latest songs 24/7. It was a respite from the week-long wait for Wednesdays when the national broadcaster aired ‘Chitrahaar’, a one-hour program based on Bollywood numbers.
We have invested in Love glory and beauty, his beautiful Spencer family and their lifelong convoluted relationship. We felt empowered to be part of a soap opera that had mesmerized our cousins in the distant United States. In fact, the United States didn’t seem so far away. Many of my comrades have started to prepare for USMLE, the medical licensing exam that takes you to the shores of the land of opportunity.
All this apparent eudaimonia was hiding something more vicious that was going on in Aligarh. Post-neo-liberalization, the city, famous for its locksmith and brass work, experienced significant erosion of both industries. The tala-nagri (lock city), as it was popularly called, has seen a gradual closure of most of the more than 5,000 organized and unorganized units producing locks. The livelihoods of over 200,000 workers have been lost in the process. Poverty has set in and migration from the belly of the sleeping animal has become a trend.
With economic reforms and poverty came the struggle for power. Identity politics ended up reigning. Religious identity dismantled caste identity. The Babri Mosque was reduced to rubble within hours. The curfew following community clashes became more frequent and the binary of hatred was palpable all around. An affirmation of religious identity has been felt by each of us. My own teammates have become Hindus and Muslims. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 undoubtedly established the torchbearers of Hindutva hegemony.
With the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and with the emergence of a wealthy class (as well as a disadvantaged class), Aligarh has changed completely. It was in this context that I first heard the clamor for the city’s name to be changed to Harigarh. Oddly enough, Wealth and the Hindutva combined and became the most bizarre bed partners.
On my way home one day, I saw a school on the outskirts of town. It was called the Lord Krishna Convent School. Hari, by the way, is Lord Krishna’s other name. A convent school named after the most famous Hindu deity was a classic example of what identity and capitalism can do to a society. It seems that “Krishna” can hold you by the soul and “Convent” can propel you closer to the land of opportunity. The taste for power continued, and the hibernating animal awoke hungry for the grip and thirst for the blood of innocent people.
It is therefore not surprising that the zila panchayat of Aligarh district filed its request to change the name of the city to Harigarh. Changing the names of streets to cities into neighborhoods is the easiest way to assert power. In a book titled, Changes of place names, 1900-1991 (compiled by Adrian Room), more than 5,000 places – streets, villages and countries – whose names have been changed around the world are mentioned. The common thread of these changes is the affirmation of identity – political, religious, racial, ideological.
The most amazing story concerns Czechoslovakia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the country was called the Czechoslovak Republic (it was previously called the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic). This, according to the Slovaks, diminished their identification and required the country’s name to be spelled with a hyphen between Czech and Slovakia. The struggle that followed was called the “hyphenated war”.
If the assertion of identity through a hyphen can be so important to a cohort of people, it is no wonder that replacing Ali’s name with Hari can be more rewarding for a large part of the population in this country. New India. The only problem is that similar “hyphen wars” in our country can lead to more than a semantic struggle. It can actually lead to murder and mayhem.
Our hyphens will be drenched in blood.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with over 200 million people, is one of the worst performing states in terms of infant mortality rate, under-five mortality, and mortality neonatal. The second wave of COVID-19, which hit the state in April-June this year, has claimed an unprecedented number of deaths.
In 2018, the current dispensation changed the names of Allahabad (in Prayagraj), Mughalsarai (in Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar) and Faizabad (in Ayodhya). How these newly-christened cities fared during the second wave of COVID-19 this summer can be guessed. This becomes an important question because obviously a name change does not bring prosperity, as the average person is made to feel.
For a poorly administered state like the UP, the regime fears facing the voter. The name change thus becomes a tool of manipulation, distraction and deception. “Hari” replacing “Ali” is not going to change the number of infants who have died in Aligarh district.
A 2016-17 annual report released by UPNRHM indicated that the district has an infant mortality rate of 70 per 1,000 live births (it is 33.01 per 1,000 live births for Ethiopia, which has not changed. name and is 38.6 per 1,000 live births for Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland). With an upcoming election and mismanagement of the state, Aligarh turning into Harigarh is the easiest way to cheat voters. Nothing sells better than fanaticism in the new India.
Overall, in 2016, the latest year of data available, the infant mortality rate in Uttar Pradesh was around 43 deaths per 1,000 live births. UP is one of 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 due to the high neonatal mortality rate and the large cohort of births that occur each year in the state.
I’m pretty sure even the most nationalistic friend of mine wouldn’t know about the Uttar Pradesh state flower. He is Palash (also called Tesu) or the Flame of the Forest. The flower is known for its beauty when it blooms. Surprisingly, the flowers are odorless. In folklore it is said that some people are like the Palash – physically attractive but not smart.
It seems that the current UP regime and its political actors have taken the flower of the state seriously. But it would be naive to believe that they are not using their brains in this game of re-baptizing cities and neighborhoods. They are armed with hate. Their hideous plans are a disease of the mind.
In Boris Vian’s book Foam on reverie, a young bride develops a rare and strange disease that can only be cured by surrounding her in flowers. I wish we could surround the current UP regime with flowers of Palash and hope their minds can think, see, and plan with clarity and honesty.
Professor Shah Alam Khan teaches in the Department of Orthopedics, AIIMS, New Delhi. The opinions expressed are personal.