Name changes and manufactured identities

Published: September 26, 2011
The writer is an assistant professor in history at Forman Christian College and a commissioning editor at Oxford University Press

The writer is an assistant professor in history at Forman Christian College and a commissioning editor at Oxford University Press

I was going to write about something else this week, but the September 23 article “Time to rename Abbottabad”, by Dr Pervez Tahir, a person with a distinguished career and a PhD from Cambridge, made me realise that perhaps the harm done by renaming of places is not yet obvious to everyone, and needs to be re-emphasised.

Changing the names of roads, areas, and cities are a favourite pastime of corrupt post-colonial countries. In the name of nationalism, many countries have used renaming of various things as a tool to shift attention from their own failures in governance and development. With little to show as successes, rechristening of someone else’s achievements and remembrances has become an important instrument of cheap popularity for such regimes. Ever wonder why it is only in the less developed world that this renaming takes place? Why does the US, for example, not rename New York or New Orleans? Why is it that only Salisbury had to be changed to Harare, Bombay to Mumbai, and Calcutta to Kolkata?

Renaming of streets, areas, and cities is a blatant attempt at obliterating and rewriting history. In countries with low literacy rates, such as Pakistan, place names are often the only reminders of the past, and as such important teaching tools. For example, if Lyallpur had still been there, people might have still been aware of the life and career of Sir James Lyall, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who promoted the idea of canal colonies in the 1880s, making numerous Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families prosperous. People would also have known that the planning grid of the old city of Lyallpur followed the Union Flag. However, Lyallpur was renamed ‘Faisalabad’ in 1977, after a king of Saudi Arabia who had nothing to do with the city, its establishment, or development. The renaming tried to eradicate the city’s link with its founder, who still remains buried there, and attempted to establish a new, fake, identity.

Renaming also does disservice to the memory of the new person being commemorated. There has never been a dearth of new streets and new areas which can be developed in the name of someone. So why not establish something new and dynamic in honour of an esteemed personality? I am sure Benazir Bhutto would have been pleased if a new settlement were named in her memory, rather than the memory of another Sindhi, Syed Nawab Shah, being erased for her.

Renaming only does two things: it feeds the vanity of some twisted minds, and it adds to the burden of an already cash strapped country. Has anyone ever wondered how many millions of rupees have been spent in rewriting every sign board, reprinting all business cards and letter pads, and the like, after the NWFP was renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa? Can Pakistan, or any thirdworld country, afford such waste of money, when the same amount could have been used for the establishment of at least two or three schools or hospitals?

Among other things, Pakistan is also going through an existential crisis. The slogan for the creation of Pakistan was the Two-Nation theory, but after the separation of East Pakistan, that argument became untenable. Even before that, the fact that the Muslim League was never strong in the regions now forming Pakistan, and the long and confused debates on the constitution of Pakistan, showed the shaky basis of the country. In this scenario, rather than honestly assessing the creation of the country and formulating a new consensus, the focus in Pakistan has been on ignoring the past in order to create a phony history. The process of renaming is part of this project.

Abbottabad, established by and named in the memory of Sir James Abbott, who loved the city and its people, should never be renamed so that people can always remember a person who was so impressed by them that he learnt their language, adopted their ways of life, and lived among them as one of their own. Abottabad, and all other such cities, places and roads, are a part of our history, of both good and bad times, and destroying this public history is not only dishonest, but criminal.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Anonymous
    Sep 26, 2011 - 9:53PM

    I agree with you. But the names Mumbai and Kolkata where changed to Bombay and Calcutta by the British as they found it difficult to pronounce the old name. Certain parts of history need to be rewritten as you move forward and certain left alone. Choosing the right one’s is a thorny issue.


  • faraz
    Sep 26, 2011 - 10:02PM

    Faisalabad reminds of a weird country where the ruler King Faisal was assassinated by a family member whose brother was killed in anti-TV riots!


  • SaudiRules
    Sep 26, 2011 - 10:21PM

    I think there is a difference between indians re-naming Bombay or Calcutta to a name that is how it is spoken in their native languages. i.e. mumbai and Kolkatta. They can argue they were erasing their colonial past
    We re-naming Lyallpur to faisalabad is just changing a colonial master (british) to an ideological petro-dollar father, saudi arabia. We still have slave mentality!! I am afraid to say the british were a better “master” then the Saudi Arabia.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 26, 2011 - 11:39PM

    Buddy i have say very little bite taday new york or new orleans can not changed because
    British and U.s.a had same reliegen same language same race and after two centuries they
    still have lovw for queen unlike other so called colonies where diffrent reliegens and race peoples lived for centuries with diffrent culture and lang and most of peoples can not even
    pronouced the word even for example when pathan from north comes to karachi speak so
    funny urdu………………..


  • MK
    Sep 27, 2011 - 12:27AM

    “Why does the US, for example, not rename New York or New Orleans? “

    Because unlike Mumbai and Kolkata, colonizers are still there and have not left it for indigenous people to rename it back to their old names. However I completely agree with you when you talk about economic cost of changing names in Pakistan. If a country is rich enough to afford it, there is nothing wrong in expressing national pride and identity. Cultural activities or cultural consulates, national parades etc are all done for same reason and can also be considered a waste of money.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 27, 2011 - 12:47AM

    I didnot see islamabad city in america or in london so why not our names in our country
    its not a bad idea and erasing shamefull memory of colonies is a good thing and is there
    any banaras or hyderabad is there in england.


  • ayesha
    Sep 27, 2011 - 6:03AM

    You cannot compare changing of Lyallpur to Faislabad which honors to completely different people and The Bombay-Mumbai, Calcutta – Kolkatta. As someone who was born and brought up in ‘Bombay’, I would like to tell yo that in our vernacular languages, it was always known as Mumbai (both Gujarati and Marathi). Bombay was the anglicized version of Mumbai. One of the odest newspapers of India was called Mumbai samachar NOT Bombay samachar.

    Having said that the overall point is valid.


  • Arindom
    Sep 27, 2011 - 7:22AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    The many western cities ( especially UK, Australia, NZ and places with English / Scottish / Welsh people) have streets named after India and Indian towns and places. Mostly these were named by old British Officers out of nostalgia…..


  • belaar
    Sep 27, 2011 - 7:37AM

    Changing names of historical places is just a symptom. Pakistan’s problems run deeper: the whole state is in identity and ideological crisis.
    For example, people residing in eastern regions, particularly in Punjab, are, historically, ethnically and geographically part of Indian subcontinent. But, they hate everything associated with Indian heritage. Ironically, they rather, artificially, associate themselves with the far flung civilizations (such as Middle Eastern and Central Asian) which have no connections to the people of the region whatsoever.
    In short, they are in total denial.


  • saleem
    Sep 27, 2011 - 9:25AM

    A Place town, building, road is made and named , thats history , changing a few words to pronounce it in more familiar local language is degrading your own self. Changing the name completely is down right disgraceful.


  • Sep 27, 2011 - 10:18AM

    good mr bangesh, this debate is growing now. it also exposes many of us, our biases and reflections of supper national isms disguised in anti colonialism. colonial period, with all its odds and benefits is part and parcel of our last 200 years past history. it is interesting to know that Indian nationalists and Pakistani Islamist have same argument regarding rejection of colonialism yet both groups are not ready to accept historical, cultural and ethnic diversity prevailed in south Asia. Nationalism is the biggest modern problem and nation state is the worst. those who think changing the name of kolcatta is right should also start writing Lahore as Lhore and Peshawar as pursh pur. Lhoris called it Lhore not Lahore. it was changed under the influence of Hindi/Urdu/Persian colonialism.
    it is a hard fact that citizens have right to change or rename things. but for changing or renaming things, one should have a across the board argument. to fix it with past history, ideology, religion, sect is useless or misleading. there is not a single place in the world who lived in isolation. migration and mixing of races, religions,sects, casts and languages was order of the day till the invention of passport acts. the concept of Son of the soil and sole race based nationalism was neither in practice, anywhere in the world. after capturing STR (sea trade routes) Europeans developed two things. 1- industrial revolution and 2 concept of nation states. so in mid 19th century we observed a mushroom growth of numerous nationalism like Indian nationalism, Arabic nationalism, German nationalism etc. the concept of anti colonialism is actually an extension of nation state theory. as there r inbuilt problems in nation state theory so it reflects every where when applies. it is high time that south asian should learn to respect diversity , modernity and assimilation


  • Abhi
    Sep 27, 2011 - 12:49PM

    @aamir riaz
    you are wrong on this count “Indian nationalists and Pakistani Islamist have same argument regarding rejection of colonialism yet both groups are not ready to accept historical, cultural and ethnic diversity prevailed in south Asia”

    Indian nationalist will agree if you rename Lahore to Lhore (if most of the local pronounce it that way) but Islamist will want to change it to something absard like Gaddafibad or Mahmudabad kind of stuff.

    Bangash argument is valid, if british or some other person really contributed so much for the development of place it is not bad to keep his/her name associated with the place. But if britishers changed the name just for their fancy (can you bilieve Kanpur used to spell as Cawnpore) it is better to revert it back.


  • Sep 27, 2011 - 2:52PM

    indian nationalists did not accept cultural, ethnic and historical diversities , the proof of this is congress behaviors. congress promoted One nation theory which proved wrong like two nation theory. it was congress who rejected cabinet mission plan just 8 months before partition. the plan was in favor of decentralization and diversity yet Nehru rejected it. faiz ahmad faiz wrote an editorial in pakistan times at 27 june 1947 in which he mentioned a meeting of congress to further partitioned the east Punjab. supporters of one nation theory and two nation theory had same mind set


  • Adeel Ahmed
    Sep 27, 2011 - 3:12PM

    There are many reasons to change the names of cities/roads but one of the major reason is that one want to forget the history of slavery. In spain they have changed each and every street/town name otherwise you will find that every second things was named on muslim tradition. You didnt look into the history to look the Sikhs killings of Sir James Abbott neither the killing of Muslims by Sir Campbell (Campbellpur, former name of Attock). These people may be the heroes pf British but not for us. Therefore, we have changed the name and must change the rest. Recommend

  • Ishtiaq Ahmed
    Sep 27, 2011 - 3:13PM

    Why name change for Abbottabad? Abbottabad,the idyllic picturesque city, is and must always remain Abbottabad. Lets’ us, the Pakistanis, to project to the world the positive side of this city and its’ people.


  • Irshad Khan
    Sep 27, 2011 - 4:49PM

    Who cares for history in Pakistan? Only few ones, who are not heard anywhere and in any case. Sometimes one is compelled to think if this country was created for any serious purpose or just for Nihari, Paya, chicken tikka, katacut and food streets. No other discussions are liked but on variety of food available in these streets in order to impress others for awareness and pertinent knowledge in that matter. Nobody has the knowledge of historical places and historical background and also would not like to listen and talk. People of say are interested in history of London, Paris, Rome and Washington and costly restaurants their. What culture we are heading for?


  • Sajjad Hussain
    Sep 27, 2011 - 5:45PM

    Abbottabad is ABBOTTABAD and must remain as ABBOTTABAD. It was and is an historical city.It can never be named as Osamabsd or by any other names.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 28, 2011 - 1:09AM

    @ Irshad khan
    you right my friend 100% pakistan is country of street food and murders only i remember
    one when i was young in my neighborhood one old was living he migrated in 1947 from
    Bihar patna area of india i some sid with him and talked about partition he all ways tell
    me tum pathan kya jano means you what u pathans know you tribals all u know fighting
    pakistan is land of more on.


  • lawyer
    Sep 28, 2011 - 7:48PM

    Your argument is flawed on many counts:

    First get your facts straight. New York was named New York only by the British. The original name of the city was New Amsterdam.

    Next, many of the cities you mentioned like Delhi and Bombay had historical legacies before the British came and so your argument that changing the names erases history is misplaced. Your argument here is of a stereotypical colonial apologist.

    Finally, a more better argument would have been the needless costs involved in renaming a city, your article does not even mention it! The argument here could be countered that the small price of cost would be met in the longer run by developing a national identity.


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