What’s in a name?

Asif Akhtar April 24, 2010

The recent issue of changing the name of the North West Frontier Province seems to have conflagrated into a political maelstrom. Though the issue has been a significant stumbling block stuck in all our respective political throats for the past 60 odd years, it was only logical that a province of the national federation not be known as a set of geographical parameters relevant only to the British Empire.

The question of what to change the name to seems to, however, seems like even more of a pickle as a Pandora’s box of ethno-linguistic nationalities seems to have been sprung open. First the issue seemed to be about representation. Logically following, if Punjab is for the Punjabis, Sindh for the Sindhis, Balochistan for the Baloch, then why can’t there be a Pakhtunkhwa for the Pakhtuns? Fair enough, but the renaming seems to have been caught up in the country’s slipping in and out of the one-unit philosophy, and subsequently buried in the graveyard of political reforms.

The thorny Hazara issue seemed to have been resolved through a convenient hyphenation mimicking what seems to be the current fashion — ala the recent naming of Gilgit-Baltistan, the newest of the provinces. It was decided that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would be the name. It was highly ironic that Khyber also happened to be the target of an airstrike, a few days after the name change, which killed a few dozen civilians. Maybe this is a way of letting liberated post-colonial constituencies know that they are in fact liberated, or maybe it was some sort of sick joke. Regardless, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa turned out to be an even more problematic name than just Pakhtunkhwa by itself, because now all the other unrepresented constituencies, including linguistic and ethno-geographic groups like Hazara, want to be in on the hyphenation nomenclature.

Would a Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa-Hazara solve the problem? Perhaps they can condense four names into another acronym by adding Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa-Hazara-Waziristan to make it KPHW. Maybe if creative minds sit together they can actually come up with a conglomerate name that condenses back into NWFP, ending with Pakhtunkhwa of course. Historically name changes have mostly been a sticky issue, even minor spelling corrections such as changing Sind to Sindh have had to go through a complicated constitutional process. The process of liberating geographical areas from the colonial yoke of oppression is far from over though.

While the conversion from Lyallpur to Faisalabad was relatively painless, places like Murree have kept their name as bestowed by the British. And it seems odd that Abottabad, the epicentre of the protests against the current renaming, was actually named after Major James Abbott, who settled the district in 1848. My point is that if naming and renaming is such an arduous political task, maybe its best that the whole business be taken care of in one swift move rather than addressing these hiccups every few decades, causing spontaneous eruptions of violence every now and then. Indeed even the naming Pakistan was no simple task.

Apparently Chaudhry Rehmat Ali, the mastermind behind this ingenious name, had intended it to be an acronym for all its constituent parts: Punjab, Afghania (NWFP), Kashmir, Sind, and the “tan” from Balochistan. The original spelling was intended to be PAKSTAN, which sounds more like how you’d say it in Punjabi, later on the “i” was added with the rationalisation that it signified the lands of the Indus. It was due to this philosophy of acronymic naming that the name was hotly contested by groups in Bengal, because the “B” was denied representation in the name. Since names are so vital to our post-colonial identity, it would be advisable to tread prudently where such renaming matters are concerned, lest we unravel that very hypothetical fabric which binds us together.

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