It has been decided that Assam will be having a new university. And this time around it will be a women’s university. Certainly looks like a good initiative although many would want to raise many questions about the aims and objectives of this new varsity. But furthermore the Assam cabinet decided that it would be named Rajiv Gandhi Women’s University. My problem doesn’t begin here. In fact just a new example gets added to the long list of such irritating political gimmicks. Assam already has one university named after Rajiv Gandhi (Assam Rajiv Gandhi University of Co-operative Management. link: http://argucom.org.in). The point of entry to the city of Guwahati, one that bears history of the legend Lachit Borphukan, the place where lakhs gathered for the cremation of the bard of the Brahmaputra Late Bhupen Hazarika gets named as Rajiv Chowk. Few flagship schemes of the government of Assam which have been marketed along the lengths and breadths of the Assam Valley runs in his name; such as the Rajiv Gandhi Computer Literacy Program. To add to this you have a few dozen central schemes named after him that works in Assam along with the rest of the nation. I am not cornering the Ex-Prime Minister of India; you are free to add Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and so on to give him some company. Why do we name things in memory of a person? Is there a problem in naming things this way? Is there a better way of naming things?
We name a certain scheme, institution or public place after a person as a mark of respect for his efforts to a particular cause or due to the stature he holds in the minds of the people because of his great deeds for the people or the land. It bears much more meaning when the person is one who has been attached to the place where this institution or public place rests or to the cause for which the scheme belongs. Beyond this let us understand that Assam and the northeast have not reached a stage of flourishing. It has been facing the identity crisis since its amalgamation with the Indian nation. So the first problem that arises out of such absurd naming of schemes, projects and institutions is that it severely affects the sentiments of the people who would want it to be named after a person whose credentials in that field or for the land are much higher. The general public is also angered when they see this disconnected naming politics. The anger may not be visible as an immediate major outburst but the resentment only grows. It adds up to the fuel on which the identity crisis burns.
Secondly it very painfully sidelines the efforts of many visionaries, leaders, social actors who had throughout their life worked for the land and its people. There are examples of such great people from each corner of this nation, people who have devoted themselves for a cause. If we would ask them they would happily reject the idea of naming anything after them. But it must be our responsibility to set such things as mark of respect for them. It is also the onus of ours to inscribe their names on the diary of time so that their legacy can pass on through generations. Acts like naming the Arunachal University as Rajiv Gandhi University instead of a local person with whom the people can much more connect to, who will serve much more as a symbol of inspiration is indeed nonsensical.
Thirdly, it skews the democratic politics of this nation. The Gandhi-Nehru family is still actively involved in the politics of this nation. Although a sizeable section can distinguish between the role of the Government and that of the party in implementing such schemes, imagine how it would affect those sections of people for whom election is all about voting for the hand symbol or the lotus or the cycle or the elephant. It is important to note that along with naming of new projects in the name of the Nehru Gandhi family many old institutions with general names have been awarded a prefix of this clan. The politics of naming plays with the psychology of the masses. Once a prefix of the Nehru Gandhi family is added and marketed it solidifies in many citizens minds as a congress endeavor. It was certainly not a part of these leaders will to have their name attached to such a huge number of projects. But is a result of politics played by its current leaders to paint a one sided picture or initiative of state leaders trying to pacify the central leadership. We would have been much happier had the state leaders chosen Bimala Prasad Chaliha, Nabin Chandra Bordoloi, Hem Barua and other contemporaries instead of relying on the Gandhi tag to suit their personal interests.
In the broader sense of things the politics of naming plays a great part in molding public opinion. After the British left India a majority of the public places, monuments, roads, institutions got new names to create a sense of Indian identity. Names of Indian freedom fighters were initially used all over to create a sense of nationalism. The politics of naming thus becomes a very sensitive issue particularly in a nation like India with a fragile fabric tying up its divided masses. The sections which are left from this politics of naming finds themselves sidelined and feel discriminated. And this issue is not only confined between centre and state. Within states as well majority communities knowingly or unknowingly forget to acknowledge the efforts of great personalities belonging outside the majority community. We have many schools, colleges, roads and buildings named after contemporary Assamese visionaries of their times. But how many from the Bodo, Mishing, Karbi community finds their names inscribed in institutions of the mainstream society. No one can agree that there aren’t any great names from these communities. Indira Miri, Kalicharan Brahma, Bodofa Upendra Nath Brahma, Mahi Chandra Miri and Sobha Brahma are just a few to name from a long list. Because Assam is facing turmoil from outside and within it infact is much more important to recognize the efforts of all communities to continue the community building initiative fruitfully. And dedicating certain public institutions, places etc to the memory of a person is a form of solid recognition. The Nehru-Gandhi family has got enough recognition right from school textbooks to most central schemes and projects. An added tag will bring no marginal recognition to them. In fact it will anger many and will waste an opportunity of honoring and including the efforts of a certain section of the society.
For the Assamese to see a site of historic resemblance being named as Rajiv Chowk instead of Lachit Borphukan or Bhupen Hazarika, for the Marathi’s to find the Bandra-Worli Sea link named after Rajiv Gandhi instead of a legend from the land is definitely heartening. The first question that comes in the mind of many is, “isn’t there anyone from this place whom they could have dedicated this to”. And the locals then see this naming as a form of forced unity and hegemony of the centre and the feeling of alienation continue. This should not be viewed as narrow regionalism as no one has ever suggested altering all Non-Marathi, or Non-Assamese names into Assamese ones. But when an institution of National repute shall be opened in Assam in the form of a women’s university and we name it after an inspiring women from Assam like Indira Miri, Kanaklata, Pratima Pandey Barua, Nalinibala Devi or Joymoti instead of Rajiv Gandhi it will be a great respect to those women who had by their life and work left enough to be an inspiration for generations. It also will be a way of promoting our figures in national mainstream, the unavailability of which we always cry about. And by no means will it be disrespect to Rajiv Gandhi and his works for the nation. Similarly within the state the politics of naming must be used in a way that instead of creating resentment and difference of opinion it is able to build mutual trust and confidence. Only then will the identity crisis resolve and unity prosper. This initiative doesn’t rest only with the government. Interest groups, concerned citizens based on common consensus will all have to push for this to become a reality.