Can it be our national priority to rename cities, Allahabad included?
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would were he not Romeo call’d
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Romeo and Juliet (Act II. Scene II.)
History bears witness that the Bard’s enlightened view on the nature and value of a name is set aside as emotion riding on history takes hold of the imagination to redress grievances, real or manufactured, or promote national or political interests. The decision to rename Allahabad as Prayagraj and the ongoing dispute between Greece and Macedonia on the name of the latter show the value attached to names of places and countries. First, the latter.
The contemporary Macedonian region comprises of Greece’s northern provinces of West, Central and East Macedonia and the country the United Nations recognises as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. However, till the recent compromise (more on this later) Greece opposed the use of the word Macedonia, in any form, in the name of the neighbouring country in the Balkans. The word Macedonia recalls the period of Alexander and is associated with the Hellenic cultural world. While Greek sentiment is authentic the problem is that, at times, other areas were added to the Macedonian core and the larger area was also referred to as Macedonia. Non-Hellenic ethnic groups, principally Slavic, had entered these areas. Further, in the 19th and early 20th centuries pan Macedonian nationalism, unacceptable to Greek opinion, emerged in the Balkan parts of Macedonia.
A People’s Republic of Macedonia was proclaimed in the Balkans as part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia just prior to the end of World War II. It became one of the country’s six republics. Greece protested and maintained its opposition through the decades. The break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 led the Republic of Macedonia to proclaim its independence with Skopje as its capital. Greece rejected the move. Interestingly, expatriate Greek communities in other countries demonstrated in support of their country’s position. Greece opposed the entry of the new country in the UN, EC and NATO.
After the intervention of the great powers Greece agreed that the new country be admitted to the UN as ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM). Such was Greece’s sentiment that it did not allow FYROM to be seated in the UN under the letter M. FYROM did not agree to be seated under Y. Hence, the compromise was that it was seated under T, representing the first letter of the name’s formulation! An interim agreement was signed between Greece and FYROM in 1995. Differences on the name compelled that the text of the agreement referred to the two countries only as ‘Party of the First Part’ as a reference for Greece and ‘Party of the Second Part’ for FYROM. The latter agreed never to make a claim for either redrawing of frontiers or on any Greek territory. The interim agreement led otherwise to the establishment of as far as normal relations as the circumstances permitted. While Greece maintained its opposition to FYROM’s entry into the EU and NATO, more and more countries agreed to use the name Republic of Macedonia in their bilateral relations. Despite having traditionally, a good understanding with Greece, India agreed to do so in 2008.
It is only now, more than two decades after the interim agreement, that the two countries have moved to compromise. An agreement was signed in June this year under which Macedonia agreed to constitutionally change its name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia and Greece agreed to the use of the word Macedonia with this qualification. Greece has secured that Northern Macedonia will not claim Hellenic inheritance in any manner or form. Constitutional processes are now on to ratify the agreement. A referendum succeeded in Macedonia for the name change but only 40% voted. It is not certain if its parliament will approve. In Greece too, the agreement has caused divisions in government and outside. The next few weeks will decide the agreement’s fate.
All this is about a name. In some ways Greece’s objections seem strange. But names signify identity in all its facets and the struggle around identities is seldom over.
Fortunately, amidst all the differences India and Pakistan did not lay exclusive claims to the names of divided provinces. At one time the Muslim League favoured the use of the word Hindustan instead of India but the matter was not really pursued by Pakistan.
The naming and renaming of cities have taken place all over the world and through history. Often these changes occur with major changes in a country and reflect the changed conditions. St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital from 1712 to 1918, established by Peter the Great took the name in 1924 Leningrad to honour the memory of father of the Russian revolution. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and with it the communist system the people of the city decided, through a referendum to revert its name back to St. Petersburg. Istanbul, astride Europe and Asia, is one of the world’s famous cities was known for almost 1600 years as Constantinople till in 1923 the Turks proclaimed its present name. In India renaming cities and roads associated with colonialism is understandable but how far do we go and for what purpose? Can it be our national priority to rename cities, Allahabad included?