Wednesday, July 21, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The game of naming (Opinion)

The game of naming

Shiv Visvanathan

Express News Service

First Published : 21 Jul 2010 12:54:00 AM ISTLast Updated : 21 Jul
2010 01:08:15 AM IST

Indian politics as a drama is fortunate to have three women who keep
everyone guessing. The three stalwarts are Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati and
Jayalalithaa, three names which resound like a roll call of empresses.
Of them Mayawati is the most interesting. Mayawati appears like a
character from Alice in Wonderland. She reminds of the queen shouting
"off with her head." She has shades of Alice in insisting that she
means what she says and she says what she means. Mayawati is most
adept at altering the rules of the political game.

Let us look at that renaming of Amethi not to judge her or criticise
her but to understand the logic of the game.

For Mayawati, the biggest irritant in UP politics is Sonia not
Mulayam. Mulayam has turned out to be just another political 'father'
patronising his son, and his gadfly Amar Singh hardly qualifies for
Page 3. Sonia is formidable and is getting more formidable. Amethi
represents the constituency the Gandhis have sustained. In fact,
between Sonia and Rahul, Mayawati is always reminded that her control
of UP is incomplete. Amethi is even more irritating than Delhi in her
political fiefdom. It is a name that needs to be exorcised and up she
goes and names it Shahuji Maharaj Nagar.

Our Western literati, including the press, might treat it as a joke.
The more seriously inclined might research into Shahuji Maharaj and
realise he was an ideal model of justice and governance. But what few
of them do is to examine the politics of renaming.

Renaming is a way of rewriting history. It is a way of redefining a
space and creating new rules for the space. It creates a new mnemonics
and attempts to discard old memories. In ritual time, one acquires a
new name when one has performed a rite of passage and acquired new
identity. It is the political equivalent of vastu shastra where
renaming creates new affinities, new alignments in time.

Every name evokes its own genealogy. By invoking the names of
Ambedkar, his wife Ramabai and Shahuji Maharaj, Mayawati is offering
an alternative framework to the imagination. She is telling people,
enough of the Nehrus and Gandhis. They are bits of history but they
stand in the way of the future of our politics. They evoke a past of
old strategies against the British. For us, the Congress is the new
British, the British who create hegemony and injustice, the outsiders
we have to overthrow for the new golden age.

Mayawati understands the arbitrariness of history and its secret
logic. History belongs to him who rules and he who writes the text.
So, Indian history at least officially is a double denial of the Dalit
and his enforced illiteracy. So when Mayawati begins to rule, she is
altering the regime of history.

The historian Ernest Renan pointed out, the nation state itself is a
consensual fiction that pretends to be a fact through history.
Mayawati is clear she is addressing the Dalit nation. Unfortunately
issuing commemorative stamps is not a state subject, otherwise we
would have had some delightfully quarrelsome commemorative issues.
Think of it. I could think of my own list of actors left out of
history. Look at the deftness of the logic, the idea of Ambedkar's
wife as matriarch of the nation. A woman, Ramabai, who was not even a
footnote of history acquires a second life.

Mayawati realises that naming as a ritual has power. The very
enactment of the name is a performativity, a magic which suggests
hypnotically that it becomes what you name. Mayawati is shrewd enough
to know that between names and monuments, history can be seduced to
work for any politician. She realises the power of statues. They
subliminally enter your mind and she knows enough of history to
realise that every emperor who left a monument is remembered by every
tourist who enters history. As a master of mnemonics, she realises
that as long as we keep saying Chacha Nehru and keep seeing Rahul as a
prince in waiting, her wonderland will not come to power. In that
sense her renaming of Amethi and Kanpur Dehat is a promissory note for
the future.

Now imagine you are just a hard-headed watcher, what can you sense?
Renaming Kanpur Dehat might be a good idea. Even its colonial tag
Cawnpore only evokes what the British called disparagingly the Sepoy
Mutiny. In fact, she might insist that she is creating the new annals
of independence with a new name, evoking care and nurturance. The
people of Kanpur Dehat might object. But think of it another way.
Would I object if cities in Jharkhand were named after the great
freedom fighter Birsa Munda. Is it not redundant to name streets and
hospitals after Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi? Why not a few streets after
Jaipal Singh in Delhi?

This surplus, this redundancy of naming carries the one-sidedness of
history. It is like the old Delhi joke that you can move from one end
to another by following streets all virtually named after the Gandhi
family. If roads mark territoriality, renaming becomes a legitimate
act of politics. I am not entering into the aesthetics but there is a
sense of the serious in addition to that a sense of the comic, a
reminder to the powerful that the joke could be on you, that today's
dismissive cartoon may be tomorrow's monument.

In fact, it is at the level of the comic that responses might be more
interesting. They also convey a different understanding of the fait
accompli of politics. I remember someone telling me, "I love Mumbai
but it is Bombay I like living in." The danger is when names become a
harbinger of exclusions, of programmes, of erasures. Renaming cannot
be a harbinger to ostracism and ethnic cleansing. I am not suggesting
this is the case but politics is the battle of the long run. Mayawati
realises that Keynes did not understand politicians. In the long run
ordinary people might be dead, politicians live on as street signs,
monuments and statues.

Recently, Gorbachev reacted strongly to the attempts to vandalise or
destroy Stalin's statues. He said it perpetuated Stalin who was master
of rewriting histories. What we need is a more affable understanding
of history and memory. We have to stop treating history as a prize and
realise it is not objective. Memory can be many layered and eventually
indifferent to all. In Delhi, there is a location close to the
university, where British statues lie dumped together. Imagine a
future time where the statues of Nehrus, Gandhis and Mayawatis lie
together the same way. Only stray dogs and the homeless scavenge
hopefully among the ruins of history.

About the author:

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist


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