Some two million Indian citizens woke up in a different place today as bustling business city Gurgaon is renamed to Gurugram – the latest in around 150 city name changes since the country’s independence from the British in 1947. Home to Indian headquarters of scores of multinationals, including Maruti Suzuki, General Electric, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Siemens, we imagine HR departments are frantically finding budgets to reprint thousands of business cards this morning.
Interestingly, the new name has the same meaning as Gurgaon – “village of the guru” – but officials from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist ruling party in the Indian state of Haryana, have chosen Gurugram as an ancient Sanskrit version of the word, rather than the modernized Hindi rendering. Continuing a trend of reappropriation through etymology, a spokesman for the party claims that “for a long time the people of the area have been demanding Gurgaon be renamed Gurugram.”
The latest in a long line of renamed cities, the decision was met with jest, criticism and applause. Twitter users were quick to poke fun, wondering whether the popularity of Instagram was the inspiration for the change, or if IT professionals from the area (of which there are many: the city is highly regarded as one of the world’s most important services offshoring hubs) will change their titles from programmer to Gurugrammer. Others joked about how many Gurugrams are in kilogram and teasingly praised officials for solving Guragaon’s problems by simply wiping it off the map.
However, it’s not all fun and games – a hot debate has emerged between Hindu nationalists who support the move and the reclamation of the area’s cultural, historical and religious significance to the Hindu population, and others who believe there’s more important things the city should be exerting efforts on. “Haryana is a historic land of the Bhagavad Gita,” said the government spokesman referring to 700-verse Hindu epic which tells the tale of the guru referred to in the city’s name: master archer and revered teacher Dronacharya. However, the BJP government has long been criticized for being exclusive and intolerant of non-Hindu Indians, especially Muslims. While Guragon/Gurugram’s population is diverse with Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian residents, Hindus remain the majority in the city. The move to re-Sanskrit-ize the city’s name, as well as the BJP’s reference to religious text, has undoubtedly been interpreted by some as the flexing of political muscles over the minorities. This notion has been underscored by Guragon/Gurugram’s Mayor Vimal Yadav’s announcement that the city is considering erecting a statue of Dronacharya at a main intersection. “After the approval of the State government to change the name, we are also thinking of having Guru Dronacharya’s pictures displayed at all the city entrances,” he said.
Meanwhile, some influential personalities in India have criticized the name change as a futile exercise while there are big infrastructural challenges facing the rapidly urbanizing city. “Changing names of cities and towns is such a waste of time money energy. Better to improve roads, infrastructure,” tweeted lauded author and CNN blogger Madhuri Banerjee. Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda also tweeted, in Hindi: “Changing the name of Gurgaon to Gurugram is a blow to the culture, language and history of Haryana.‘Gram’ is not our word. Why has this happened?”
Opposition politician Randeep Surjewala of the Indian National Congress Party also spoke out, tweeting “Renaming Gurgaon, which has an International branding,is an exercise in pure superficiality. BJP Govt should create essential infrastructure [sic],” no doubt referring to the established position Gurgaon has on the international business map, and the undermining its renaming could cause. Indeed, Gurgaon/Gurugram is the Indian home of up to 250 Fortune 500 companies’ headquarters and a bustling internationally reaching economy. Despite this prosperity, however, the city faces regular power cuts due to an overburdened network, notoriously bad traffic and water scarcity. Urban activist and World Resources Institute India’s Cities and Transport department manager Sarika Panda Bhatt said: “They should look at changing the road-mobility situation and the waste management situation. What is urgently required in Gurgaon, or Gurugram, is to bring radical changes in the development of this city.”