Residents of the port town of Vasco da Gama in South Goa are peeved. This week, many of them received new ration cards, on which their 472-year-old town, named after the 15th century Portuguese explorer, had been re-christened Sambhaji Nagar, after the 17th century Maratha king.

Believing the change to be a majoritarian ploy of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government, the residents have given it 15 days to revert the address on the document back to its original name. Failing this, they warn, they’ll go on a day-long strike.

For its part, the state unit of the BJP maintains that there was an honest error in the document, which will be corrected. Yet the residents are suspicious.

In the past, the saffron party’s leaders have zealously advocated the renaming the town after Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son, who led military campaigns against the Muslim rulers of the Deccan and Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Besides this, Sambhaji also marched into Portuguese-held Goa in the late 1600s to fight against Luso colonials.

Custodio D’Souza, president of the Old Cross Canoe Owners Association in Vasco da Gama, says he got his National Food Security card listing him as a resident of Sambhaji Nagar on November 30 – a day after the Goa government formally launched the project.

“My father, his father, my grandfather are all proud citizens of Vasco da Gama,” he said on Thursday, after serving the 15-day notice on the government. “This is an effort to change the very identity of our home town and our lives… Instead of giving us good governance, all this government is trying to do is needle the minority community with such tricks and upset Goa’s peace.”

Officials say that nearly 1,500 ration cards with the renamed address have so far been issued by the state civil supplies department in Vasco da Gama, a town that is home to a cosmopolitan population of several thousand people and Goa’s only major port.

Listen to the people

Sambhaji has long been a favourite of Goa’s conservative Hindu politicians, especially from the BJP. In March, Rajendra Arlekar, the Speaker of the Goa legislative assembly and a former MLA from Vasco da Gama, had questioned why places are named after “foreigners”.

“We should have our own names," he said. "This is a worldwide trend…The Vasco railway station was called Sambhaji Nagar. While entering Vasco there was a plaque which said Sambhaji Nagar, the Mormugao municipality signage also said Sambhaji Nagar. Railway tickets also had Sambhaji Nagar printed on them. All this was there, but the issue lagged behind due to political pressure.”

The Director of Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Vikas Gaunekar, too claims that there could be certain pockets in Vasco da Gama, which may have been named Sambhaji Nagar in 1971. However, he refused to comment on the latest controversy.

State BJP president Vinay Tendulkar said the rechristening of Vasco da Gama, often called just Vasco, was an error. “The government should rectify it because the people are objecting to the new name,” he said.

But many like Fr. Gabriel Coutinho, the parish priest of Vasco da Gama’s St Andrew’s Church, are not willing to give the BJP the benefit of doubt. “They have changed the name in a silent manner, which is not healthy," he said. "If they really wanted to rename Vasco da Gama, they could have taken the people in confidence first.”

The writer is the Goa correspondent for the Indo-Asian News Service.