The Haryana government’s decision to rename Gurgaon as Gurugram represents the symbolic coupling of Hindutva and development, the two horses which drew Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chariot across India during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign.
In the politics of symbolism, Gurugram will now become a metaphor for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s desire to embrace the developed world’s economic paradigm without forfeiting the Indian, or rather Hindu, cultural values. To rename Gurgaon as Gurugram is akin to pouring new wine into a vintage bottle.
It is also plain and simple deception.
The Millennium city possesses the ambition of becoming the desi version of Manhattan – its chrome-and-glass buildings shine to awe, its high-rise residential apartments give a crick to the viewer, its spiffy restaurants cater to eclectic tastes, its malls and bars buzz, and villas in fenced neighbourhoods seem to belong to a country in the West.
This architectural mimicking of Manhattan is in a city whose origin, or so the BJP wants to tell us, goes all the way back to the times of Mahabharata. It is the BJP’s way of dressing the city’s secular quest for modernisation – evident in the mushrooming of new businesses and pleasure spots – in Hindu culture.
It is deception because Hindutva did not inspire the city to climb the stairway to heaven. It is deception also because the renaming is just a ruse to self-consciously Hinduise the shared communitarian space. It is to this mission Gurugram has been harnessed.
Gurugram is popularly believed to have been the village where Dronacharya resided. He is said to have asked as a gift the thumb of the lower-caste Eklavya to ensure Arjuna’s supremacy in archery wasn’t challenged. Historians, however, say there is no proof, textual or otherwise, of Gurgaon having been the abode of Dronacharya.
But these historians forget that the BJP has always treated myth as history. It still sneers at those historians who claim that there is no proof that Lord Ram was born at the site where the Babri Masjid once stood in Ayodhya. Faith always trumps evidence in the BJP’s worldview.
From this perspective, the BJP has appropriated Gurgaon for Hindutva, as it had the Babri Masjid in 1992. Gurugram is a metaphor of the endeavour that aims to turn India Hindu, to also Hinduise urban consciousness. Gurgaon was an obstacle in this mission.
After all, the name Gurgaon wasn’t an anglicised or corrupted version of a vernacular name, such as Bombay or Calcutta or Bangalore. It is said to have been a wholesale market for gur (jaggery) – and therefore, the name Gurgaon.
This too is an oral tradition, but it has a palpably secular overtone.
In turning Gurgaon into Gurugram, the BJP seeks to give primacy to religious origin over the secular one in the city’s memory, much in the manner it rewrites history textbooks.
No doubt, Gurugram is an interpolation in the list of places whose names occur in our mythologies. The city will acquire instant antiquity, perhaps even holiness, in the process becoming also the symbol of continuity of our tradition and its modernisation. Years later, it will become a trope for the benefits that accrue from the stitching together of Hindutva and development.
But the myth of Dronacharya also symbolises the treacherous cunningness of upper castes to subordinate subaltern social groups. The BJP’s decision to change Gurgaon into Gurugram is already being seen as an insult to them.
It is seemingly a conundrum why the BJP renamed Gurgaon even as it was celebrating Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary with unprecedented fervour. This contradiction was also manifest in the harsh administrative action taken against Rohith Vemula, provoking the Hyderabad Central University student to commit suicide.
But the BJP’s behaviour appears contradictory only because our assumption is wrong. It knows it cannot become the party of Dalits – and secure their votes in the same proportion as, say, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.
All that the BJP is interested in is to get a certain percentage of Dalit votes for expanding its core of Hindutva followers and upper castes. It is not that the Dalits are a monolith. Among them too subcastes are engaged in competition and acrimony – for instance, Jatavs versus Valmikis.
It is this faultline the BJP wishes to exploit. The National Election Studies of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies for show that the BJP bagged 45% of non-Jatav Scheduled Caste votes in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, up from 8% in 2009; it even bagged 18% of Jatav votes in 2014, against the measly 5% in 2009.
Thus, the BJP’s attempt to appropriate Ambedkar is aimed at holding on to, if not increasing, its gains among Dalits in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. It hopes to lure Dalit voters alienated from Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and from other parties elsewhere.
Simultaneously, it is crucial for the BJP that it doesn’t alienate upper castes. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies study shows that over 70% of every upper caste and Jats voted the BJP in 2014, up from 50-60% it received from each of those castes in 2009.
This means the BJP must walk the tightrope. Every overture of the BJP to Dalits must also have the party send signals to upper castes that their interests are paramount. Thus, Rohith Vemula and his friends must be treated harshly because they assaulted the activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, an upper caste-dominated student outfit.
It is this logic which had the BJP rename Gurgaon even as the prime minister lavished praise on Ambedkar. The BJP’s balancing act also seeks to preserve the Hindu hierarchy in its essence – Dalits will have their schemes for economic uplift, the pride they take in Ambedkar will be recognised, but they will decidedly be shown their place if they were to challenge the upper caste hegemony.
Myths are often re-interpreted. It is possible Gurugram will remind Dalits how they were subordinated through crafty means in ancient times – and how Hindutva and development are the two ends of the shackle that continues to bind them to the lowest peg in the Hindu hierarchy in the 21st century.