After Bharatiya Janata Party governments at the Centre and various states began a drive to rechristen cities and places around the country, the name of India’s capital city has suddenly become a matter of debate. Last fortnight, BJP MP Vijay Goel demanded in Parliament that the capital should officially be referred to only as Dilli. He asked for the city’s other names – Dehli in Urdu and Delhi in English – be dropped.

The name “should have its origin in the city’s culture and history”, Goel said, adding, “Many people are anyway confused about the name.”

I don’t know of anyone who is confused about the names. His first argument, though, deserves some discussion. Very few people would disagree with the idea that the name of a city should reflect the history and culture of the place and its people. The real question is whose history and culture the name should reflect and commemorate. The attempt to erase the names Dehli and Delhi is reflective of a monolithic, majoritarian view of history that reduces our past, present, and future into one single understanding.

Ideological documents

Names are ideological documents that reflect social, cultural, and geographical realities, which is why there have been frequent debates over naming and renaming places. In a socially and linguistically diverse country like India, names should embody the histories and cultures of a range of groups groups so that different people can relate themselves to them and call them their own.

Several places around the world have more than one name. For example, the countries that in English are known as Egypt, Jordan, Japan, and Greece are known in Arabic, Japanese, and Greek as Misr, Al-Urdun, Nippon and Hellas.

It is surprising that Vijay Goyal and his party are unaware of our own deep-rooted tradition of assigning multiple names to both people and places. While names of people such as Sita, Mohammad and Mathew reflect their religious backgrounds, Aftab, meaning “sun” and “Surya Prakash” meaning “light of the sun” are not necessarily rooted in religious traditions. Many people in Bihar carrying these names as their official names have aliases. For example, people get nicknames after the day on which they were born. So Jumrati is a boy who was born on Thursday and Sanichri is a girl who was born on Saturday.

Credit: MikeLynch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Personal names could also reflect the season or the social condition in which babies were born. My village in Bihar, Aklu, born at the time of akal or famine, Aghanua, born in the Hindi month of Aghan, and Barsati, born in the rainy season were names of Muslims and Hindus alike.

Similarly, many people were nicknamed something undesirable – such as Bhikhari or beggar, Pheku or thrown away, Gonaura or trash. Many will recall the character from the Amir Khan film Lagan named Kachra or trash. These names, common to Muslims and Hindus, were given to dispel bad omen, especially if the mother had lost previous babies.

Names also express different social relations. Rizwan Ahmad, which represents my official and professional identity, is not what I am known by in my village. To them I am known by, Babloo, a nick-name that denotes an informal relationship that only a few are entitled to use. My nick-name identity evokes an image that my sarkari name does not. I cannot be reduced to either. I am both on different occasions and to different people.

My village

Names of places are not much different. They often represent different histories and cultures that have contributed to the formation of the city and its people. My village has two names: Dumri, used informally by its residents, and Wajid Pur Daulat, the official name as recorded in the Department of Revenue and Land Reforms. The British smartly unified the two and called it Wajid Pur Daulat urf (alias) Dumri. The official name Wajid Pur Daulat has an aura of formality and power. Dumri on the other hand, connotes a more personal relationship – a lived reality to which the people of my village can relate in their daily lives.

The name Dilli is rooted in the popular culture of Delhi and thus reflects an important aspect of its people. The name Delhi, on the other hand, has its origins in the British Raj. Since the name has been adopted into the linguistic repertoire of its educated people, it no longer smacks of British colonialism in the same way as the English language that Indians speak has acquired its own character and form.

Urdu traditions

The name Dehli (aka Shahjahanabad) reflects the century-old Urdu linguistic and cultural traditions. In addition to using the word Dilli, many poets and authors used Dehli to refer to the city. For instance, the name of a famous Urdu magazine from the 19th century was Chiragh-e Dehli.

A 19th century poet Munshi Chandrabhan Kaifi Dehlavi uses the name Dehli in his poetry:

“Kya rang mere shahr ka Gangaa-Jamanihai 

dehli nai ujri hui dehli mein bani hai.” 

 The color of my city is unified

 The new Delhi has been built in the destroyed Delhi.

Another poet Rifat Sarosh uses Dehli on his couplet about Delhi:

“Dekho nigah-e-shauq se dehli ke nazaare 

Tahziib ki Jannat hai ye jamuna ke kinare.” 

  See with longing eyes the view of Delhi

  This is the paradise of civilization on the banks of Jumuna.

Dilli, Dehli,and Delhi are emblems of different linguistic and cultural traditions; they are all our own and reflect the folk, the Muslim and the British contribution to the city and its culture. To purge Dehli and Delhi from the linguistic repertoire of the people is like purging part of the city’s identity. To many people, Dilli, Delhi, Dehli, and Shahjahanabad are names that constitute the palimpsest of cultures, languages, and histories that India is, which cannot be captured by one single name.

Rizwan Ahmad is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Qatar University. His Twitter handle is @rizwanahmad1.