When the Shiv Sena party came to power in Maharashtra in 1995, it officially renamed Bombay as Mumbai as a gesture of discarding imperialist baggage and asserting Maharashtrian nativism. When Bharatiya Janata Party’s Adityanath took charge in Uttar Pradesh, he asserted his Hindutva ideology by renaming Allahabad as Prayagraj and Mughalsarai as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Nagar.
Now, Maharashtra’s tri-party coalition government has turned its attention to caste. On December 2, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s office announced that the state would rename all villages, settlements and localities bearing caste-based names that point to the caste identities of the people living there.
According to the government, this would mean renaming places like “Maharwada”, “Brahmanwada” and “Mali galli” with more progressive names like Bhim Nagar, Samata Nagar or Kranti Nagar.
The aim of this move, according to social justice minister Dhananjay Munde, is to change people’s mindsets about caste and gradually help abolish the caste system.
Will this actually work? Can removing the “Mahar” from Maharwada change the way a village perceives or treats members of the Dalit Mahar caste? In rural Maharashtra, some anti-caste leaders believe renaming places will make no such difference.
In cities like Mumbai, residents of areas with caste-based names are just as sceptical about the utility or impact of name-changing.
“My area has been called Agripada for years, maybe even centuries,” said Ram Kumar Verma, an auto driver from a slum settlement in Mumbai’s Santacruz suburb. “We will continue to use the old name even if they change it, so what is the point of renaming?”
‘Why change it?’
Agripada in Santacruz, one of at least two Agripadas in Mumbai, is named after the Agri caste of fishers, salt-makers and rice farmers native to north Konkan. Like Verma, who is a migrant from Uttar Pradesh, the Agripada slum is home to daily wage workers from a variety of different castes and communities. A name-change, according to them, would be nothing but a hindrance.
“It will cause so much confusion for anyone trying to find the place,” said Verma.
The second Agripada, located in South Mumbai, is a much larger neighbourhood with a bus stop, school and police station named after it. Its residents, predominantly from middle-class Muslim families, are largely unaware that “Agri” is the name of a caste group.
“I had no idea that our Agripada is named after a caste,” said Mohsin, a medical store owner from the area who did not wish to disclose his full name. Mohsin finds it absurd that the Maharashtra government might rename his area. “If Agri people lived here and named this place after themselves, what’s wrong with that? Why change it?”
Residents of Juhu Koliwada, one of many fishing “villages” in Mumbai named after the Koli caste, echoed similar sentiments.
“People of all communities live here in Koliwada, and the same people will continue to live here even if they remove ‘Koli’ from the name,” said Sheetal Chavan (name changed), a young woman running a general store in Juhu Koliwada. “We don’t really think about caste in Mumbai, but this place is named after the Kolis who live here, and I think they might be offended if the name is changed.”
Chavan was not wrong. Outside the office of the Juhu Tara Koli Samaj fishing association, a group of fishermen pointed out that Kolis were the original inhabitants of Mumbai, and expressed indignation at the prospect of the government changing the name of their village.
“The name Koliwada is a recognition of us and our ancestors, and it’s a famous landmark in the city,” said Haresh Thoti, a resident of Juhu Koliwada and a member of the fishing association. “We don’t have a problem if people from other communities live in Koliwada, but it should be known by our name.”
Kolis are on the list of India’s other backward classes, and Thoti pointed out that the community has historically had to face discrimination from upper caste groups. “If the government wants change names of higher caste areas like Brahmanwada, that’s okay, but lower-caste names should be left alone.”
No implementation plan yet
While the Maharashtra government’s announcement about changing caste-based names has grabbed headlines and created a stir among residents of such places, it might be a long time before state’s plan is actually implemented.
When Scroll.in approached various state government departments in charge of executing the plan, many of the officials had no information on what kind of settlements would be renamed, how they would be identified or how their new names would be determined.
The state’s cabinet, for instance, has instructed the urban and rural development departments to identify all settlements and placed named after castes. But officials in the urban development department did not have any detailed information on their role in the plan, and did not know who would be in charge.
At the rural development department, an official claimed his department had received no instructions from the state cabinet. “We are not going to be identifying villages for name-changing, it must be some other department in charge,” he said.
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