“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
— Juliet in Willian Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Centuries after the English playwright Shakespeare wrote this, people in power seem to be obsessed with names — particularly with renaming places in the states.
In Himachal Pradesh, had it not been for the sane advice of a historian and noted author, the capital Shimla could have been renamed as “Shyamala” as per the demand of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in 2018. The demand was raised around the time Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh renamed Allahabad as Prayagraj and Faizabad as Ayodhya.
The VHP was quick to use the UP’s example to push its case for renaming Shimla as “Shyamala” — purportedly the name driven from local deity worshiped in the hills before the British arrival in the region. The demand was supported by senior BJP leader and former minister Vipin Singh Parmar, who was also the Speaker of Himachal assembly till the November 2022 elections.
Chief Minister Jairam Thakur consulted some old residents of Shimla and a local historian who advised against changing the identity of Shimla. The name was not changed.
The historian, who does not wish to be named, said there was no historic basis to the name suggested by the VHP.
“I told the Chief Minister that there is no historic evidence or context specific to the name Shyamala being suggested. There are no scientific justifications either. One can’t erase history just in a stroke. After all, Shimla has lived its name and fame internationally as a hill destination of immense value to the state,” says this historian to Outlook on the condition of anonymity.
Attempts to change names in Himachal Pradesh
This was not the first time when VHP had raised the issue. It had also raised the demand earlier when the BJP government in Haryana renamed Gurgaon as Gurugram — apparently linking it to the Mahabharata’s Guru Dronacharya.
Virbhadra Singh, Himachal’s six-time Chief Minister and most well-read politician of the state, rejected the demand outright.
He said, “The renaming of Shimla and landmarks associated with British rule will not be allowed. Tomorrow, they may say that Virbhadra Singh should be renamed too. Shimla is known internationally and the question of changing its name does not arise.”
Virbhadra maintained that renaming places and buildings did not serve any purpose.
But there have been demands frequent demands to rename public buildings, institutions, and schemes in Himachal for a variety of reasons.
In 1990-91, Chief Minister Shanta Kumar took a decision at the Cabinet to rename Dalhousie —a hill station established by Lord Dalhousie in 1854— as Subhash Nagar as mark of respect to freedom fighter Subash Chandra Bose, who had stayed in the town for some time.
When Congress came to power and Virbhadra became CM in 1993, he did not implement the decision. Instead, he reversed the decision to ensure that Dalhousie remains Dalhousie as it’s also a place of international importance like Shimla.
Even now, Shanta Kumar holds the view that Dalhousie should be renamed. Former BJP minister Virender Kanwar had raised the issue again in January 2022 in the run-up to assembly elections.
During Shanta Kumar’s chief ministerial tenure in 1990-92, the state guest house Peterhoff —earlier run as a hotel by state-owned Tourism Development Corporation— was also renamed as Meghdoot. The British-era landmark, which housed several Viceroys and then Governors, had also once housed the Punjab High Court. It was in this building that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathu Ram Godse was tried.
In 1981, when Peterhoff was gutted in a devastating fire, the majestic building was subsequently rebuilt and it now serves as hotel-cum-state guest house where CM Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu is currently lodged as he awaits his shifting to Oakover — official residence of the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh.
In 1990-91, when Shanta Kumar was Chief Minister he had also renamed Oakover as Shail Kunj. The Congress later reverted to Oakover. Since Shanta Kumar, no CM —whether of Congress or BJP— has renamed it, including Virbhadra Singh, Prem Kumar Dhumal, and Jairam Thakur.
British-era heritage sites in Shimla
Shimla served as the summer capital of British India between 1864 and 1939. It currently has 100-plus British-era heritage buildings. Some of these buildings have been gutted in raging winter fires over the years. Yet there are institutions, including hospitals, schools, colleges, Gaiety Theatre, and Town Hall holding on to the legacies of Viceroys and Governors General.
The Ellerslie, the Himachal Pradesh government Secretariat, is the finest example of British colonial architecture, designed by Lieutenant Colonel HS Abbott for government use in 1886. Before construction, the old building was pulled down and rebuilt to be used by the Military Department of erstwhile Punjab Government. Due to this fact, today it is also known as the Ellerslie, though it has undergone major internal changes and recently a lift was also installed for three floors.
Nehru, Gandhis, Upadhyay — Shimla's new names
The name-change fantasies do rounds in Himachal as BJP and Congress governments alternate in Himachal, which has a unique tradition of changing government every election.
The British-era Lady Reading Hospital, a hospital dedicated to mother and child care, is now known as Kamala Nehru Hospital. It was renamed by Virbhadra Singh. His predecessor and successor Shanta Kumar had renamed Ripon Hospital as Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital. Both continue to be so.
Himachal most sought-after Indira Gandhi medical college (IGMC) Hospital was known as Snowdown Hospital during the British rule.
Raaja Bhasin, author of several books on Shimla, is opposed to altering identities of the landmark sites, places, and buildings.
He tells Outlook, “Though Shimla of today is nothing but Ludhiana on a hill-top in view of massive urbanisation, I will not support any demand or move to rename the town or its landmarks — all parts of colonial history.”
“After all, these landmarks were built by our masons and workmen and from local materials. Simla’s spelling changed to Shimla only because it better synchronised its pronunciation in Hindi as Shimla. It can’t be Shyamala.”
Over the years, the names of government schemes changed quite frequently in Himachal Pradesh. Many development or welfare schemes launched by the Congress government under different names after Pt Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, or Rajiv Gandhi were relaunched by the successor BJP governments under different names.
Ganesh Dutt, a BJP vice-president, blames it on the Congress governments led by Virbhadra Singh for renaming the BJP government’s innovative schemes, projects, and institutions.
To quote some examples, Dutt refers to the Atal Ambulance Scheme started during the tenure of Prem Kumar Dhumal that the Congress changed. He says the name of Antyodaya was also changed.
The Congress on the other hand flashes a long list of name changes by the BJP governments led by Shanta Kumar, Prem Kumar Dhumal, and Jairam Thakur.
“They (BJP) tried to temper with a historical fact relating to Rohtang Tunnel, a foundation stone for which was laid by Sonia Gandhi on June 28, 2010 as Chairman of the National Advisory Council in the presence of then Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, Defence Minister AK Antony, Minister of State for Defence MM Pallam Raju, and Steel Minister Virbhadra Singh,” says Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu.
The 9.01 km long tunnel named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 3, 2020, but the plaque relating to Sonia Gandhi was not put at the tunnel along with that of Modi.
Sukhu adds, “We don't want to rename the tunnel as a mark of respect for Vajpayee Ji. He was our Prime Minister and had great love for Himachal Pradesh, but the government wants the Centre to direct Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to bring back Sonia Gandhi’s plaque and restore it at the tunnel along with that of Prime Minister Modi.”