In 1936, India’s first national park was named after Malcolm Hailey, the then governor of the United Provinces. After Independence, it was renamed Ramganga, after the river that flows through the park. In 1956, the protected area was rechristened once again, after Jim Corbett, the hunter-turned-naturalist, whose name had, by then, become part of the forest’s lore — a rare instance of a public place being named for an Englishman after Independence. Now Union Minister of State for Environment, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, has proposed that the park do away with its association with the Englishman. Last week, Choubey reportedly noted in the visitor’s book that he preferred the name “Ramganga National Park”. The Uttarakhand government has reportedly opposed Choubey’s proposal, but the minister’s remarks have drawn justifiable outrage, and stoked fears of a replay of the BJP government’s name-changing spree in the realm of conservation.
Names of public places, cities and streets, no doubt, have close links with the dominant political ideology of an era. But acts of rechristening are most often driven by a simplistic and, at times chauvinistic, reading of the past, one that is insensitive to the layered histories and identities of places. Born in Nainital to English parents, Corbett volunteered for the British Army in both the World Wars. But his writings show him as steeped in the ecosystem of Kumaon and Garhwal. They are suffused with empathy for both the people and nature. Writing about his childhood friend, Kunwar Singh, Corbett recalls, for instance, that “We had a name for every outstanding tree, for every water hole, game track, and nullah”. The naturalist also struck a friendship with freedom fighter and UP’s first chief minister, Govind Ballabh Pant. It was on Pant’s insistence that the celebrated protected area came to be named after Corbett. In 1973, the park became the launchpad of Project Tiger — India’s first tiger protection programme.
In more ways than one, Corbett National Park is a testament to the well-known adage of historians — the past lives in the present. In and around the forests of Uttarakhand, guesthouses, general stores, gift shops, even saloons, carry Corbett’s name. It’s this legacy that led Uttarakhand’s forest minister Harak Singh Rawat to say that it would be “impractical to change the name of the park”. He also added that Corbett “was a legend, a national pride” — a message that his colleague and his party would do well to heed.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 11, 2021 under the title ‘Much in a name’.