A Bad Name

The decades-long struggle to change a village’s stigmatised moniker

Harpreet Kaur (centre) was one of many students who wrote to the prime minister requesting that their village be allowed to change its name from “Ganda.” debasish sarmah
01 June, 2017

In December of 2015, about 70 students from Class 7 and Class 8 at a government middle school in Fatehabad district, Haryana, wrote letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Most of them mentioned the fact that their village’s name—“Ganda,” which means “dirty” in Hindi—made life extremely difficult for them and their neighbours. “Wherever we go, people insult us. They crack jokes on us,” read one of the letters, by a girl named Harpreet Kaur, who was 13 years old at the time. “We feel ashamed to say the name of our village.”

Several months later, in May of 2016, Pradeep Singh, one of the students who had written to Modi, received a response from the prime minister’s office, informing him that his letter had been forwarded to the office of the deputy commissioner of Fatehabad. The village is still officially called Ganda, but, in January this year, the state of Haryana approved a proposed name change and forwarded the matter to the union ministry of home affairs for its final approval. The villagers want the place to be called Ajit Nagar, after one of the Sikh gurus, as Sikhism is the dominant faith there.

This March, I visited the village. I found that the campaign to rename the place has been going on for at least three decades, and that, while Modi’s response to Pradeep’s letter was cause for optimism among many people from there, the proposed rechristening is still in limbo.

I reached the village after a 45-minute bus ride from Fatehabad bus station. It is a densely populated place with wide streets and cement houses, and is home to about 2,500 people—mostly small farmers.

Pradeep Chopra, a 25-year-old teacher, accompanied me throughout my visit. When I asked him how the village came to be named “Ganda,” he told me, “It is a long story.” He explained that, although there is no recorded history of the naming, village elders had told him when he was young that, before “Ganda,” the place was called “Balavgarh.” That changed at some point in the 1800s, he said, when “the village was flooded and the crops were destroyed. There was a ganda badbu”—a dirty odour—“everywhere.” A British colonial officer came to survey the village, and, “on seeing the dirt and stinking, the official said, ‘Kitna ganda hai yeh gaon’”—how dirty this village is. “From then onwards, the village’s name was Ganda.”

I asked Jaipal Singh, the headmaster of the local school, whether Chopra’s story was true. He said it was, adding that the neighbouring village was “very muddy after the floods,” so it was named “Mud.” Sure enough, I had seen signs bearing that name on my travels earlier that day.

Chopra suggested that I speak with Bamka Arora—a 90-year-old man, possibly the oldest person in the village. Arora was lying down when I met him at his house—a small structure with unpainted cement walls. A poster of a Sikh guru hung near his bed. His account of the naming differed from Chopra’s. Arora spoke in a high-pitched voice, in Punjabi, and his son translated for me. “The name was there long before I was born,” he said. “When I was a child, my grandmother would tell me that the village’s name was Balavgarh.” When the village was flooded at some point in the early 1800s, he said, a group of Mirasis—travelling entertainers—came to visit. After seeing the flooded village, the Mirasis “started making fun of the place, saying, ‘Ganda hai, ganda hai’”—it’s dirty, it’s dirty. After that, he said, the village was called Ganda.

Kawaldeep Singh, a 59-year-old farmer, told me about the discrimination that villagers have been facing for generations. “Ganda gaon ka naam se humein gandey bolte hain” (They call all of us “dirty” because the name of our village is Ganda), he said. Kawaldeep also told me about his father, Harban Singh, who was the sarpanch of the village from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. People “would often write ‘Ganda’ as a suffix to his name—Pradan Harban Singh Ganda,” Kawaldeep said. “I told lot of journalists to at least write ‘village Ganda’ after the name and not just ‘Ganda,’” he continued, but they did not listen. In 1989, Kawaldeep’s father wrote to the Haryana government to ask that the village’s name be changed. “There was some documentation done at the time, but nothing worked out, because of lazy administration,” Kawaldeep said.

Many people recounted similar stories of difficulty. I met Pradeep Singh, the student whose letter was answered by the prime minister’s office. “I feel bad when I see ‘Ganda’ written on wedding invitations,” he told me. Now 13 years old, Pradeep said that he sometimes even cuts the village’s name out from wedding invitations that are sent to his family.

Chopra told me about one instance in which two families were communicating about a potential marriage between a boy who was from Mud and a girl who was from elsewhere. When someone from the girl’s family visited the boy’s house and asked where he was, his mother said, “Woh Ganda kaam karne gaya hai,” by which she meant “He has gone to Ganda to do work.” But the sentence literally translates to “He has gone to do dirty work.”

“The match broke there only,” Chopra said. “The girl’s relatives thought he was involved in some antisocial activity.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Jagga Ram, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Punjabi, is one of the most educated people in the village. He told me how, around a decade ago, as the president of the Shri Guru Nanak Dev Youth Club, he led an effort to change the name. After speaking with village elders, Ram told me, he and his youth-group colleagues went with a name-change application to the local sub-divisional magistrate and district collector. “But at that time, no one heard us,” he said.

In early May, I telephoned Rakesh Khoth, a district development and panchayat officer in Fatehabad, who is handling the village’s proposed name-change. We spoke about other cases of villages wanting to change their names. Usually, he said, such changes are requested because of “religious sentiment,” or a village’s desire to rename itself “in honour of some great personality.” With the “Ganda” case, he said, his office was still waiting for a reply from the home ministry. The ministry’s decision, he said, would be the final one.

Kawaldeep told me that, although he thinks the name-change will still take a while, it will happen this time, because the prime minister’s office has shown its support for the cause. “It is ‘yes’ from the centre. It will change, thanks to the young gudiya,” he said, referring to Harpreet Kaur. (Although Pradeep’s letter was the one that received a direct response, most of the press about the incident has focussed on Harpreet Kaur.)

I met Harpreet at her school. She told me how, during her holidays, she often visits the city of Sirsa, where she stays with an aunt who likes to make hurtful comments about the village. Whenever neighbours would ask about Harpreet, her aunt would reply, “Yeh Ganda gaon se aayi hai,” (She has come from Ganda village).

I asked Harpreet how her aunt reacted to the news of the likely name-change. She replied, smiling, “She still says Ganda will be Ganda only, what difference does changing the name make?”