By Prarthana Mitra
The BJP government in several states has recently woken up to the newly-discovered potential of an administrative power – of changing the names of historic places with historically significant Muslim names into ones lifted, seemingly at random, from Hindu myth and religious texts.
A week after Allahabad was renamed as Prayagraj despite a nationwide outcry, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced during his Diwali appearance in Ayodhya, the decision to rename the district of Faizabad as Ayodhya, citing the region’s place of pride and significance for Hindus.
That’s not all; his call to action seems to have hit the sweet spot for several other regional leaders, including Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani and Telangana BJP MLA Raja Singh who have taken after Adityanath and expressed their wishes to rechristen capital cities Ahmedabad and Hyderabad with the respective names of Karnavati and Bhagyanagar. Maharashtra’s Shiva Sena has also chimed in, reiterating their old demands to rename Aurangabad and Osmanabad as Sambhaji Nagar and Dharashiv, respectively. Himachal Pradesh government in October was already contemplating changing Shimla to Shyamala. On Saturday, BJP leaders also proposed to change the name of Agra to Agrawal.
The thought behind these changes is clearly, if not destructively, political. The timing, as well, is ripe for the picking of hardline Hindu majority sentiment. Furthermore, appeasement doubles as diversionary tactics, given the centre’s failure in tackling far more important issues on which they had gone to polls.
“Where are you from?”
But a lot more is at stake than the ruling party’s desire to stay in power for four more years. This hagiographic renaming spree in BJP-run states has been decried by residents (whose consent was not recorded), historians, the opposition and the liberal media alike, for its attempt to rewrite history, like the time CBSE obliterated the study of Mughal period from history textbooks.
Historian and Aligarh Muslim University professor Irfan Habib spoke to News18, calling this an exercise chasing “imagined glory” and perfectly in line with the RSS ideology. “There is no justification for this other than prejudice,” he said, even likening this to Pakistan’s tendency to remove everything that is not Islamic. Restoring the “glory of Indian past”, ie., saffronisation, is the only agenda, even if it arrives at the cost of selective public memory.
The BJP government has always been culpable for conflating religion with mythology where history seldom has a place. The name of a place, however, in a country as diverse as India, is a mark of cultural identity. And coining a new one that appears to tame the diversity, is a monstrous attack against minority communities whose contributions to the country’s heritage, traditions, and history is not so easy to erase from the past. Rupani’s claim that Ahmedabad symbolises slavery, for example, is a woefully distorted view of history.
“By ‘distorting’ history, the present dispensation is also creating new history,” Amartya Chowdhury, a history student at SOAS, London, told Qrius. “Names can be changed back again, but what I am really worried about is the impact of this disregard for ‘other’ terminologies on the contemporary popular discourse. They are essentially deligitimising a phase of subcontinental history without which there would be no subcontinent or the India today. And they are making it look like it’s alright to do so,” he added.
Furthermore, it is imperative for future generations to be exposed to and enriched by the legacy of their birthplace. Vikas Pandey of BBC recently bemoaned Allahabad’s name change in an article, saying it “killed my city’s soul.” Recounting the true history of the city, Pandey writes about how it was founded and named by Mughal emperor Akbar, and hosts Kumbh Mela, one of the biggest events of Hinduism. Accusing the BJP government of manufacturing communal dispute over a name which Hindus, Muslims and Christians have proudly identified with for centuries, he draws attention to the implications of this name change and the severe identity crisis many like him will now face, when asked, “Where do you come from?”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.