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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 51 New Delhi December 8, 2018

Renaming Places, Rewriting History

Sunday 9 December 2018

by Aishwarya Bhuta

“Abhito haur naam badalne hain,” (more names are yet to be changed) proclaimed Yogi Adityanath even before he was named the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that his Cabinet has approved the proposal of renaming the historic city of Allahabad as Prayagraj. Barely three months ago, in August 2018, Mughalsarai Junction in UP was rechristened Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction after the RSS ideologue. Faizabad is now to be known as Ayodhya. This spate of renaming places must not be looked at in isolation, but under the broad frameworks of nationalism and assertion of Hindutva identity. Anderson referred to nations as ‘imagined’ political communities. These political imaginaries are manifested through various national symbols. These could be in the tangible form of the flag, emblem, or monuments; or intangible forms such as an anthem, song, names, or language. Of the latter, names of places are some of the most enduring national symbols. They can outlive artefacts and heritage structures that once defined the cultural land-scapes and later become vestiges of ancient civilisations. Hence, place names are an essential characteristic of national as well as territorial identity.

The renaming of Allahabad as Prayagraj has been justified on two grounds—reinstatement of the original Sanskrit name and rectification of the historical wrongs committed by Mughal rulers. The Cabinet Ministers claimed that this was done before the iconic Kumbh Mela to be held in January 2019, considering the rich religious, cultural, and historical heritage of the city. It must be noted that this is being projected not as change but revival of the five-centuries- old name.

Here history is implicitly being used as a tool to camouflage the communal politics of the BJP. Considering the historical context, it was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who built the city in the 16th century and named it Illahabas (abode of the divinity). This was later anglicised to Allahabad by the colonial rulers and had been the same since. Prayag referred to the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati; and not to the city itself. The recurring attempts towards revival of the glorious past of the Hindu heartland shifts the narrative towards the rectification of the earlier injustices committed by Mughal rulers. Here the damages inflicted by the colonial masters is conveniently not touched upon.

Replacing Islamic-sounding names with Sanskrit/Hindi names is not a new phenomenon. As the MP of his constituency, Gorakhpur, Adityanath had called for renaming several localities, the alternatives clearly averse to any Islamic references. For instance, Urdu Bazaar as Hindi Bazaar, Humayun Nagar as Hanuman Nagar, and Islampur as Ishwarpur. Although these changes are not yet official, the trend seems to be highly problematic and reeks of Islamophobia as well as Right-wing Hindu nationalism. Be it through rewriting school textbooks or unnecessary proposals such as these, manipulation and distortion of historical facts has been the preferred modus operandi for the ruling BJP Government. The dangerous narrative of avenging for the historical injustice inflicted upon Hindus by the Muslim (Mughal) rulers is being popularised. This polarisation also ensures consolidation of the upper-caste Hindu vote-bank. While Allahabad has previously been a core of RSS politics, UP continues to be a fulcrum of national politics as it constitutes the highest number of Lok Sabha seats.

Changing names aims towards blurring history and obliviating stories. All that is antithetical to the brand of nationalism practised by the BJP-RSS has to be diluted from public memory by imposing Hindutva. For this, facts are distorted and misrepresented; past rituals and traditions are romanticised. New narratives are fabricated and old ones reinvented. Some Mughal rulers are demonised while past BJP leaders are idolised. Name changes are thus crude methods of moulding history for political expediency.

An interesting claim was made by the UP Government spokesperson, Shrikant Sharma, who refuted all objections to renaming as baseless. He declared that it is the right of the government to rename any city and that more roads and places would be renamed, if required. Who bestows this right upon the government, and on what grounds can this right be exercised? Can it be (mis)used to propagate a particular ideology and threaten a minority group? It is not only discriminating and exclusionary, but also undemocratic because the citizens never participated in this decision-making process. The demand for renaming never arose from citizens, which makes it a diktat rather than a collective decision.

In a multicultural society like India, such government actions cannot go uncontested. Eminent historian Irfan Habib also condemns the malicious intent of furthering their political agenda. He contends that the government is trying to polarise people in the present by creating false dichotomies of the past. The fundamental distinction between state and government is that the former deploys force while the latter tries to resolve conflicts through sanctions that do not involve force. However, arbitrary renaming can be seen as an instance of symbolic violence perpetrated by the government on the people, in this case Muslims, by villainising them as enemies of Hindus. It further alienates them and makes them feel vulnerable because the state and its institutions are hostile to them. Besides, it is an attack on the composite culture of the city where both Hindus and Muslims have coexisted since centuries.

The Yogi Government is keen on promoting the Hindutva-centric brand of nationalism practised by the BJP-RSS. Allahabad has always been Prayag for the RSS; this name-changing exercise shall give a further impetus to its ongoing efforts of reshaping history in a communal and divisive framework.The Hindui-sation and saffronisation of India’s most populated State will surely have implications on the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Names are symbolic of identity as well as history. Renaming is not only a political but also communal project. Replacing an Islamic name entails a communal rewriting such that ancient Hindu history supersedes medieval Muslim history. It is done with a view to obliterating the history of Islam in India. The Muslim is projected as a demon from whom the Hindu religion and nation must be protected. Although Allahabad is one of the holiest cities for the Hindus, it is renowned for its rich syncretic traditions. Any act of renaming is a disrespect to the core values of pluralism and tolerance that are quintessential to the idea and spirit of India as a nation.

The renaming of Allahabad as Prayagraj is not the first instance of its kind. Names of several streets, markets, localities, and railway stations have been altered and Hinduised (naming after religious sites or the like) or politicised (naming after political leaders of the party in power) in Delhi, Mumbai and many parts of the country. On the one hand, there are huge economic costs involved in the form of the waste of resources for paperwork and other official procedures, which could have otherwise been used for constructive developmental projects. On the other are losses such as fissures created in the memories and lived experiences of people as well as in the secular fabric of the society. It leads to fragmentation and disrupts communal harmony, further deepening the fault-lines among various communities.

Nomenclature is one of the principal instruments of assertion of territorial and national identity. It is used to preserve history and culture, protect sovereignty, and enforce a sense of belonging and shared values in the ‘imagined’ community. Toponymy thus becomes an integral element of the ideological system of the state, or government in power. To validate these fabricated narratives of correcting historical injustices as well as the need to reaffirm Hindutva identity against ‘others’ is to digress from the pressing challenges of development.

Places are not named objectively; they bear, generate and reflect contexts. They are spatio-temporal symbols with historical, cultural, and geographical along with political significance. They reflect the political environment, ideologies and processes that revolve around the lives of individuals and communities residing therein. Replacing names that have been as old as people’s experiences is an audacious endeavour of distancing communities from their past and imposing the Hindutva ideology on them if they want to live there in the present. It is undemocratic and exclusionary as it does not take into account the will of the people, especially the minorities and other marginalised sections.

The imposition of the Hindutva ideology in the name of nationalism cannot be justified on any ground. It would be a grave mistake to allow a religious identity to stand for a national identity. More importantly, it is an erosion of the secular and democratic values that are en-shrined in the Constitution. Renaming Allahabad or any other place will not transform it or solve its problems overnight. As a deeply political and communal project of inducing fear, it does everything but address concrete issues.

Aishwarya Bhuta is pursuing MA in Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

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