Shakespeare be damned, the rose would never smell as good by any other name. Not for India’s right-wing. Not till the 2019 general elections, at least. Across India, in most BJP-ruled states, governments are changing names of cities, streets and railway stations, stripping hundreds of years of history to “reclaim” Indian culture and heritage. It’s as simple as that. Soon after the BJP-led government came to power in 2014, ‘ghar wapsi’ dominated the political discourse as Hindu fringe groups went about reconverting Muslims to their “original” faith, allegedly even forcibly. With the country set for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, now the spotlight has veered towards ‘naam wapsi’.
While the phenomenon of changing names of cities is not new, the raison d’étre is definitely different. Major cities were earlier renamed to wipe out signs of the British Raj—Bombay became Mumbai, Madras changed to Chennai, Calcutta became Kolkata and Bangalore was renamed Bengaluru. The reason given by BJP leaders for the latest name-change spree is to cleanse what the Mughals had sullied. The intent is definitely political as the BJP tries to pit “Hindu pride” against Muslim invaders ahead of the elections.
Allahabad would be officially renamed Prayagraj before lakhs of devotees descend at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna for the Kumbh Mela in January. The legal process may have hindered the government’s plans for construction of the Ram Mandir, it has not deterred CM Yogi Adityanath—who answered to the call Ajay Singh Bisht before he became a monk—from renaming Faizabad district as Ayodhya. In August, the iconic Mughalsarai junction was rechristened Deendayal Upadhyaya junction. Before that, Mughalsarai town itself was renamed after Upadhyaya, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Emboldened by the government’s willingness to change the names of cities, towns and roads—Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was renamed A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road in 2015—demands from lawmakers and organisations are growing to rename other places.
If those demanding ‘naam wapsi’ have their way, Ahmedabad will be renamed Karnavati, Agra will be called Agrawal, Patna will be Patliputra and Pune will go by the name of Jijapur after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s mother Jijabai. Shiv Sena wants the names of Aurangabad, Osmanabad and Khultabad in Marathwada region to be renamed as Sambhaji Nagar, Dharashiv and Ratnaprabha, respectively.
BJP legislator Sangeet Som wants Muzaffarnagar to be named Laxminagar and blames the Mughals for destroying India’s culture. “The Mughals destroyed things related to Hindu religion. In 1633, a nawab named Muzaffar Ali changed the name of the town. We have to reclaim and retain our cultural roots,” Som says. Last year, he waded into a controversy, saying the Taj Mahal was built by “traitors”.
Delhi-based historian Syed Irfan Habib has no doubt that the move to change names is politically motivated. “The purpose is clear. It is to polarise the majority. Demands are being made to change Muslim names. They want to show Muslim rulers and the Mughals as symbols of oppressive rule; as raiders who indulged in genocide,” he says.
BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao denies that this name-change is symbolic. He calls it an effort towards a “cultural renaissance”; an attempt to “connect the current generation to our glorious past, and to erase the deep scars of subjugation that have badly injured our cultural psyche”.
Habib finds the argument flawed. Explaining presentism in historiography as the way of looking at the past with one eye on the present, he says, “At present, both eyes are looking at the past.”
He finds the demand to change Muzaffarnagar to Laxminagar absurd. “Muzaffar Khan was not even a king. He was just a noble who had been given the land as jagir, like many Rajputs. It’s a small sleepy town in the Doab that became important because of its rich fertile soil and proximity to Delhi, the capital even then. It was important for revenue generation,” he explains,.
About Agra—the one place that draws millions of tourists because of the monument of love—Habib says it was founded by Sikandar Lodi and has nothing to do with the Agarwal community. The Agarwal community, he adds, originated in Agroha which is in Haryana. The BJP legislator for North Agra has asked Adityanath to rename it either Agrawal or Agravan.
The historian is, however, not sure if it will reap any political benefit for the BJP as only a small section of the electorate may be swayed by such a move. Nayanjot Lahiri, professor of history at Ashoka University, believes people are not going to vote a party just because it changed some names.
“Though the name-changing is being done with a political purpose, I don’t think it will work electorally. It’s just that it will go down as part of their legacy. They are trying to remove from public domain names of places that are an integral part of our country’s history. It’s a pity. They will be judged poorly by history. They will be seen as insecure for trying to alter the historical landscape,” Lahiri says.
According to her, rather than tackling real issues and problems, the attempt is merely to grab headlines. Lahiri says if the intent is actually to right the historical wrongs, politicians seeking ‘naam wapsi’ would do well to improve the lot of Dalits. “The atrocities against Dalits are well-documented. Will they correct that at the cost of upper castes?”
It is not just historians who are uncomfortable. One of the BJP allies in Uttar Pradesh, OBC leader Om Prakash Rajbhar, who is also a minister in the state cabinet, has accused the Yogi government of doing little about real issues. “This changing of names is being done to divert the minds of backward and oppressed classes who are demanding their rights from the government,” he says. The Muslims also gave us the Grand Trunk Road, the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, he points out. “Should we do away with them too? There are a handful of Muslim leaders in the BJP. Will the party also ask Shahnawaz Hussain, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Mohsin Raza to change their names?”
The minister doesn’t see anything wrong in AMU historian Irfan Habib—not the same person quoted earlier—questioning BJP president Amit Shah’s name. Habib is reported to have said that the ‘Shah’ surname is of Persian origin and not Gujarati, so he should consider changing it. He further added that Gujarat itself is of Persian origin and it was earlier called Gurjaratra.
The founder of the Ahmedabad Community Foundation, Bhavna Ramrakhiani, also vouches for the plurality of Ahmedabad under the Sultanate. The cultural activist says members of the Hindu community held the most important position in the courts of the Muslim rulers, as has been documented by the Nagars themselves. According to her, there was a lot of assimilation of Farsi and Gujarati languages during this time. “The Gujarati language has assimilated maximum Urdu words into it.”
In fact, says Delhi historian Syed Irfan Habib, this heterogeneity of culture is India’s strength. “To expect homogeneity in culture, food, religion, dress is dangerous,” he says, underlining that attempt is at homogenisation of Hinduism itself and this is unfortunate. “Hinduism is vast. You can go to a dargah and still be a Hindu. However, this liberty is not allowed in other religions. It is a monochromatic world for them, while there are shades in Hinduism, and that is the beauty of it,” he adds.