Shakespeare said, “What’s there in the name?” If he had lived in the age of democracy, he would not have said it because in name lies the identity and it forms of the core of politics in a democratic nation-state. Further, if the state happens to be like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka or any other developing country with a long colonial past, dysfunctional government structures, poor administration and corruption rampant in the system, the politics and ultimately the democracy finds a safe shelter in fictitious issues of identity. This is so because real issues such as infrastructure development, economic growth, human resource development and socio-political reforms are boring and not so exciting for the people, hopeless and chafing under the burden of dysfunctional governance and overly preoccupied with existential and survival issues. I guess this was the reason, Ayatollah Khamani said, “I did not stage a revolution to slash down the prices of a watermelon.”
Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, Calcutta became Kolkata, Mysore became Mysuru, Bangalore became Bengaluru, and now Allahabad becomes Prayaagraj. Before the row over Allahabad issue showed any signs of settling down, I came across the demands for renaming Muzaffarabad as Lakshminagar. The love for changing names continues after the long 70 years of India’s independence and hopefully, it will go on in the future too. Although we talk of India as an emergent world power, a new mover and shaker in the emerging world order, it seems that the hangover of the history is not yet over. It still lays buried deep inside the subconscious of the Indian sub-continent. Moreover, it beautifully explains the dichotomy of India’s nurturing of the ambitious space program on one hand and periodically making attempts to reclaim the history. Indeed, India is not just a country of diverse people and faiths but also of diverse time-zones existing simultaneously and the diverse psychological states existing peacefully but not without frictions.
Coming back to the main theme of this article i.e. renaming of Allahabad as Prayaagraj, I must say, the issue needs a little more of factual elaboration. First and foremost, Akbar did not rename the city as “Allahabad”. He had named it as Illaha-bas. “Illaha” in Arabic is a generic word for God and Allah is the Islamic God. The official records of Mughal era mention the city as Illaha-bas which basically means the city of Gods. Later, it was British who Islamized the name and changed it to Allahabad, the reasons for which are hardly honest as playing communal politics was one of the main pillars of British statecraft. Hence, personally, I believe that Hindu nationalists have actually paid their tributes to the secular soul of the Mughal emperor Akbar, though unwillingly and unknowingly.
Secondly, Allahabad, Illaha-bas or Prayagraj is a city of immense historical and spiritual importance in India. It is at the site of the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna and Saraswati, the three holy rivers of Hindu mythology, philosophy and the spiritual legacy. Hinduism as a spiritual operative system has always worked at a deeply psychological level and through various rituals and customs; certain symbols have been deeply ingrained in the sub-conscious of a Hindu mind. For example, it is mandatory for a Hindu to visit four dhams, 12 jyotirlingas (Shiva temples) and 52 Shakti Pithas (temples of the mother goddess). The rivers such as Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, Sindhu, Kaveri and Godavari have very deep spiritual and religious significance for Hindus. Bathing in the zones where holy rivers like Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati mingle with each other, gives a Hindu a divine merit. Hence, Prayaag or Allahabad constitutes the very essence of Hindu identity. In other words, a Hindu has the same reverence for Prayag, which a Muslim has for Mecca and Medina. Further, Praayaag was the capital of the mighty Gupta Empire which is a symbol of the ancient glory of Hindus. Hence, any analysis of such incidents like the renaming of Allahabad and other cities has to be seen in a historical context. One-sided criticism of such initiatives as the examples of Hindu extremism or populism disregards history and is unapologetic in a very biased way, about the wrongs that Hindus faced in the past.
It is interesting to note that even after 70 years of independence; such symbolic initiatives are powerful enough to influence popular perceptions. It is because of the fact though India became independent; the Indian National Congress never addressed the sentiments of Hindus in India, in an adequate and respectful manner. After independence, when prominent Congress leader from Gujarat, KM Munshi demanded of the government to organize the construction of Somnath temple, (it was destroyed by Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi in 1025), the western-educated and westernized PM Nehru objected to it, citing that in a secular country the government has nothing to do with religious matters. President Rajendra Prasad disagreed with Nehru and participated in the inauguration of the temple. Similarly, Hindu temples were brought under state control whereas the minorities were given sufficient control over their religious places. Hindu code bill regulated Hindu customs and marriages whereas there was no such requirement for minorities. They received constitutional protection. Even in history writing, the academicians allegedly promoted by the successive Congress governments whitewashed the chapters of excesses against the Hindus by Arab and Turkish tyrants. Even the brutal rulers like Aurangzeb, Tipu Sultan and Allaudidn Khiljhi have been glorified in the history books. Hence, even now the Hindu mind feels that they have not received their fair due and they still need to reclaim their history. Had Congress addressed the Hindu concerns in a respectful manner and made its secularism a genuine, honest and truthful principle of governance, rather than a discriminatory and devious political tool to garner minority votes, the questions and concerns over Hindu identity would have lost their relevance by now.
Further, it must be noted that it’s not only the Hindu nationalist parties or elements that are favouring such moves. Neither is it only against the medieval rulers. As noted above, the nationalist fervour has also led to the renaming of cities like Madras and Bombay which were developed by the British. Even the regional parties who profess great loyalties to secularism have also supported renaming of the cities in the past. For example, Mamta Banerjee, who has taken on the flag of secularism (though in its uniquely ruthless and violent style) after the political demise of Congress, enthusiastically supported the change from Calcutta to Kolkata.
The trend of revivalism or revisiting history by Hindu nationalist organizations in the form of populist demands like renaming towns is not something encouraging. In recent years, it has become identified with the rising Hindu nationalism after 2014. Moreover, it happens more so in cases like Muzaffarnagar. The district was a victim of a worse form of communal violence in 2013. After that, it has witnessed a spike in communal passions and radicalization in both the communities i.e. Hindus and Muslims. When seen in light with the facts mentioned above, the demand of renaming it as Lakshminagar gets directly linked to the communal divide between the two communities. Then, political interests get into the fray. As a result, even the genuine demands for an objective rewriting of history gets politically stained and ultimately add on to communal hatred. Further, I would also like to state that objective rewriting of history needs to be done in an unbiased manner. Once the larger project of historical inquiry is conducted in earnest, there remains no need for petty communal moves like renaming places. In fact, the old names can be retained as souvenirs of history seen objectively, not as good or bad.
Having discussed the identity issues and the historical baggage at length, I would like to argue that it is high time; we moved from such symbolic and superficial gestures and address the core issues of governance and politics. Even if we want to address the questions of identity the issue will remain unaddressed without an objective and impartial reading and writing of the history. Such an attempt will serve genuine academic objectives rather than facilitating narrow political gains at the stake of national interests and communal harmony.
Further, the desire to reclaim the glories of history is not unusual. It comes from the most primary human sentiments. However, the effort should not be driven by hatred and false pride. While doing this, I would recommend that an attempt should also be made to explore the reasons for the defeat at the hands of foreign powers. The factors including our own civilizational distortions, corruptions, moral decadence, insular attitude and the lack of scientific outlook which all led to the mighty collapse of India’s ancient glory at the hands of foreign invaders must be pondered upon and right lessons need to be learned from history. Such lessons need to be applied in the current context, not with the historical baggage of hatred, but with an open, tolerant and inclusive mind.