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Abhinav Pandya

Kerala Floods-A time to Rethink Development Policies than Do Aid Politics

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Kerala Flood

God’s own country, Kerala, became the victim of the nature’s wrath and is experiencing the worst floods of the century. It was all over the news, but not for its backwaters, not even for the age-old rightwing-leftwing rivalry, but for the most devastating floods and a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. The floods left 445 people dead and 15 missing. Within a fortnight, while at least 280,679 people were evacuated, mainly from Chengannur, Pandanad, Aranmula, Aluva, Chalakudy, Kuttanad, and Pandalam.  In the hilly regions like Coorg, floods have caused landslides which have exacerbated the destruction of homes, bridges, homes and road networks.  1/6th of the population of the state has been directly affected, and the central government has declared it as a calamity of the level 3 which means the catastrophe of the severe nature. The flow of water in the deluge has led the opening for the 35 of the 42 dams in the state for the first time.

First of all, it deserves attention to explore why the God’s own country has become a symbol of the God’s wrath. For all the farrago of superstitious explanations for the floods coming from various quarters, it need be clear that the eminent ecologist Gadgil has clearly stated the recent floods as a manmade disaster. The 2011 report submitted by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil had apparently warned the ill-thought development practices were ruining the ecological sustainability of the Western Ghats hill chain, one of the world’s most biodiverse area. The report had advised many states including Kerala and Karnataka to follow sensible and sustainable development policies by restricting activities such as dams, construction, and quarrying near protected forests in hilly areas. The report was rejected by the Ministry as well as by both states. The worst damage had taken place in areas where the Gadgil committee had recommended protection. Indeed, this is a great warning not just for India for the entire sub-continent. South Asia,has lately been on a development-high economic growth rate spree to improve its infrastructure and cater to its fast-increasing population and its demand for jobs, housing, recreation, and food. With the CPEC, this drove has further strengthened with a strong sense of strategic competition and rivalry. However, the states involved need to exercise caution in this rat-race for development.

Coming back to Kerala, this author would like to address the controversial issue of foreign aid for Kerala floods. Many Indian media platforms are running stories of India rejecting foreign assistance from UAE and projecting it as an example of inhumanity. These media stories have strong undertones of turning the issue into a political vendetta against the existing government. The implied meanings suggest that the aid was rejected because the central government is being partial against the state government as the state is run by a non-BJP regime. Further, one can also sense a subtle intent to give a communal color to the issue as the state of Kerala has a substantial Muslim population working in gulf countries, following a Wahabi school of Islam with strong cultural and economic linkages with Arab nations.

However, it appears that the issue is being blown out of proportion.  The media and intellectual quarters are not applying rational minds, and their op-eds are loaded with political baggage. First and foremost, I would like to mention that there was no formal offer of aid through official channels by UAE. It was merely a verbal gesture. Secondly, the policy of not accepting foreign aid was started by former PM Manmohan Singh when US and Japan offered humanitarian assistance during 2013 Uttarakhand floods. Before that in 2004 also, India did not accept the US aid provided for Tsunami rehabilitation. The reason being India is economically self-sufficient, and it has a robust disaster management infrastructure. India is currently the sixth largest economy and 2nd largest in terms of population. It has the ability to generate surplus plus finds for natural and man-made disasters like Kerala floods.  There are paramilitary cadres and organizations like CRPF, Army and National Disaster Response Force with high-quality expertise in the field.

Further, as stated by Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen. VK Singh in the parliament that over the past many years India has become a nation that has given more foreign aid to other countries than it received in the last three years. He also explicitly mentioned that as the country’s international stature and economic heft grows, India should avoid taking aid from foreign countries. Hence accepting foreign assistance does not rhyme well with India’s growing global stature and economic heft.

Another question that comes to mind while accepting foreign aid is its informal and unwritten obligations. If a country takes assistance from a foreign country, in many ways, it may lose its strategic autonomy. Hence, when India is in the position to finance its relief efforts, it would not be sane to accept foreign aid.  Further, the state and center have done a commendable job in disaster management so far in Kerala. The state has provided shelter to one million people in 3000 shelters, and the center has provided the assistance of INR 600 cr. All Indian states have provided financial and other kinds of assistance to Kerala. Many civil servants, politicians and ordinary civilians have donated their one month’s salary to Kerala.

In an interview to the Economic Times, the state CM Vijayan expressed gratitude to center for cooperating and providing relief assistance-“I need to make it clear in no uncertain terms that the government of India was forthcoming and responded positively. PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited the flood-hit areas and have been understanding the situation fully”.

India has sincerely expressed her gratitude to Pakistan’s new government for offering relief assistance but as per the policy, has not accepted it. However, this need not be the reason to deduce that it is a jolt to peace-making efforts between the two countries. In fact, in official and civilian circles Pakistan’s offer has been appreciated. In India, people have strong hopes with Imran Khan’s NayaPakistan. Imran Khan is already a hero in India because of his tree-plantation initiative in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. His earlier interactions with India during his cricket career and his study of Indian states like Bihar prove in no uncertain terms that he has a better understanding of India and its concerns. I believe that his vast public following, sincerity and out-of-the-box thinking makes a perfect combination in achieving a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistan relations provided he get enough support from the deep state and Pak army. On India’s side, Prime Minister Modi has expressed his commitment to good India-Pakistan ties. He has clearly stated that India is looking for constructive and meaningful engagement with Pakistan.

Hence, there is no reason for biased and the hate-mongering Cassandras to portray India’s refusal to accept Pakistan help as an indication of stiffening relations between the two countries and make doomsday predictions. However, it needs to be mentioned that substantial progress and dialogue between India and Pakistan can take place in an overall atmosphere of peace and goodwill.  If the issue of terrorism is addressed, then the sky is the limit for cooperation between India and Pakistan.

Abhinav Pandya

New Frontiers of Terrorism- Social Media, Cyptocurrencies, and Intelligence Reforms

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Counter Terrorism

India’s CT apparatus has not displayed sufficient awareness of the new frontiers of terrorism like social media and the use of cryptocurrencies in terror financing. Social media has emerged as the most lethal weapon in the overall strategy of terrorist organizations. It has been immensely useful in diverse areas such as recruitment, propaganda, the relay of instructions and generating funds. It is a well-accepted fact in the global counterterrorism community that the cyber jihad operations of ISIS played an instrumental role behind the popularity and the reach of ISIS in far-0ff countries. Further, cyber jihad provides a satisfying alternative and a pathway to Jannat (haven) to those who do not want to involve in the armed jihad.

However, CT apparatus woke up to this reality a bit late. It was a British News channel four that informed us about the ISIS recruiter Mehdi Biswas in Bangalore. In J&K social media is playing a most pernicious role in abetting stone pelters and inspiring youth to join militancy. DG Kashmir Mr. Vaid informs that when an encounter begins, more than 300 WhatsApp groups become active sending instructions, locations and other relevant details to the organizers of stone-pelting mobs. In an informal interaction the students of Kashmir University, this author was informed that the videos released by Burhani Wani and Zakir Musa have an immensely powerful appeal among the youth, an appeal that could surpass the propaganda work the 100ds of organized Jamaat-i-Islami cadres. Unfortunately, the levels of the preparedness of India’s CT apparatus are not satisfactory. In most of the states, at the district levels, this author has come across almost dysfunctional cyber security cells. They are mostly understaffed and ill-equipped, manned by a team of two-to-three constables. Their skill-sets are poor. The question is not just about the availability of resources and technology. It is more about the fact that even senior officers do not show enough concern for the cyber threats.

In the world of terror-financing, cryptocurrencies and dark-web have emerged as the matters of grave concern. With the tightening controls on the formal financial system and increasing scrutiny of hawala channels, the future terrorists are likely to use cryptocurrencies for funding terror operations. Crypto- transactions are fast, cheap, extremely-difficult-to-track and anonymous. Further, most of these activities will happen on the dark web. On Darkweb, just like any other online sales portal, one can order things. However, on dark web, one can order all kinds of contraband things like drugs, weapons, IEDs and RDX. India is at high risk because we have a huge segment of gray markets. The quality of vigil kept by regulatory agencies is outmoded, and the reach is limited, not to mention the rampant corruption that prevails. Tracking high-tech crypto-transactions and terrorist activities on the dark web will be a daunting challenge for Indian CT apparatus.

The arena of terror-funding-networks needs attention, as a part of India’s CT approach. However, off late, the focus has been increasing on the areas such as terror financing and radicalization. However, it is too little and too late. The terror funding mechanisms, even the simple ones are highly diffused, sophisticated in operations and have a strong penetration. Moreover, the agencies involved in dealing with the complexities of the terror-financing world, lack sufficient expertise in the field of terror financing.

Indian CT Apparatus is highly fragmented and poorly coordinated. In the federal set-up of India, most of the policing functions lie with the state governments. The state police are understaffed, ill-equipped and poorly trained. Further, they are heavily controlled by political masters and corruption galore. The state intelligence bodies, i.e., CIDs are almost in the state of disrepair. They are considered punishment postings and the officers posted are either incompetent or without political approach or highly corrupt. As a result, the quality of intelligence gathered is very poor, and the whole exercise is just perfunctory. This author came across many senior police officers who would hardly know a difference between Deobandis, barlewis and Ahle-Hadith. If the senior CT personnel lack such basic knowledge of the subject, then one can imagine the malaise that mars the performance of India’s CT apparatus. In one of the  interaction with a senior official from Mumbai Police, this author was told that due to political pressures, they often have to turn a blind eye to increasing radicalization in the state. Intelligence briefs keep piling on for years, but there is hardly any political interest in these matters.

In the intelligence domain, multiple agencies are working on counter-terrorism. IB functions under Home Ministry, RAW and CBI report to the PM, and there are state intelligence bodies which are mentioned in brief in the previous paragraph. Terror financing and money-laundering issues are dealt with by the finance ministry. There appears a turf war-like situation between different agencies and the state and central agencies often compete for resources and bureaucratic autonomy.  All this makes the task of coordination (usually done through joint committees, task forces, and multi-agency centers) and harmonization of intelligence inputs gathered by different agencies very difficult. Before 26/11 there were inputs of a sea-borne threat by central agencies, but they were largely ignored by the coast guards and the Maharashtra State police. They argued that it was not actionable intelligence. Inter-agency coordination has led to intelligence failures in the past also. 9/11 commission report pointed out the lack of inter-agency coordination as one of the causes of the intelligence failures in the September 11 attacks.

Further, our intelligence cadre needs to be upgraded regarding the theoretical understanding of terrorism and counter-terrorism and the latest technological developments in the world of terrorism. The state intelligence agencies are almost dysfunctional, and they need an urgent focus. Besides, the agencies also require a morale boost. Political leadership must ensure that they will not compromise with the core issues of national security and the feedback given by intelligence agencies will be taken seriously to determine a policy and the follow-up action. The officers can visit the UK, US, and Israel for short-term, long-term and mid-career courses in fields like terror-financing, the study of political Islam and the role of media and social media. Counterterrorism experts can be invited for lectures in India’s universities, think tanks and also the training academies of CT forces.

However, after 26/11 India has taken some remarkable initiatives which deserve due credit. National Investigative Agency set-up after Mumbai attacks have played a lynchpin role in busing terror-financing modules in Kashmir. It has emerged as a nodal agency in counterterrorism. National Counter Terrorism Center is a great innovation, but it needs to be vitalized. Expertise from academia, religious studies, the private sector, psychology, sociology, social media experts and artificial intelligence must be roped in to make it a genuinely multi-disciplinary CT agency that generates useful analytical reports. IB ran a successful operation viz. “chakravyuh” and it helped prevent many youngsters from joining ISIS. It is indeed quite surprising that despite having the world’s second largest Muslim population not more than 100 people went to join ISIS from India.

Further marking a significant departure from the past, India has changed its policy with Pakistan also.  In India, a robust CT strategy can never be complete without factoring in the Pakistan question. Engaging Pakistan is quintessential. Then the question arises-which way one should do it? Previously when India exercised restraint and tried to mend fences fearing a nuclear retaliation from Pakistan, Pakistan did not relent and continued supporting proxies in Kashmir and sending Fidayeen squads in Kashmir and other parts of India. However, after the surgical strikes, one finds that Pakistan is under immense pressure to rein in the anti-terrorist groups based in Pakistan. So far, no major attack has taken place in India. Modi government’s policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan and strengthening international pressure on Pakistan through FATF sanctions also seems to be paying dividends. In one his articles for Asia Times, this author explained that nuclear threat by Pakistan is a hoax and nukes were never an option for Pakistan. Therefore, India must adopt a tough and aggressive approach with Pakistan to strike at the roots of terrorism.

Finally, in CT operations the armed forces are fighting a battle which is hybrid in nature. For example, in a typical CASO (cordon and search operation) in Kashmir valley, army cordons a house sheltering a terrorist, on a precise intelligence input, unlike the 90s when they cordoned the entire village. When such cordons take place, WhatsApp groups become active informing about the encounter and inciting the people. The calls are given from the village mosques asking people to assemble for stone-pelting. Within minutes a mob of 7000 to 10,000 gathers. The stone pelters are controlled by CRPF, and J&K Police positioned in the outer circle. Sometimes the crowds become incredibly aggressive and violent. The forces have to use pellets. If they want, they can use AK47 but that will be disproportionate use of force and will raise many ethical questions. Cross-border actors engineer such stone-pelting processions on purpose to make a terrorist encounter appear like an instance of human rights violation by Indian security forces. Many times, the situation demands to call off the entire operation which turns out to be very demoralizing for the armed forces. Moreover, it also gives the terrorists an opportunity to escape.

These days the army has to deal with a new phenomenon of shadow militancy which is a kind of psychological warfare. In this, a terrorist named x is introduced as different individuals in different villages. So when security forces neutralize a foreign terrorist, then someone from the other village will claim that he saw the terrorist x in his village and army lacks the will and strength to kill the terrorist x. As a result, the terrorist x becomes a hero. It is profoundly demoralizing for the military.

Hence, this author would recommend that state police and paramilitary forces should be the mainstay of the CT apparatus when it comes to combat operations. The army is meant to fight a conventional war and kill a foreign enemy. They should not be made to bear the burden of the incompetence of our police forces. The J&K police is the best example to demonstrate that state police can acquire the highest levels of operational efficiency in combat operations with highly trained terrorists of Lashkar and Jaish.  The state police departments and the paramilitary forces need restructuring and overhaul in areas such as command-and-control structure, discipline and the acquisitions of high-quality assault weapons and training. Further, paramilitary forces can be commanded by senior generals from the army as the nature of the operations of CRPF, BSF and SSB are akin to the military than the routing policing. Generalist IPS officers commanding units on deputations are not well accepted in the para-military forces, and the cadre-officers of para-military forces feel demoralized when they are commanded by IPS officers, most of whom hardly have any expertise in counter-terror and insurgency operations.

This author tried to contemplate upon some of the crucial aspects of robust counterterrorism policy. However, it is an extensive subject and needs exploration in detail which is not possible in the space offered by an article. To conclude, this author would like to recommend that CT requires a holistic approach.  We need to strike at the roots of terrorism, and that requires out-of-the-box thinking. A sound CT policy should also think about generating gainful employment opportunities and recreational opportunities for the youth. In the long-run, an alternate narrative needs to be projected. The narrative has to focus on religious harmony, economic development, political representation, nationalism and restoring the dignity of the aggrieved populace.

 

 

 

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Abhinav Pandya

A Brief Overview of Counter-Terrorism Operations in India- Challenges and the Way Ahead

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terrorism

India has been at the receiving end of the terrorism sponsored by Pakistan based actors since 1990s. However, the world community realized the intensity of our pains only after September 11 which made the phenomenon of terrorism, genuinely global. Transnational terrorist organizations shook the world with the well-coordinated network and worldwide operations. The western world, though a late starter took prompt and multifarious measures to tackle the menace of terrorism after September 11. Their response regarding research on the diverse aspects of terrorism, counter-terror operations, technological know-how needed and the smart combing operations was undoubtedly prompt and effective. However,  India despite being at the receiving end of terrorism for almost three decades and even after facing the horrors of 26/11, has not been able to come up with a robust response mechanism and, a long-range counter-terrorism policy. In this essay, the author will discuss the significant shortcomings of India’s counterterrorism (CT) policy, challenges faced by India’s CT forces and policy interventions needed to address the deficiencies.

India’s counter-terrorism approach has mostly been an ad-hoc, operational and reactionary one primarily focusing on the use of force. It has lacked a wide-ranging vision.  This lacuna comes from the fact that there was hardly a serious and systematic effort to understand the phenomenon of terrorism intellectually.  One wonders as to why the majority of the reputed think-tanks and publications on terrorism have originated in the western world. Moreover, even now it is scarce to find a quality study on terrorism issues emanating from India. Terrorism is a very complex phenomenon and entirely different from a conventional security threat; therefore, it needs a nuanced understanding of the problem.

First and foremost,  there has been a tendency among the academic and strategic community to analyze diverse security threats like LWE, the ethnic insurgency in NE, proxy-war in J&K and the incidents of jihadi terrorism through one broad prism of terrorism. Mostly, it has happened for the reasons of political convenience. Especially among the academicians in India, one finds an attitude hesitant to study the issues of Islamic extremism in detail. The problem of jihadi terrorism is a politically sensitive issue, and one finds himself in an uncomfortable zone of being branded a communal if he studies Islamic extremism in India’s socio-political milieu that dwells upon a highly delicate and dangerous interpretation of secularism, driven by petty electoral concerns.  However, an efficient policy mechanism to address these challenges needs a detailed and differentiated analysis. The various security threats mentioned above are very different from each other, though one cannot rule out the convergences and overlapping. Hence, the “one-size-fits-all” approach is highly fallacious.

Secondly, in the policy response to address the challenge of Islamic extremism, the phenomenon of radicalization has not received the much-needed attention. The issue of jihadi terrorism is profound, widespread and multidimensional in nature. In India, mostly we have focused on the military aspects of counter-terror operations. The approach is to wait until someone becomes a terrorist and then neutralize him. Moreover, this narrow approach is amply reflected in the terminology used which mostly hovers around the militant count; weaponry seized, quality of weapons and the encounter deaths. One hardly finds any systematic effort to understand the pre-militancy phases of radicalization that are long-drawn and complex. After one joins a militant group, the only option left is the use of force in the majority of the cases, and it often becomes counter-productive. The security forces kill one terrorist in the Kashmir valley in an encounter, and ten others get inspired and join. What is needed is a rigorous effort to identify the radicalization pathways, the organizations involved, their modus-operandi and the funding channels which all constitute the infrastructure or congenial launching pads for a terrorist organization to emerge, sustain and conduct operations. For example, in J&K mostly the focus is on the activities (primarily clandestine) of Hizbul Mujahiddin such as its recruitment drive, hide-outs and finally the encounters. However, one hardly comes across a robust mechanism to understand and curb the activities of Jamaat-i-Islami which are in open and legal and flourish in the garb of religion. Jamaat-i-Islami provides the necessary cover in which the HM cadres easily move, operate and continue to bleed India. Jamaat-i-Islami provides a ready supply of recruits through its rigorous education system. Jamaat is firmly entrenched in rural areas, and its activities in the rural areas are highly sophisticated. South Kashmir districts such as Pulwama and Shopiyan are hotbeds of terrorism, and they have a strong presence of Jamaat-i-Islami. Jamaat caders function as OGWs(over ground workers) for terrorist organizations and Pak-based ISI handlers. Their activities include spying, providing shelter, food and other logistics assistance to terrorists. Also, with their threatening presence in the village, they intimidate the residents to fall in line with their agenda and not cooperate with Indian security forces. They freely distribute the distorted and violent interpretations of the literature of  extremist scholars such as Syed Qutb, Hasan Banna, Maulana Maududi and Ibn Tamiya in universities, colleges, and other socio-cultural platforms. The extreme radicalization as a result of their activities has almost finished the Sufi Islam of Kashmiris.

Similarly, over the last eight years, Salafis have become very active in Kashmir. Their mosques number more than 700 and are heavily funded by petrodollars. Though they are silent on political issues, it is not without reason that their rise has strongly coincided with the rise of Islamism in Kashmir. Today Islamic state is firmly establishing its footprint in Kashmir. A large number of the followers of Zakir Musa (he raised the idea of Caliphate in Kashmir, and his group Ansaar Ghazwat ul Hind (affiliated to Al Qaida) believes in the ideology of Ahle-Hadith/Salafi. One can find the ISJK (Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir) graffiti on the walls in 90 feets area which has a large concentration of Salafi mosques.

Similarly, in Kerala, Wahhabi proselytization and the resultant radicalization has been going on for last four decades. Malayali diaspora working in the Middle East and charity organizations based in the Gulf have been the primary funders. Over the years, oil money and intense religious propaganda have entrenched a radical and fundamentalist version of Islam in Kerala, that is at odds with India’s indigenous Sufi Islam. Radical Islamist parties like the Popular Front of India have been running conversion camps, terror camps and openly talk of political Islam.  No wonder that Kerala has supplied the largest contingent of ISIS foreign fighters from India. In 2013, IB had released a report that informed that there are 1.8 million Wahhabi followers in India. There is a robust funding channel from Saudi Arabia. USD 124 million was earmarked for setting up four Wahhabi universities, USD 62 million for building 40 mosques, USD 46.5 million for madrasas and USD 15.5 million for the upkeep of existing mosques.

However, such reports have hardly been able to generate any stir at the top echelons of national security. The local police are more incentivized to turn a blind eye to the activities of PFI because pandering such extremist organizations suits the electoral interest of the dominant political parties of Kerala. PFI has also penetrated into the colleges and universities through its affiliate Campus Front of India and in politics through its political front Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Not only this, PFI is expanding into the northern hinterlands of India and the North Eastern states too.

The examples cited above are to convey the gravity of the threat to the readers. However, they are only the tips of the icebergs. This author believes that a robust counterterrorism strategy needs honest and urgent thinking on the issue of radicalization exploring radicalization pathways, funding networks, cross-border connections, its religious and non-religious factors and the role of social media. Also, indeed a robust mechanism to counter the forces of radicalization is also the need of the hour.

Continued in the next part…

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Abhinav Pandya

Allahabad becomes Prayagraj-Just a name change or more than that ?

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Allahabad

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.

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