There is a sudden surge in changing names of places in India. As the national elections for parliament slated for the next year draw closer, the ruling right-wing Hindu party, BJP, has woken up to change the names of those towns and cities across the country whose names have a Muslim connection or ‘Islamic’ sounding resonance.
These are being replaced by titles from Hindu mythology, which are aplenty in a country that has a rich repository of folklore that is now recast as an authentic wellspring of ancient India’s glorious history that is now validated by politicians who yearn to milk it.
After the BJP-led government in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the largest province with a population of more than 20 crore, approved renaming one of its top cities, Allahabad, as Prayagraj, the provincial cabinet presided over by hard-line Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath decided to rename Faizabad as Ayodhya. The hard-line Hindutva supporters are physically and vocally against anything that has remotest connection with Muslim culture, including the Urdu language which is often portrayed as the idiom of the invading barbarians who destroyed the soul of India.
The BJP is certainly anti-Urdu but has, of late, rejigged its slogans and political taglines with a lavish use of Urdu, not as a language but as expression, for it offers better and attractive sounding word alternatives than those available in Hindi that is heavily inflected with the unsharpened sounds of Sanskrit.
When UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced that Faizabad would be changed to Ayodhya, he claimed the new name represented India’s “Aan, baan aur shaan” – all hree words borrowed from Urdu. In May this year, upon completing four years in federal government, the BJP launched a Twitter hashtag, “Saaf Niyat Sahi Vikas”; in this only ‘vikas’ was a Hindi word. In a recent campaign even the word ‘vikas’ was changed to an overwhelmingly Urdu word, ‘tarraqi’. “Bas vaade nahin, taraqqi ke pakke iraade” read a party billboard campaign. The only downside from the puritanical perspective was that each word of the slogan was in Urdu, a language that is being associated with mlecchas, the Sanskrit word for foreigners and barbarians and a term increasingly used for Muslims.
The latest name changes have provoked further demands to “rename foreign Muslim names to protect Hindu signs and symbols”. HariBakht, a website that claims to “spread history, knowledge and facts about Hinduism and Bharat”, lists “at least 1200 two-tier and three-tier cities and towns in India [that] symbolise cruel tyranny and loot of invaders” where the “renaming was done to subdue the legacy of Hindus and glorify undeserving anti-Vedic Islam (sic.) principles”.
According to the website, “the names of these cities have [a] heinous background and remind all of us demonic invasion of unscrupulous mlecchas (Muslims)”. It demands that the “Indian government should start renaming the places and restore the lost glory of Hindu history”. The website, which is operating for the last two decades and seems to exert a lot of influence upon BJP politicians, stresses changing “Mughal names to protect native culture of Bharat and stop Islamisation”. The website also lists 15 Indian cities with Muslim or Muslim-sounding names and offers alternatives, some of which have now been adopted such as Mughal Sarai to Deen Dayal and Allahabad to Prayag. It also suggests Karnavati as an alternate name for Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat.
Last week, the deputy chief minister of the province, Nitin Patel, said his government was considering renaming the city as Karnavati if the ruling party managed to “muster support from people”. There are also demands for renaming Agra as Agravan, Muzzaffarnagar to Laxmi Nagar, Hyderabad to Bhagyanagar, Bhopal to Bhojpal, Patna to Patlipura, Osmanabad to Dharashiv – and the list goes on. One of the BJP’s national spokesperson, Sambit Patra, recently threatened a Muslim participant during a live television debate that if he (the Muslim) did not stop talking “the mosques will be renamed into Hindu names”. Islamophobia has been so mainstreamed in India that such blatant illegal behaviour with violent undertones hardly gets noticed let alone reprimanded.
Noted Indian historian and Aligarh Muslim University professor emeritus Irfan Habib, wading into the name change controversy, advised the BJP to consider changing the name of its top leader, Amit Shah, because the name “Shah is of Persian origin”. He even taunted the party because even Gujarat, the province where the Hindutva forces enjoy unbridled support, “is of Persian origin” which, according to the historian, was previously called Gujaratra. Earlier, he had termed the BJP’s call for renaming Muzaffarnagar to Laxmi Nagar as a blatantly communal demand.
Peeved by the spree of name changes, Om Prakash Rajbhar, a cabinet minister in the BJP-led UP government whose Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party is in alliance with the ruling party, has challenged the party to first change the names of its three Muslim faces – Shahnawaz Hussain, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Mohsin Raza. Incidentally, Rajbhar represents the Zahoorabad constituency in Ghazipur District.
Although the latest obsession with changing names of places has generally been seen as part of the normative behaviour of new India’s civilisational project – and, therefore, by and large acceptable – it has attracted some limited criticism from intellectuals, mainly from the fringes.
Leading public intellectual and journalist Siddharth Varadarajan who runs a publicly-funded website, The Wire, tweeted that “Asia should be renamed Jambudwipa, India as Bharatvarsha, [and] UP as Sri Ramchandraji Janamsthan Pradesh (SRJP)”. He also wondered what should be done about Lucknow. Another journalist and author, Meera Sanyal, suggested ‘Unluckynow’ as the new name for Lucknow, the capital of UP. Another social media user called the former model-turned-BJP politician Smriti Irani who is India’s Textiles Minister as anti-national because of her Persian surname. He demanded Prime Minister Modi to act immediately to replace her surname with an appropriate pure Indian iteration.
Post-script: In the spirit of name change, an eatery in Udhaipur in Rajasthan has retitled its menu. According to the Indian journalist-turned-author, Saba Naqvi, who tweeted a photograph of the menu, soy has been duly rechristened as ‘vegetarian meat’. The other delicacies on offer include vegetarian meat tikka, vegetarian meat malai tikka, vegetarian meat masala, vegetarian meat khatta masala and vegetarian meat biryani!