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Fifth column

October 20, 2018

Being Akbar in India


October 20, 2018

A little less than a century after he left for his heavenly abode, the famous satirist Akbar Hussain Rizvi, popularly known as Akbar Allahabadi, whose curt sarcasm and intelligent parody remain unparalleled in Urdu literature, is being lampooned by the ravages of the times.

Earlier this week, the BJP-led Uttar Pradesh (UP) government, headed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, changed the name of Akbar Allahabadi’s birth city. There is no Allahabad anymore and the joke is on two Akbars – the one who cherished the city and added it to his pen name, and the other, Akbar the Great, who named the city in the 16th century.

But now, it is called Prayagraj, turning the famous satirist into Akbar Prayagraji, retrospectively. According to the official government spokesperson, Sidhartha Nath Singh, “the name change was a longstanding demand of the people”. Terming the belief that the place was always called Allahabad as a “delusion”, he claimed that the error has now been corrected by reverting to the ‘original name’. “We are only giving back the name the place had for 500 years… This would preserve the Vedic and pauranik pehchan (historic identity)”. He also announced plans to change the names of Allahabad University, the Allahabad High Court, and railway stations and many other government institutions in the city to reflect the mood of the time.

Ever since the BJP assumed power in UP, the government has been going into overdrive to reintroduce a contesting historical narrative that questions the Muslim past of the state and often pits it against the popular and resurgent Hindutva narrative that sees the Muslim past of India as an alien period that needs to be erased – both from history and people’s memory.

The Adityanath government is also proposing to change the name of historic provincial capital Lucknow to Lakshmanpur. In August, his government renamed the Mughalsarai Railway Station after Deendayal Upadhyaya, one of the founders of the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP.

In 2017, the UP government had deleted the iconic Taj Mahal from its official tourism guide, displaying its overt aversion for anything connected with the country’s Muslim past. CM Adityanath has previously expressed his abhorrence for the Taj Mahal as it “did not reflect the Indian culture” and claimed the monument was “made by the blood and sweat of Bharat Mata’s sons”. Around the same time, Sangeet Singh Som, a BJP legislator, called the memorial “a blot on Indian history and culture” and said that Indian history “would be rewritten to erase Mughal emperors from it”.

This even includes Akbar the Great, the apostate Mughal who left the fold of Islam to build his own religion as a political tool to cobble together diverse socio-religious streams within India and assemble alliances through his marriages into different religions. Notwithstanding his challenge to the Islamic creed, he is seen as a closet Muslim or worse a hidden ‘Islamist’ whose secularism was faux. His mention in history textbooks has already been excised or dumbed-down as he is no longer seen to be relevant to the new image of India that the BJP wants to produce.

In 2016, a plethora of BJP leaders, including former army chief VK Singh, who is currently a federal minister, campaigned to rename the famous Akbar Road in New Delhi. One BJP leader likened Akbar to Hitler and demanded that the road should immediately be renamed after Maharana Pratap, a 16th-century Rajput king of Mewar, who was defeated by Akbar’s forces – a conquest that was later avenged by Pratap who defeated the Mughals at a later battle.

Naming has become an important tool for the BJP to rediscover India’s history in order to reorient its future. Commenting on the decision to change Allahabad’s name, Amandeep Sandhu, a Punjabi writer and novelist, termed it as right-wing bluster “to go back in the mists of time to reclaim their history from mythology that, in his opinion, “exposes the dual-face of the right-wing approach to people’s stories”.

Thankfully, the Hindu right-wing doesn’t loathe all the Akbars – some are not only tolerated but rewarded also. MJ Akbar, the newspaper editor-turned-politician who jumped ship from the secular-oriented Congress party to the BJP a few years back, was a junior minister in the BJP government led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But this week – like the other two historic Akbars – MJ, as the journalist is known among his friends, was left ravaged. He had to resign from his ministerial job after he came under mounting pressure over his alleged misdemeanours against women journalists that spanned over several decades.

At first, MJ Akbar, true to his belligerent spirit, put on a defiant face and dubbed “the accounts malicious and intended to defame him”. As he initiated legal proceedings against one of the accusing journalists, Priya Ramani, this provoked several other women to join the chorus detailing his alleged unsavoury advances and assaults, leaving him with little choice but to resentfully throw in the towel.

The BJP had loved MJ Akbar because he fell within the special category of an ‘ideal Indian Muslim’ as he proudly celebrated his Hindu ancestry and wilfully sought to distance himself from the Muslim part of his heritage. In his well-received book, ‘Blood Brothers’, that MJ gifted a signed copy to me almost a decade back during our first meeting at a London café, he traces his Hindu ancestry with wonderful mastery.

Interestingly, Akbar’s grandfather, who was a Hindu, was also called Prayag – which is part of the name that replaces Allahabad. As a child, Prayag, on the verge of starvation, was saved and adopted by a Muslim family. He later converted to Islam, took on the name Rahmatullah and married a Kashmiri woman. A Sanskrit name, Prayag means a “place of sacrifice, confluence or meeting place”.

According to Agni Purana, one of the 18 major ancient Hindu texts, Prayag is the place where the three holy rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati – meet. As a confident and new Prayag rises from the ashes of the Mughal Allahabad, the seed of Rahmatullah alias erstwhile Prayag drowns at the confluence of power, privilege and extremely bad behaviour. Sensing from the latest reactions from the BJP leaders, Prayag’s MJ will have to fight it alone and the outcome seems quite obvious.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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