DELHI: Irshadullah, 40, from Allahabad, or what is now known as Prayagraj, finds it difficult to accept the new name of his birthplace — he says that history cannot be changed.
“It’s not the issue of the change of name of a particular place, it’s the question of our existence and history in India,” said Irshadullah, a social worker and political activist from Allahabad, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
His anger and frustration are palpable.
“The only reason why the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government wants to change the name is that it has been given by the Mughal ruler. This I feel is not only an attempt to obliterate India’s Islamic history but also to create a wedge in the multicultural society in the name of religion,” Irshadullah said.
Last week, in a slew of decisions by the BJP government in UP led by the controversial monk and Hindu nationalist politician Yogi Adityanath, the names of the medieval city of Allahabad and Faizabad were renamed Prayagraj and Ayodhya respectively.
Allahabad was established by the 16th-century Mughal ruler Akbar, adjacent to the ancient city of Prayagraj, a revered place for Hindus. Similarly, Faizabad also cropped up next to the Hindu city of Ayodhaya.
Prayagraj is believed to be a place for a highly revered Hindu saint, and Ayodhya is allegedly the birthplace of the supreme Hindu deity, Ram.
However, Hindu right-wing politicians claim that Allahabad and Faizabad were built replacing Hindu names.
“The Mughal ruler Akbar built the city Allahabad without disturbing the area closer to the river, known as Prayagraj,” Irshadullah said.
“With a name you have history associated with it. When you change it, you tamper with its historicity. The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh and the center, they don’t have anything substantial to demonstrate as their achievement — that’s why they are indulging in this political polarization,” Irshadullah said.
Faizabad-based historian, Prof. N.K. Tiwari of Dr. Rammanohar Lohia Avadh University, said the Mughals never changed the name of any Hindu place of worship.
“From the historical point of view, the change of names of medieval cities is wrong. But the political climate now is such that if you raise your voice you are termed anti-Hindu or anti-national. The whole episode has made me highly uncomfortable,” Tiwari told Arab News.
The opposition parties in UP have called the move “a desperate attempt to hoodwink people before the elections next year.”
“They failed as a government and now they are back on their agenda of divisive politics with vehemence. But people now understand the BJP’s politics,” said Sanjay Tiwari, a local leader of the Congress Party in Allahabad.
But the BJP said the “name change is a normal process.”
“India, which was subjugated twice — first by the Mughals and second by the British — must rediscover its soul. Name change is one way of remembering our past glory,” said Sudesh Verma, a national spokesperson for the BJP.
“Prayagraj or Ayodhya sounds more cultural than Allahabad or Faizabad respectively,” he said.
While talking to Arab News, he denied changing Muslim names. “India cannot be complete without Muslims and other minorities. But it is true that a nation cannot celebrate invaders, rapists and those who forcibly converted using swords and were religious bigots,” Verma said.
Earlier this year, the BJP government in UP renamed Mughalsarai, an iconic railway station in the eastern part of the state, after its founder, Deen Dayal Upadhaya.
Last year, the Yogi government deleted the Taj Mahal in Agra from the list of tourist sites, but after huge protests the regime revised the list.
Now the BJP legislator from Agra Jagan Prasad Garg wants to rename the historic city “Agrawal.” “Agra has originally been the place for the Hindu Agrawal community and the Mughal ruler changed its name to Agra. I demand the restoration of the old name,” Garg told Arab News.
The demand for the name change has come for the historic city of Ahmadabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat, the home state of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
“Changing the name itself is not an issue. Names have been changed in the past also. Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata because they wanted to correct the pronunciation,” said the historian Prof. Aditya Mukherjee from Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
“These changes are being done to demonize the Muslims. The picture is being created that Muslims are foreigners, they invaded India, they did all kinds of crime and, therefore, their name should be changed,” he said.
“One of the essential features of fascism is that it creates the enemy from within. What the BJP is doing is that they are creating an enemy out of Muslims, Christians, Dalits and other minorities,” Mukherjee told Arab News.
“The consequences for this kind of politics would be dangerous for the country. We must fight it. Each one of us — intellectuals, teachers, writers, journalists — we need to fight it when there is time. There is no point in fighting when the damage has penetrated deep.”
Irshadullah refused to change the place of birth in his birth certificate. “It is not easy to adapt to the change, I have with Allahabad so many memories, they can change the name of my city, but I will still call it Allahabad, not Prayagraj.”