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The Politics of Name: What Will Changing 'Muslim' Names of Cities Accomplish?verified tick

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6 months ago
6 months ago
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The news of changing Allahabad's name to Prayagraj has been making the rounds among Indian citizens, and there have been mixed reactions to the change. Uttar Pradesh’s state cabinet unanimously approved this move by CM Adityanath’s government. According to government spokesperson Sidharth Nath Singh, the change in name will help promote Indian culture at an international level.


Prayagraj is derived from the Sanskrit word Prayag which means offering (often equated to sacrifice). According to Hindu mythology, after Brahma created the Universe, he made his first offering in this area, and hence the name. In 16th century, Mughal king Akbar changed the name to Illaha-bas (Allah’s abode) from Prayagraj. It was later changed to Allahabad under emperor Shah Jahan. This change by UP government does not come as a surprise since under the Modi government and with full blessing of the RSS, about 20 cities have been renamed to their ‘original’ names, including Gurgaon to Gurugram.

India is still reeling from a colonial hangover. A lot of people still call Mumbai Bombay, more from force of habit than anything else. I’ve heard very few people say Bengaluru or Mysuru. Puducherry is a distant dream because Pondicherry has become a part of everyday language. And this is not because we are still slaving for the British colonizers, as some people claim. Or because we have kept our Mughal invaders in our mind with utmost respect. Most of us in our 20s, 30s and above have grown up hearing these old names, and have hence formed a sense of familiarity with them. Sure, often times people correct each other if the old names are used and extremists are quick to call us anti-national, but there is no law against it. So if the goal of changing city names is not to instill a sense of nationalism in the people, what purpose does it serve?

Even a passive bystander will tell you that changing ‘Muslim’ names to original ‘Hindu’ names help parties increase their vote bank. Wielding the power religion and misusing it is the oldest trick in the book of politics. And in a diverse country like India, this trick comes handy when you want the support of a minority religious group. The existence of caste only helps with these political games. By claiming that the party will work for the upliftment and betterment of minorities, they can easily get assured votes from them. This is not just specific to BJP. Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and even Congress has used caste and religion based politics to acquire votes. (In January 2017, the Supreme Court made it illegal for politicians to use religion, caste, race or language to seek votes. According to the SC, electoral decisions need to be dictated by secularism since India is a secular country. Well, on paper at least.)

But the difference between BJP and the rest is that BJP is very skilled at using victimhood to incite a sense of religious retribution among the Hindu population. And renaming cities to make them sound ‘more Hindu’ is a part of this retribution. Why should Hindus have to live with names that barbaric Muslim invaders gave to their sacrosanct places?

Also, it’s not just about Hindu-Muslim etymology. Allahabad stands for a lot more. Even today, a number of public offices have their centres in Allahabad, be it high court, university or any other government departments. Allahabad was the hub of revolutionaries during the Independence movement, and its relationship with 7 out of 15 Prime Ministers has manifested and recorded unparalleled resistance to authoritarian rules and political mobilisation. The name change is not just for vote bank, it is an embossing of insecurity and incompetence veiled under a thin shroud of cultural re-emergence.

Prayag may have been the original name, but what the city is today has happened under the name Allahabad. By taking away that name, one is trivializing the many accomplishments Allahabad as a city has made in the past 5 centuries.

A dear friend of mine, who is originally from Allahabad, told me what the city and the name mean to him. And I quote, “Allahabad more crucially to me is the city of confluence or Sangam. Not just of rivers but all the different cultures across many years. 'Prayag' was an ancient religious town, but the city with its spirit of confluence is at any point more synchronous with the name 'Allahabad'. Under the name of Allahabad, it became the important confluence city of ideas as it is known. And under this name only it recorded its place as an intellectual and administrative centre of importance. Renaming it to Prayag is to plunder all the treasures of culture and ideas this city has accumulated over the last 6-7 centuries. Unless your aim by renaming is to ignore these into oblivion, you wouldn't name it a unidimensional 'Prayag'.”

I agree with him. Using the transparent excuse of promoting Indian culture, the current government is basically trying to garner majoritarian Hindu support and further their Hindutva propaganda. People who are blinded by their misguided passion for religion may not be able to look through this facade, and to be fair, aren’t those the kind of people BJP is targeting?

By Samruddhi Ganvir

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