Although the politics of renaming has acquired greater public attention since 2014, the plan is part of the saffron fold’s agenda for long.
The Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to rename Allahabad as Prayagraj close on the heels of Mughalsarai railway station being named after Sangh Parivar icon, Deendayal Upadhyay, is nothing but state-sponsored majoritarian cultural assertion with politico-electoral purpose and is against the grain of ideal state policy in a pluralistic society. The announcement, made as India gets into the pre-election driveway, has indisputably been taken with an eye on wooing the Hindu majority and not just in Uttar Pradesh. However, the Yogi Adityanath regime’s decision has to be seen from two prisms.
First, the decision is part of the overall Sangh Parivar-driven politics of renaming streets, markets, commercial hubs, landmarks, railway stations and of course towns and cities. This thinking is driven by an unscientific approach to history wherein mythology is presented as the actual past and an era of infinite glory. This viewpoint does not deem more recent medieval history as anything but brutal repression. Importantly, to popularise a prejudicial narrative among people, leaders of the Sangh Parivar harp on “1,200 years of slavery” clubbing the colonial period with the era starting arrival of Muslim rulers.
Although the politics of renaming has acquired greater public attention since 2014, the plan is part of the saffron fold’s agenda for long. There is a long list of cities and places that are to be renamed whenever the parivar has legislative capacity. Allahabad is the latest after Gurgaon in April 2016, Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi being recast as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road and Mughalsarai. Others in the wish list includes Ahmedabad as Karnavati after Hindu king Karan Dev said to have established the city in the 11th century, Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar after goddess Bhagyalakshmi and Aurangabad as Sambhaji Nagar after Sambhaji, elder son of King Shivaji, captured and executed by the Mughals.
Renaming of cities is a global phenomenon especially in the post-colonial world as new nations, one after another, became independent after the end of the Second World War. The objective was to destabilise or erasing prevailing memory while simultaneously super-imposing history. This phenomenon has been prevalent across countries and spanning decades. In India too, renaming of cities, streets and markers is not new and in the wake of Partition and the nation becoming independent, vestiges of colonial presence were slowly effaced. But the current wave of giving new names to cities is with the sole intention of stamping majoritarian authority.
The first in the list of sites from whose names colonial legacy was removed were streets in New Delhi. Not long after independence Kingsway Road became Rajpath, and Queensway became Janpath; Irwin Road became Baba Kharak Singh Marg; King Edward Road was renamed Maulana Azad Road. Slowly other names too were changed although people still referred to places with old names — Sham Nath Marg was known among people for long as Alipore Road and Ram Manohar Lohia hospital remained Willingdon Hospital till the mid 1980s. The entire exercise, however, was a part of post-colonial purge and most evident in the coronation park in north Delhi which became the biggest graveyard of statues of British noblemen and women.
In contrast, the Sangh Parivar’s effort to rename cities has a sectarian purpose for it is not aimed at removing association with an oppressive past from the collective memory of citizens. Instead, the emphasis is to emphasise imagined or exaggerated repression of one section of society. The effort is also to erase recent historical associations of cities and towns that are more relevant to the times and instead harp back to a mythical era because this perpetuates the propaganda of this government restoring lost glory. It is pertinent to ask which part of Allahabad’s past has greater relevance in contemporary pluralistic context — it having incubated a large number of Prime Ministers and being a major nursery of the nationalist movement, or its mythical and holy association? In any case, modern Allahabad never forgot its past and Prayag remains a railway station and with it being the venue of Kumbh melas every few years and the city’s Hindu past is indelible regardless of which government is in power. However, the UP government wishes to completely ignore its syncretism which makes the city more inclusive.
Because renaming of Allahabad draws on history, the forbidding coincidence of the decision with the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which falls in barely 20 days on November 9-10, cannot be ignored. Also called the “Night of Broken Glass”, the German National Socialist (read Nazi) government let loose forces who vandalised Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews. This pogrom was preceded by a systemic campaign of changing streets names in major German cities, which had a Jewish association and replacing them with so-called heroes of the National Socialist movement. Although this writer refrains from drawing parallels between this regime and the fascist government under Adolf Hitler, this is one occasion when the historical parallel is too stark to ignore.
But the second prism, mentioned at the outset of this article, through which Yogi’s decision must be seen is more important because his government is covering up for its governance deficit. In August, the housing and urban affairs ministry released the result of a survey of 111 cities evaluating the ease of living. Not a single city from UP was among top 30 in this survey — Varanasi and Jhansi were the first UP cities at 33 and 34. Allahabad, the city about which so much chest-thumping has been done, features at 96 on this list: Ghaziabad, Rae Bareli, Agra, Faridabad, Lucknow, Kanpur, Bareilly, Aligarh and Moradabad. Mind you, most of these cities are smaller in size and population and of lesser importance. If the UP government and Sangh Parivar wishes to improve cities, there are better areas to work than to set false targets which divide society.