Renaming India, Rewriting History

Featured Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

This essay was originally written as a submission for Amity Law School’s 3rd National Essay Writing Competition on Nation and Nationalism. This piece was awarded All India Rank 1.

STALIN FALSIFIED PHOTOGRAPHS. Hitler burnt books. India’s obsession with renaming public spaces is a desi contribution to the universal phenomenon of rewriting history for political ends. The Marxist Historian, Eric Hobsbawm writes, “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: We supply the essential raw material for the market.

History is the essential ingredient that goes into making any kind of nationalism: the more inclusive Indian nationalism as well as the narrow religious nationalisms. It is helpful to study the recent spate of changing the names of public spaces with Islamic sounding names to more “Hindu” or “Sanskritized” names from this framework. It is not mindless cultural vandalism by people who don’t know what they are doing. It can’t be reduced to the routine exercise of wooing voters before an election. Rewriting & distorting history is an essential part of the very project of Hindu nationalism.

Hobsbawm further writes,

A nationalist version of a country’s history consists of anachronism, omission, contextualization, and in extreme cases, lies.

It’s no surprise that history has become a battleground for a lot of ideological fights in our country. The Indian nationalists tried to weave a history that was inclusive & respectful to the varied diversity of the country. The Hindu nationalism, on the other hand, privileges the Hindu religious identity as predominant & distorts the histories of other communities like the Muslims. While the nationalist histories too aren’t immune to the seduction of manipulation of the historical narrative to suit one’s end, the Hindu nationalist version of history is outright inimical to the democratic fabric of our society.

A version of history told by figures ranging from Vivekananda to Dayanand Saraswati depicts a glorious Hindu past from which the Indian society has gradually declined. This decline made the Indians easy prey to the foreign invaders, first Muslims & then British. It is a version of history in which the Hindus have been victims of oppression by foreign rulers for the last 1200 years. This reading is discernible in Prime Minister’s phrase “Twelve hundred years of servitude”. Only if we revive the ancient past, we will regain the lost glory, goes the argument. In the case of Muslim nationalism, the deviation from the fundamentals of Islam was seen to be their fall from grace. Their solution was to go back to the basics, to a more fundamentalist Islam. In the case of Hindu nationalism, the past had to be invented. The story of 1200 years of “slave mentality” doesn’t hold water when you look back at the past.

In her essay “Reflections on Nationalism and History”, Romila Thapar provides two powerful arguments against this narrative. First, the Hindus are not a homogenous people who have always lived in an egalitarian utopia that the Hindu nationalist imagine. The caste Hindus have oppressed the lower castes & Dalits for over two millennia. This subjection has been legitimized by the Hindu scriptures themselves & the upper castes have found this hierarchy quite justifiable. Some continue to do so. Secondly, the history of Hinduism in the past 1200 years presents a very different trajectory than what the Hindu nationalists want us to believe. Hinduism has been as vibrant as ever. The kind of Hinduism practised by most Indians today, the Bhakti & the tantric traditions, originated in the last thousand years. The bhajans of Mira & Surdas and the poetry of Kabir & Tukaram were all composed in this period. This period saw the blooming of several new renditions of Ramayana like the ones by Tulsidasa & Krittivasa. There have been several achievements by Hindu Scholars in other fields from literature to mathematics. Madhava’s “Sarvadarshansamgraha” on the prevailing schools of philosophy, Samaysundra’s “Artharatnavali” on linguistic explorations & belief systems were written in this period. Sayana’s exposition of Rigveda in the fourteenth century, numerous commentaries on Dharmashastra, the list goes on. Far from being victimized, the Hindu culture flourished in this period & benefited a lot from its interface with other cultures.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from the Bhakti Movement

One of the brightest examples of such a cultural confluence was the syncretic faith that the Mughal Emperor Akbar tried to propagate. Although the experiment failed, the mention of “Ilahi” or the divine as against the Islamic “Allah” found mention in the name of the city “Illahabas” that Akbar founded. This city was recently renamed to Prayagraj. Prayag literally translates to “confluence” in Sanskrit & hence, the area along the confluence of the rivers Ganga & Yamuna is called Prayag. It got the name “Prayagraj” as it was referred to as the king of pilgrimages in the Hindu mythology. The city of Allahabad was never called Prayag or Prayagraj. Prayag was just a small part of the city of Allahabad. In the late 16th century, Akbar founded the city “Illahabas” on the bank of the river Ganga. The name itself was an amalgamation of two cultures — the Hindustani suffix ‘basa’ or home added to the Arabic word for “divine”. The Mughal Emperor can be regarded as one of the architects of Modern India with a vision of plural and inclusive society. The name ‘Illahabas’ was later anglicized by the British to Allahabad. This mispronounced name was mistaken to be associated with the word “Allah”. As the Hindi saying goes, Dhoondne se toh khuda bhi milta hai (If you look for it, you can even find the god), the Hindu right was able to manufacture an opportunity to bolster their pro-Hindu credentials. A Hindu holy city which was renamed by the alien Mughals is finally restored to its original name, is how the renaming intervention is being advertised. This is the best story that the Hindu Right can find. It reinforces the Hindutva narrative of the victimization of Hindus for a thousand years & the ruling party is painted as the saviour who finally restored the old glory. A Vedic golden age is imagined & convenient history is invented to suit a particular political narrative.

A Vedic golden age is a foundational myth for the Hindu ethno-nationalist. This imagined golden age was a time when women were held in honour, child marriage was unknown, people were politically & economically free & the caste system had not acquired the rigidity it would later attain. This is an invention of a past that wasn’t. All the above-mentioned traits are just the characteristics of Western individualism that have been imported to ancient India. If the historicity of this myth is brought into question, the entire project of Hindutva stands exposed. So, the Hindu nationalists have been obsessed, almost paranoid with Indian history. From throwing eggs on historians of the Hindu religion to commissioning school textbooks to fit the Hindutva narrative, history is the default tool to fight other kinds of nationalism.

Ernest Renan observed in 1882,

Forgetting, even getting history wrong, is an essential factor in the formation of nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is a danger to nationality.

When the Hindu nationalist mobilized against the dredging of Adam’s bridge for the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, their primary objection wasn’t about the sacredness of the bridge which many Hindus believe was created by Lord Rama. The Hindu right was adamant on emphasizing the historicity of the Ram Setu or Rama’s bridge. The renaming of public spaces is just another deliberate instance of getting the history wrong. The past needs to change because the present demands so.

A few years ago, the Haryana government headed by Bharatiya Janata Party rechristened the erstwhile Gurgaon to its new name Gurugram (the village of the guru). The guru in question is Guru Dronacharya, the teacher of archery in the epic Mahabharata. In the story popular among upper-caste Hindus, Eklavya, a low-caste student of Dronacharya is asked to cut-off his thumb by the same teacher who refused to accept him as a student because of his low birth. This narrative that evolved under the influence of Brahminical hegemony was circulated with a strong emphasis on Eklavya’s sacrifice in the service of his teacher. Today, the Dronacharya doesn’t come off as an ideal teacher. In an alternative reading, Dalits have pointed out that how Dronacharya asked for a “guru Dakshina” in the form of Eklavya’s thumb so as to prevent him from usurping the rank of the best archer in the world, which Dronacharya wanted Arjuna to occupy. This story is also seen as one of the resilience of the Dalits in the face of injustice & their ability to acquire education in spite of their socio-economic status. Both the narratives are in the service of particular political ends: the Bahujan Samaj Party has endorsed the Dalit narrative while the RSS takes pride in the former. The latter narrative is in consonance with the constitutional goals of pulling the Dalits from millennia-old socio-economic oppression. The former narrative is frankly anachronistic in this age of merit. The renaming of Gurgaon is an attempt to glorify a regressive past & privilege the narratives of upper-caste Hindus over other identities. The forgoing of the vernacular “gaon” in favour of the Sanskrit “gram” also strikes of a history that privileges upper-caste Hindu values rather than the inclusive character of our constitution.

If the Indian history is to Hindu Nationalists really what opium is to drug addicts, it is safe to say that the most preferred drug of the Hindu Right is the history of the Mughal Empire. In their version of history, all the Muslim rulers — Delhi Sultanate, the Deccan sultans & the Mughals — are all foreigners who looted India. While Babar, the first Mughal Emperor, may have come to India from abroad but his descendants were as Indian as one can get. If they looted India, they spent all the proceeds of the loot in India itself instead of sending it to some far off land as the British did. Sultans or even the great Mughals & that includes the much reviled Aurangzeb did not go to Mecca or Medina. They went to the dargah of Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer & Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. Islam in India & the Muslim rulers in India were as much Indian as any Rajput or Maratha. If & when they destroyed temples, it was for political reasons rather than religious ones as the Hindu right like to pretend.

Temples were the Banks of yesteryear; that’s where the money used to be. If Babur had plundered the twenty-first century India. he would have attacked some commercial bank like State Bank of India.

Historians like Audrey Truschke argue that the vilification of the Muslim rulers & the claim that they despoiled the Hindu land is “neither a continuous historical memory nor based on accurate records of the past”. As the Historian, KM Panikkar has shown even the liberal & tolerant rulers like Asoka, Akbar, Jai Singh, Shahu Maharaj & Wajid Ali Shah do not get a mention in this history. The Hindutva version of Indian history is simplistic: Hindu- Good. Muslim- Bad. So, the renaming continues.

Aurangzeb road was renamed after former President Abdul Kalam, replacing a supposedly “Bad Muslim” with a “Good Muslim”. While this was rationalized by recounting the distorted history of the Mughal ruler, it was just the start of stripping public spaces of any reference to the Mughals. The iconic Akbar road was renamed to Maharana Pratap road. This involves another rewriting of history. Some Rajasthani textbooks portray the latter as the victor in the battle of Haldighati against the Mughal emperor Akbar. How then did Akbar go on to rule the country for the next three decades? In the words of Vivek Agnihotri, the Indian incarnation of Joseph Mccarthy, who made a career out of accusations of treason without any regard to evidence, “Who said facts are facts?”

How was this inferiority complex born? Why are the Hindu nationalists so insecure even when eighty per cent of the country’s population belong to the Hindu faith? The answer does not lie in premodern history. The colonization of the country brought with it a need to introspect. “Why is the country subjugated by a puny little Island that pompously called itself Great Britain?”, they asked.

One of the answers was given by V.D. Savarkar in his book “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?”. Like all the European nationalisms, it looked for an enemy within. In protestant countries of Europe, the Catholics were the problem. In Catholic countries, protestant were the problem. All over Europe, the Jews came to signify everything that was wrong with their nations. In India, the Muslims were blamed. Then came, the second Sarsanghchalak of RSS, MS Golwalkar. The ideas in his book “We or the Nationhood defined” almost mirrored Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews. It was so virulent that the even RSS has distanced itself from that work. To make this narrative more palatable to the majority of upper caste Indians in North India, Deen Dayal Upadhyay appropriated some elements from Gandhian discourse and sprinkled them over the same virulent ideology that Golwalkar espoused.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

A.G. Noorani, the constitutional expert, calls Deen Dayal Upadhyay a “Merchant of Hate”. Our Prime Minister, addressing his party’s National Council in September 2016, reiterated the former’s words, “do not appease Muslims; do not shun Muslims but purify them.” While the spokesperson of the party tried to give the word “purity” a palatable spin, what it really refers to is the notion of “shuddhi” rituals propounded by Hindu revivalists like Dayanand Saraswati. It referred to the reconversion of Dalits who had become Muslims or Christians. Such an emphasis on Shuddhi betrays a suspicion of Muslims & doubts their loyalty; that they aren’t loyal to India but to Mecca & Medina. The large crowds that gather at the dargahs of Nizamuddin Auliya, Mu’in al-Din Chishti & numerous other saints is a testament to the fact that while the ideologues may be attracted to Mecca or Medina, the popular Islam practised in the Indian subcontinent is largely reverent to local sacred sites. The Sufi saints didn’t go to Mecca & Medina but they engaged in an intense spiritual conversation with yogis, making their homes in India besides Hindu shrines. The “purification” as Deen Dayal Upadhyay believed was the solution to all our woes is redundant in the case of Indian Muslims. Such suspicions only tend to alienate Indian Muslims who are already in a dire socio-economic position in Modern India. The Hindi Movie “Mulk” by Anubhav Sinha beautifully paints the tragedy of Indian Muslims. When the character played by Rishi Kapoor is asked to prove his loyalty towards the nation, he replies:

“Hum unhe apna banaye kis tarah? Woh hume apna samjhte hi nahi. (How do we make them our own they have never accepted us as one among them?”

Jan Sangh & its successor Bharatiya Janata Party have accepted this philosophy as their official philosophy. In the words of A.G. Noorani, for Upadhyaya, the Indian Muslims “were to be treated as hostages to bring Pakistan to heel.” With a year dedicated to the centenary celebration of Upadhyay’s birth, naming numerous government schemes after him & renaming the emblematic Mughalsarai Junction to Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Railway Junction, the Hindu right is trying to elevate a rabidly anti-muslim ideologue to a position that has till now been reserved only for Mahatma Gandhi.

Professor Apoorvanand from the University of Delhi calls this incessant renaming of public spaces a “cultural genocide”. This may come off as an exaggeration typical of the polarizing times we live in when the ideological “other” is considered to be the worst there can be. There is actually some validity to the use of the term “cultural genocide” for what’s happening in India. We may not be able to tick every box in the checklist of what it means to commit cultural genocide but if we are to believe professor Apoorvanand, this “Sanskritization” of our geography is just a small teaser to the full-fledged project. While its bloodier counterpart, physical genocide, is well defined in International law, the concept of cultural genocide is complicated. Raphael Lemkin coined the word ‘genocide’, defined it not just as physical destruction of a group but as a broader concept that involves deliberate destruction of a group on a cultural level. This translates into annihilation of the essential foundations of the group’s life.

The Islamic-sounding names of various public spaces like the Mughalsarai Railway junction or the Urdu Bazaar or the names of cities like Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Ahmednagar, Faizabad are a testament to the fact that the Muslims in India contributed as much to the cultural life of India as any other group. It is a rebuke to all those who question the loyalty of Indian Muslims, a reminder that this country belongs to each citizen of India & not to a certain community — a sentiment captured in the words of the Urdu poet Rahat Indori.

Jo aaj Sahib-e-masnad hai, kal nahi honge
Kirayedar hai, jaati makaan thodi hai
Sabhi ka khoon mila hai yahan ki mitti me,
Kisi ke baap ka hindusthan thodi hai

The Shayari loosely translates to — The ones sitting on the throne today, won’t be there tomorrow; They are just tenant, They don’t own the house. The soil of this land is infused with the blood of all; Hindustan isn’t a fief of a single community.

What’s the way out of this madness? The BJP party president said, “no one can dethrone BJP for the next 50 years”. But the aforementioned Shayari by Rahat Indori makes it’s very clear, the Hindu Nationalists are just tenants occupying the highest seat of the Indian democracy. The people of the nation can always get them out of that seat. That’s how a democracy works. But what can be done when the people themselves have fallen for the narrative of the golden past that needs to be revived? A US-based journalist conducted a poll on Twitter asking what Indians thought about the recent renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj. A whopping 90% out of the total 6,450 people answered that it was a good choice. Such figures make one doubt one’s own convictions. Is our’s the wrong way?

I think the problem lies in distancing oneself from the word “Nationalism”. The Hindu Right has appropriated the term and anybody who subscribes to the adjective “nationalist” is seen to be primitive by the progressives & secularist. Nationalism doesn’t need to be a dirty word. As is commonly misunderstood, Nationalism is not a homogenous entity. The Nationalism that Hitler invoked was entirely different from the nationalism that Gandhi invoked.

The European nationalism was essentially aggrandizing nationalism that put the nation above the people. It was about the status & the “wealth of nations” & not about improving the standards of living of the people that constituted it. In contrast, the nationalism that arose in anti-colonial movements across the world was inclusive. It was first & foremost about the people. This sentiment was captured in Gandhi’s quote about how the essence of freedom was in wiping the tears from the eyes of every Indian. While the European nationalism tried finding an enemy within, the Indian nationalism tried to be supportive of all communities because a fight with the mighty empire couldn’t be fought if we were to bicker among ourselves. The Hindu nationalism is a western import that is clothed with the Hindu religion. It is aggrandizing in nature, puts the interest of the nation above the people & survives on the fear of the internal enemy.

Related: Nationalism Good or Bad?

So, let there be new hospitals by the name of Begum Hazrat Mahal & Wajid Ali Shah. Let there be new world-class schools affordable even to the most downtrodden by the name of Rammohan Roy & Keshub Chandra Sen. Let there be new universities by the name of Asoka & Akbar. This narrow religious nationalism cannot be countered with globalism or scepticism towards nationalism. It can only be countered with the Indian nationalism that is unabashedly secular, inclusive & in the service of the people. After this, if we are named names, we can always brazenly retort with those words made of gold. 

“Yeh Hindustan kisi ke baap ko thodi hai!”

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

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