Even as the ruling Shiv Sena and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rattle sabres over renaming Aurangabad to ‘Sambhajinagar’, BJP legislator Gopichand Padalkar has now demanded that Ahmednagar be renamed ‘Ahilyanagar’ after the saintly 18th century Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar.
Mr. Padalkar, an MLC and an influential Dhangar (shepherd) community leader, has written to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray regarding this issue while stating that the name change of Ahmednagar from its Muslim connotations to ‘Ahilyanagar’ would be a tribute to the memory of the queen, who ruled the Malwa region and was born in Chaundi in Ahmednagar district.
Ahilyabai Holkar, the daughter-in-law of Malharrao Holkar – the famous Maratha chieftain who expanded the Maratha presence in north and central India – ruled the Malwa region after her father in-law’s death and became a byword for benevolent governance. She is revered by the Dhangar community.
In seeking the renaming of Ahmednagar, Mr. Padalkar has also warned that he would intensify the agitation if the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government did not take note of his demand.
Recently, on May 31 - the birth anniversary of Ahilyabai Holkar - the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which shares power with the Shiv Sena and the Congress in the State, had organised a grand event in Chaundi which was attended by NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his grandnephew, MLA Rohit Pawar.
There was some chaos after police authorities barred Mr. Padalkar and other BJP activists from entering Chaundi, following which BJP Leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis accused the NCP of trying to ‘hijack’ the legacy of Ahilyabai Holkar.
“Local policemen barred ordinary citizens from entering Chaundi just because Sharad Pawar and his grand-nephew Rohit were present there. It is appalling that Mr. Pawar on the one hand supports Nawab Malik, who has connections with [underworld gangster] Dawood Ibrahim, and treats Ahilyabai’s birth anniversary as an event to launch his grandson,” said. Mr. Padalkar in his letter to Chief Minister Thackeray, who is president of the ruling Shiv Sena.
Remarking that Ahilyadevi Holkar’s life was an inspiration for the people of the country, he said that the legendary queen “rebuilt temples that were destroyed by Muslim rulers.”
“Hence, Ahmednagar should be renamed as a tribute to her memory as Ahilyanagar. The Chief Minister should take a quick decision on this and prove that the control of the [MVA] government is in his hands and not that of Mr. Pawar’s,” said Mr. Padalkar.
Meanwhile, NCP leader Amol Mitkari and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar dismissed Mr. Padalkar’s demands by remarking that there were more pressing issues facing the State than a name change.
Wooing of Dhangar community
The politics around Ahilyabhai Holkar has been intermittently playing out in Maharashtra since 2014 and has resolved around garnering support from the Dhangar community by the ruling party or powers.
Before the 2014 Assembly election, the BJP had lured some leaders of the community into its fold with promises of reservation.
Earlier, renaming of the Solapur University to the ‘Punyashlok Ahilyadevi Holkar University’ had been a long-standing demand of the Dhangar community, which has intensified its agitation of seeking a higher quota in the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST). The demand had been finally fulfilled ahead of the 2019 Assembly election when Mr. Fadnavis was Chief Minister.
In 2019, Sharad Pawar’s NCP too had jumped into the fray to win the hearts and minds of the community by expressing support for the contentious Dhangar reservation issue. The community, currently included in the Vimukta Jati and Nomadic Tribes (VJNT) category, has been agitating for a higher quota inclusion in the ST list.
The controversy over the renaming of cities with Muslim names into ones after Hindu rulers has again erupted after the right-wing Shiv Sena severed ties with the BJP to ally with the ideologically opposed NCP and Congress.
The Sena, which was the prime votary behind renaming Aurangabad (after the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb) to ‘Sambhajinagar’ (after Maratha Chhatrapati Sambhaji who was murdered by Aurangzeb) has come under fire from the BJP and the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) for failing to carry out its resolution about Ahmednagar name change. The BJP has accused the Sena of getting cold feet after it had allied with the Congress and the NCP, who are opposed to such name changes.