The past cannot be undone through a rechristening

Attempts to do away with certain aspects of history — erasing the Muslim links that some Indian cities have — have the potential to damage the fabric of a multi-religious India

Updated - April 17, 2023 12:00 pm IST

Published - April 17, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘While some towns may have a direct relation to the name of the king or Sultan, in many cases the names of cities are either being changed or there is a demand that they be changed, solely because they are in Urdu’

‘While some towns may have a direct relation to the name of the king or Sultan, in many cases the names of cities are either being changed or there is a demand that they be changed, solely because they are in Urdu’ | Photo Credit: PTI

We are living in the Dark Age of Islamophobia. Full stop. Naked, ugly, disconcerting. A sad testimony to the moral squalor of our times. Events across the world compelled the United Nations, in 2022, to declare March 15 as International Day to Combat Islamophobia, to take “concrete action in the face of rising hatred, discrimination, and violence against Muslims”.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, affirmed that the move is “a call for action to stamp out anti-Muslim hatred”. India, with arguably the second largest Muslim population, opposed the move, saying “It is important that the United Nations remains above such religious matters which may seek to divide us rather than bring us together on one platform of peace and harmony and treat the World as One Family”. In reality, India, more than many countries, is in the throes of Islamophobia.

It is not about a spate of lynchings anymore, from Dadri in 2015 to Delhi in 2023. Or the frequent attacks on mosques and even dargahs, hitherto considered the common place of worship for people across religions. Or even hijab politics, where pro- and anti-hijab groups are vociferously ranged against one another. It manifests itself most clearly in this urgent, almost desperate, bid to rename places built by Sultanate and Mughal rulers.

While some towns may have a direct relation to the name of the king or Sultan, in many cases the names of cities are either being changed or there is a demand that they be changed, solely because they are in Urdu. This is ironic, considering that Urdu was born in India. And till not long ago, it was not considered the language of adherents of a particular faith. A case in point is Faizabad which was built by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan in the 18th Century. It was located on a busy trade route, connecting east and central Awadh. Here, business flourished and people made a lot of profit — hence the word faiz or successful or victorious. Or, take the demand to rename Aligarh as Harigarh. Aligarh was so named after the Marathas, and not the Mughals, took over the fort here (called Sabitgarh and Muhammadgarh at various times) and renamed it after their governor, Najaf Ali Khan. It had even been called Kol. Never was it identified as Harigarh, a demand increasingly being made.

For hundreds of years, there was no issue with Allahabad or Aurangabad. Or Aligarh and Osmanabad. Or even Mughal Sarai. The common citizen still does not have a problem. Go to Allahabad which was renamed Prayagraj by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath a few years ago; people still refer to their city as Allahabad, except that the powers that be see everything through tinted glasses. It is immaterial that a city may have been built by a Sultan who saved the country from repeated assaults by the Mongols, or that a monument may have been built by a Mughal emperor who was born in undivided India, in Sindh or Gujarat, ruled from Agra or Delhi, and never set foot abroad (not even to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca). Just the name is sufficient to rouse the right-wing brigade.

The cases of Mughalsarai and Aurangabad

In 2018, Mughalsarai was in focus. It was renamed not after the former Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was born there, but after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya who died there under mysterious circumstances, in 1968. The railway station was also painted in saffron shade, making it clear that the government was using the past to settle scores with the present, much like what had happened in Allahabad. The government forgot that the city Mughal emperor Akbar had founded was Ila Vas or Ila Bas or abode of god, and located adjacent to Prayag. The word Ila became Allah later during the British time — niceties lost on those driven by bigotry.

Watch | Some “Mughal” villages around New Delhi are not Mughal at all

This year too the story played out again — in the keen desire to rename Aurangabad. Now, Aurangzeb, who lies buried in Aurangabad, has been a red rag for Hindutva practitioners, and many criticise him, with justification, for demolishing temples. But there are historians like Catherine B. Asher and Audrey Truschke who point out that the demolitions were almost always a political act, and there were plenty of occasions when the emperor issued firmans granting the safety and well being of Brahmins, even granting them land.

A government that is in a tearing hurry to erase any Muslim association with the city, promptly named it after Sambhaji, the eldest son of Shivaji who was at one time a Mughal mansabdar and later involved in a combat with fellow Maratha Rajaram to ascend the throne following Shivaji’s death in 1680. Sambhaji was captured by the Mughals and executed in 1689 on Aurangzeb’s order. The Aurangabad renaming (to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar) is a peculiar instance where the name of the victor has been replaced with that of the loser.

Hate and exclusion

All these attempts to tear up the pages of history books come with the potential to tear apart the warp and woof of Indian society.

Muslims in India may have treated the Mughals and Sultans with the same indifference or irreverence they reserved for, say the Mauryas, the Guptas or the Cholas. The oft-repeated expression those days was ‘History is boring!” Now, it seems it is divisive. Today, they are often forced into an uncomfortable situation of having to take a position. As a Muslim, and sane citizen of this country, you may or may not endorse much of what the Sultanate or Mughal rulers did. But now they are being forced to resist a majoritarian triumphalism that is bent upon erasing every speck of Islamic influence. Clearly, the right-wing proponents are guilty of a craven subjugation to the politics of hate and exclusion. Islamophobia, anyone?

As a multi-religious society, it is important to remember that the past cannot be undone through a rechristening. It is wise to stay in the moment, appreciate who we are, and what we have achieved. Retribution does not pave the way to redemption.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.