Allahabad to be renamed Prayagraj: Yogi Adityanath's bid to wipe Akbar's name off Indian history is problematic

One of the core propositions of the Hindu nationalist doctrine, wrote professor Meghnad Desai in one of his essays, is that India got enslaved when Muslim invaders came from the North West from the eighth century onwards — first Mohammad Bin Qaseem, then Mahmud Ghazni followed by the Delhi Sultanate and finally the Mughal Empire. One of the other conviction which Hindu nationalists abide by that India has always been a single nation since prehistoric times as Bharatavarsha or Aryabhoomi.

Be it the name of a street, or a monument, sometimes a railway station or maybe a city — BJP leaders, and some of its ministers, have never shied away from hailing decisions which seek to quickly alter names that have been intrinsic part of India's history. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is one such party leader who has been leading the pack of like-minded ministers/leaders. After successfully renaming the iconic Mughalsarai Junction Railway Station after RSS ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Adityanath intends to rename Allahabad.

Called Prayag before the Mughals came in, Allahabad got its name from 16th Century Mughal emperor Akbar who renamed it after founding a fort near the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, known as Sangam. He named the fort and its neighbourhood Ilahabad. Later, Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan renamed the entire city as Allahabad. But the area near the Sangam, site of the Kumbh Mela, continues to be called Prayag. The governor and the Centre have both given their approval and the Uttar Pradesh government plans to roll out the changes ahead of 2019 Kumbh Mela.

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath hinted that Allahabad would be renamed as Prayagraaj ahead of 2019 Kumbh mela. PTI

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath hinted that Allahabad would be renamed as Prayagraaj ahead of 2019 Kumbh mela. PTI

Seen as an attempt to rewrite history to give the narrative a right-wing slant, the BJP government at many instances has shown intent either by changing names of places and giving them a Hindu identity and sometimes even changing contents textbooks to suit a one-sided narrative. The narrative, which reportedly has been perpetrated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is aimed at Hindu one-upmanship when re-telling the Indian history. Take Rajasthan education board for example.

In March 2017, Hindustan Times reported that students in Rajasthan would be taught that Rajput warrior Maharana Pratap defeated Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati some 450 years ago. Historical evidence, however, shows that Pratap, the ruler of the erstwhile Mewar region, fled the battlefield, although in the later years he continued his guerilla war against the Mughals.

The report quoted the state state education minister Vasudev Devnani who said students will not read "distorted history" from the next academic year. Until now, students of class 10 and 12 read Rajput warrior Maharana Pratap had lost the Battle of Haldighati.

In fact, Adityanath in June this year insisted that Akbar was not great and that only Maharana Pratap was. He praised Pratap's persistence in winning back his forts after years of fight in the Aravalli hills and his refusal to accept Akbar as king. Adityanath said the Mewar ruler did not accept the Mughal emperor asking as he was a "Turk who could not be trusted". The chief minister, who was at the release of special edition of RSS magazine 'Avadh Prahri', quoted Pratap and said, "I cannot accept Akbar as the king… he is a Turk and he will remain so… he will hurt our self-respect in the garb of friendship… we cannot accept a foreigner as a king." He said lessons from those times were still applicable.

In October, 2017 BJP MLA Sangeet Som declared that the Taj Mahal was a "blot on Indian culture". The BJP MLA added that the monument was built by 'traitors.' The MLA from Sardhana in Uttar Pradesh's Meerut, Som referred to the recent removal of Taj Mahal from the Uttar Pradesh tourism booklet and said, "Many people were disappointed that the Taj Mahal was removed from Uttar Pradesh tourism booklet. What history are we talking about? The creator of Taj Mahal (Shahjahan) imprisoned his father. He wanted to wipe out Hindus. If these people are part of our history, then it is very sad and we will change this history".

Taj Mahal, reportedly, failed to find mention in the government's first budget in the special section 'Hamari Sanskritik Virasat' (Our Cultural Heritage) incorporated in the finance minister's 63-page budget speech. There are several other instances where BJP governments across the country have tried to reorient history by moulding facts as it suits them. This distaste that BJP leaders and ministers have for Muslim rulers, whose colossal historical contribution towards India can't be ignored, could spell trouble.

The Akbar factor

Opposed to Adityanath or Sangeeth Som's idea of how Muslim rulers ravaged India, history tells us that Akbar was one of the most secular and forgiving emperors that India witnessed. In fact, he was one of those Muslim rulers who ruled India and not ravage her. According to an article in The Diplomat, when Akbar ruled (1556 to 1605), "there did exist various areas of contestation between the two religions, but it was largely characterised by a syncretism that has few parallels in modern-day India. Akbar’s era represented the zenith of Islamic power in India and the zeitgeist was a reflection of the man himself – curious, open-minded, and pragmatic. He is quite possibly one of the first regents in the world to lend his support to regular state-sponsored inter-faith public dialogue, which brought together learned men from across the religious spectrum – Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Parsis, Jains, and even atheists from across the realm were invited to participate in what must surely have a unique event at the time."

The symbolism in denigrating a ruler like Akbar, just because he was a Muslim or his lacking in Hindu-ness, points towards a disturbing trend but that has been happening for quite sometime now. The strategy is probably to belittle their (Muslim rulers and kings) importance and denounce them by "suspecting their 'Indian-ness'." Like this article in The Wire argues, "Hindutva forces have always followed the colonial school of history. British colonial historians very cleverly periodised Indian history into three segments: Hindu, Muslim and British (not Christian) period. So, a tendency gained ground to view the pre-British history of India through the lens of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Hindutva forces have always been fiercely anti-Muslim, but not anti-British."

Akbar legitimised his court's links with Hinduism by "engaging, interrogating and occasionally" criticising Hindu beliefs. But at the same time, the emperor also strove to dismiss conservative Muslims who criticised the Hindus for not believing in the unity of God. Akbar's bid at "Hindu-Muslim syncretism" was not restricted to just theological and literary worlds. Politically, his entourage was a mix of hand-picked Muslim and Hindu "elites".

"Among the legendary Navratnas (Nine Jewels) of his court were four Hindus – the musician Tansen, the finance minister Raja Todar Mal, the army general Raja Man Singh, and the advisor Raja Birbal – alongside five Muslims that included Abu’l Fazl. The presence of a select group of elite Hindus and Muslims alone cannot be offered as proof of a wider tolerance and understanding between the two communities, just as a Muslim prime minister would not suffice as evidence of Hindu-Muslim harmony in today’s India. Nonetheless, it forms an important part of the multi-religious mosaic that emerges from that era."

Rewriting history

According to a Reuters investigation published in March this year, during the first week of January, 2017 a group of Indian scholars were focussed on how to rewrite the history of the nation. The report stated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had "quietly" appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier, even though the prime minister did not order the committee’s creation — it was instigated by Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma. The report said that the mission of the committee is in keeping with his outlook.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people — a kaleidoscope of religions, the report said. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.

In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace.

The narrative, which reportedly has been perpetrated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is aimed at Hindu one-upmanship. AFP

The narrative, which reportedly has been perpetrated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is aimed at Hindu one-upmanship. AFP

The committee’s chairman, KN Dikshit, told Reuters, "I have been asked to present a report that will help the government rewrite certain aspects of ancient history." The committee’s creator, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, confirmed in an interview that the group’s work was part of larger plans to revise India’s history. For India’s Muslims, who have pointed to incidents of religious violence and discrimination since Modi took office in 2014, the development is ominous. Reuters report said that Modi did not respond to a request for comment on the article.

Reuters report said that the RSS asserted that ancestors of all people of Indian origin — including 172 million Muslims — were Hindu and that they must accept their common ancestry as part of Bharat Mata, or Mother India. Modi has been a member of the RSS since childhood. An official biography of Culture Minister Sharma says he too has been a “dedicated follower” of the RSS for many years.

Referring to the emblematic colour of the Hindu nationalist movement, RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya told Reuters that "the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history." Sharma said this “Hindu first” version of Indian history will be added to a school curriculum which has long taught that people from central Asia arrived in India much more recently, some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and transformed the population.

Hindu nationalists and seniors in BJP rejected the idea that India was forged from a mass migration. They believe that today's Hindu population is directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants. Historian Romila Thapar told Reuters that the question of who first stood on the soil was important to nationalists because "if the Hindus are to have primacy as citizens in a Hindu rashtra (kingdom), their foundational religion cannot be an imported one.”

To assert that primacy, nationalists need to claim descent from ancestors and a religion that were indigenous, said Thapar. "Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges."


Updated Date: Oct 15, 2018 15:48 PM

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