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The Times of India (Mumbai edition) - - SUNDAY SPECIAL -

ven old New York was once New Am­s­ter­dam, why they changed it I can’t say, peo­ple just liked it bet­ter that way,’ goes the fa­mous song called ‘Is­tan­bul’ (not Con­stantino­ple).

Every now and then, cities shake off their un­com­fort­able pasts and change their names. Can­ton is Guangzhou, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City. In the late 1990s, states across In­dia also de­cided to break with colo­nial his­to­ries, and go with older or indige­nous city names. Bom­bay, Madras and Cal­cutta chose new iden­ti­ties, and so did Ban­ga­lore and Cochin. It is an­other mat­ter that some of the old names still trip off the tongue; of­fi­cially, the new names are what mat­ter.

But now, BJP gov­ern­ments across In­dia are on an­other re­nam­ing spree. From Mughal­sarai sta­tion and Au­rangzeb Road, now en­tire towns and dis­tricts like Al­la­habad and Faiz­abad are be­ing re­branded to con­vey a mythic land­scape of Praya­graj and Ay­o­d­hya. Ahmed­abad might be­come Kar­na­vati. Even the fate of Hy­der­abad and Au­rangabad is in doubt.

This new rash of re­nam­ings is dif­fer­ent from the ear­lier at­tempt to In­di­anise Bri­tish names. Now, the agenda seems to be to erase all Mus­lim-sound­ing names and re­place them with names that evoke past Hindu glory. It is to sug­gest that these “alien” names were im­posed by past in­va­sions and con­quests, and that this wrong is now be­ing avenged.

How­ever, the fact is, Faiz­abad was al­ways lo­cated out­side Ay­o­d­hya, built from scratch by the new nawab as the cap­i­tal of Awadh. There was no his­tor­i­cal wrong, no as­sault on an ex­ist­ing Hindu her­itage. The word Awadh it­self is a trib­ute to Ay­o­d­hya. “So in the case of these cities, there was no an­cient past be­ing erased. The very names call up a his­tory of con­flu­ence,” says cul­tural the­o­rist Ran­jit Hoskote.

“The re­nam­ing has over­looked syn­cretic tra­di­tions of both Faiz­abad and Ay­o­d­hya. Faiz­abad has been the point of ori­gin of Avadh’s ganga-ja­muni tehzib that trav­elled to Luc­know with Nawab Asa­fud­daulah, while Ay­o­d­hya has al­ways nur­tured the tra­di­tion of vid­hwa band­hutwa (global har­mony)”, says Shah Alam, writer, and founder of the Ay­o­d­hya Avam ka Cin­ema move­ment. It is in­ac­cu­rate by any mea­sure — the geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries of the epic Ay­o­d­hya might have to stretch to other dis­tricts of Bara­banki, Gonda, Basti, Sul­tan­pur and Bahraich, part of the 84 kosi parikrama, he points out.

Mean­while, the new city cre­ated by Ak­bar was called Ila­habas, the abode of the di­vine (rather than specif­i­cally Al­lah) — and Prayag refers to a spe­cific sacred spot, where the rivers Ganga and Ya­muna meet, points out Hoskote. Set­tle­ments were not built on top of each other, but along­side, he points out, and the na­ture of In­dian cul­ture is of a palimpsest, lay­ers, rather than one thing forcibly rub­bing out an­other. This change is a “wil­ful mis­read­ing of his­tory and an as­sault on the lived ex­pe­ri­ence”, he says.

What’s more, the name we use de­pends on the con­text. We might say Prayag in a rit­ual or cer­e­mo­nial con­text, but say Al­la­habad to re­fer to the town. “We would say Mum­bai while speak­ing Marathi, Bom­bay if speak­ing English. This is the ‘Indic’ way, this is the nat­u­ral code-switch­ing from one reg­is­ter to an­other, the many ver­sions that we are com­fort­able with. It is a Western, ‘Carte­sian’ men­tal­ity where you an­ni­hi­late one thing and re­place it with an­other,” says Hoskote.

But this project to re­duce In­dian so­ci­ety to a clash of re­li­gions, to iden­tify Hin­dus with the na­tion, and cast Mus­lims as out­siders and in­vaders, re­quires ig­nor­ing his­tor­i­cal facts, it means ig­nor­ing the non­re­li­gious mo­tives of rulers, the di­ver­si­ties of both Hin­duism and Is­lam, and the ac­tual min­gling of cul­tures that de­fines us.

Even in the Gangetic plain, for all the com­mu­nal ten­sions of the last cen­tury and the fric­tions be­fore, it is im­pos­si­ble to sever the con­nec­tions strength­ened over hun­dreds of years — in the lan­guage, the clothes, the food, the mu­sic and dance. Whether it is kathak or thumri, the churi­dar pa­jama and the names we have, these cul­tures have been too tightly in­ter­twined for us to even tell them apart now. “The Bhakti and Sufi move­ments in­flu­enced each other. Even the Go­rakhnath or­der (the Nath yo­gis where UP CM Yogi Adityanath is con­nected to) had con­nec­tions with the Chishti tra­di­tion,” says Rana Safvi, who spe­cialised in me­dieval his­tory and syn­cretic cul­ture. She points to the re­spect­ful aadaab greet­ing, a sec­u­lar ges­ture rather than a re­li­gious one. As the mu­si­col­o­gist Peter Manuel writes, Hin­dus­tani mu­sic tells a story of Mus­lim pa­tron­age and con­nois­seur­ship and Hindu themes, and its per­form­ers and tra­di­tions can­not be cat­e­gorised as Hindu and Mus­lim.

Ran­domly re­nam­ing an ex­ist­ing city is an easy thing to do. Build­ing one would be the real achieve­ment, says Safvi. While the UP gov­ern­ment may count on the new city names stick­ing af­ter a gen­er­a­tion or two, old mem­o­ries are also stub­born. For in­stance, 62 years af­ter its re­nam­ing, peo­ple still call Varanasi both Benares and Kashi. Sign­boards may change but it’s dif­fi­cult to undo the past that pro­duced us.

— With in­puts from Shail­vee Sarda

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