In August 2018, India’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government renamed the historic Mughalsarai Junction Railway Station in the state of Uttar Pradesh after the right-wing Hindu ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, most likely because the existing name referred to the Indian Muslim Mughal dynasty.
Three years earlier, in May 2015, many street signs in New Delhi carrying Urdu/Muslim names including Aurangzeb Road, named after the sixth Mughal emperor, were painted black by Shiv Sena Hindustan, a radical Hindu organisation. Later in that year, the ruling BJP officially changed the name of the Aurangzeb Road to A P J Abdul Kalam, a pro-BJP ex-president of India.
In April 2016, the BJP government in Haryana renamed the city of Gurgaon as Gurugram, after Guru Dronacharya, an upper caste Hindu figure from the epic Mahabharata, who is viewed as a villain by India’s Dalits.
Last month, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh proposed to rename airports in the towns of Bareilly, Kanpur, and Agra. The proposed new names of two of the three airports have apparent Hindu overtones. Bareilly is to be renamed Nath Nagri, after the Hindu Nath sect. The Hindu politician Yogi Adityanath, the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, known for his brazen Islamophobia, belongs to this sect. The Agra airport, on the other hand, is to be renamed after the Hindutva ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, just like the Mughalsarai Railway Station.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, also demands many other places with Muslim names, including the cities of Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Aurangabad, to be renamed.
Renaming of cities, streets or landmarks is not an act exclusive to India or the BJP.
The city that was known as St Petersburg in imperial Russia was renamed Petrograd in 1914 at the start of World War I because authorities thought its original name sounded too German. In 1924, following the formation of the USSR and the death of Lenin, the name of the city was changed once again, this time to Leningrad. The city’s name was reverted back to St Petersburg in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
India also renamed several cities long before the BJP took power. In 1995, it restored the names of the cities of Bombay, Bangalore, and Calcutta to their indigenous versions – Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata respectively – to emphasize its independence from Britain and reject the linguistic symbols left over from the colonial era. The names of the cities Cawnpore and Jubblepore were also changed to Kanpur and Jabalpur to reflect native spelling and pronunciation.
Although renaming has been practised widely across the world, in many cases it has been socially and politically controversial. This is because renaming is a lot more than simply changing a word on a map or a street sign. Place names are an important element of a country’s cultural landscape, as they naturally document and reflect a locality’s heritage and identity. Changing them is often seen as a re-writing of history. Renaming, therefore, is always a hotly debated issue.
Renaming of a place appears a lot more acceptable to the local population when it is done to erase remaining symbols of colonialism. However, when it is done solely to privilege one of the many available readings of a place’s history and identity, it becomes a divisive force, helping to accentuate political, social and historic divisions within a community.
The supporters of the renaming of the Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi argued that the Mughal emperor was an invader and a cruel ruler, who does not deserve to be commemorated in modern India.
The real reasoning behind their opposition to the road’s name, however, went a lot deeper than Aurangzeb’s conduct. The RSS and the BJP perceive not only Aurangzeb’s rule but the entirety of the medieval Muslim era, as a dark phase in the country’s history. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India is troubled by “1200 years of slave mentality“. He was clearly lumping together the 200 years of British colonial rule and the preceding medieval Muslim era as a long and undivided period of colonial suffering.
Those who opposed the name change argued that Aurangzeb was not much different from many other rulers of India, regardless of their religious identity, who engaged in violent acts against their enemies to consolidate power. They pointed out that while Aurangzeb destroyed some temples, he simultaneously protected many others, demonstrating that his actions were not driven by “cruelty” or a desire for religious oppression, but political considerations.
Critics of the name change also pointed out that the Aurangzeb Road’s sign was not the only one vandalized by right-wing groups prior to the name change. The street named after Muslim Mughal ruler Akber, who is considered to be a liberal even by right-wing Hindus, was also vandalized. This, they argued, clearly shows that the right-wing groups’ problem is not solely with Aurangzeb and his allegedly cruel legacy, but the entirety of India’s Muslim history.
This can also be seen in other acts of the RSS and the BJP.
For example in July 2017, RSS ideologue Dina Nath Batra sent a document to the National Council for Educational Research and Training demanding that some Urdu words and a couplet by the 19th century Urdu poet Ghalib be removed from India’s school textbooks. In a similar attack on Muslim symbols, in 2016, some right-wing activists prevented artists from writing a couplet in Urdu on the walls of the GT Road in Delhi as part of a non-governmental “Delhi I Love You” campaign.
The change of Gurgaon to Gurugram and the demand for the renaming of Bareilly and Agra airports as Nath Nagri and Deendayal Upadhyaya respectively may not be targeting Muslim symbols, but they are clear attempts to increase the prominence of Hindu symbols in India.
The apparent Hinduisation of India often harms Dalits as much as religious minorities. The BJP government argued that the city was renamed as Gurugram because the word “Gurgaon” represented a “distorted” pronunciation of the Sanskrit word “Gurugram”. While Gurgaon is a word from the day-to-day plebeian Haryanvi culture, the Sanskrit version connotes the upper caste Brahmin language and culture, and it is also linked to Dronacharya, a symbol of Brahmanical “upper caste” oppression against the less-privileged caste of Dalits.
For this reason, Dalit scholars saw in the name change an attempt by the BJP to appease its more privileged caste voters at the cost of further marginalizing Indians from less-privileged castes.
The renaming of places assumes extra significance in a diverse country like India. The government and civil society need to make sure that our cultural landscapes contain names, symbols, languages, and scripts that belong to all the different castes, religious communities, and other groups of the country, so all Indians can genuinely feel at home in their homeland.
Claiming that the Mughal rule was colonial, as many Indians do, is not only historically wrong – for it displays an incorrect understanding of colonialism – but it is also divisive. As Irfan Ahmad argues, unlike the British, the Mughals did not use the wealth of India to invest in the place they came from; instead, they became an integral part of India’s diverse culture. Muslims are people of this country and not outsiders. They should be treated as such.
Place names should be symbols of inclusion, openness, and diversity; not those of exclusion, marginalisation, and religious or ethnic supremacy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.