How Hindu Nationalists Are Erasing Muslims From Indian History
Things change at astonishing speed in so-called “developing” nations like India. In the three years that I was away, Starbucks has cropped up on every street corner, selling coffee that is even more obscenely overpriced in a country where the average monthly income wouldn’t even buy you 10 frappucinos. The health craze has reached Delhi’s upper-middle class and there are flax seeds everywhere. If you have money, there is an app for everything you could possibly want, which can be delivered directly to your door. Three-wheeled auto-rickshaws now work with Uber.
But there is a bigger change underfoot — a change which makes entire cities disappear off the map. The familiar names gone, replaced with ones made up by Hindu nationalist leaders in an attempt to reinforce their cultural influence. The BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu extremist party, has been on a re-naming spree over the past few years — especially of any towns with a Muslim association. Faizabad become Ayodhya, Allahabad become Prayagraj, Mughal Serai became Upadhya, Gurgaon became Gurugram. There are dozens of others — just in 2018, the Centre government approved the renaming of 25 towns.
From opponents, the move sparked mockery across social media, but many people also felt genuinely worried — like their history and culture was under attack. Take Allahabad. Its ancient name was “Ilahabas”, coined in the 16th century by the Mughal emperor Akbar. The term mixes both Hindu and Muslim cultures and is a reference to religious harmony: “Ila” means “deity” in Sanskrit, as well as “Ilahi” in Arabic. Changing the name felt, some residents commented, like this history of tolerance and cohabitition was being erased.
What’s in a name?
So what is the big deal about renaming places? India is a country which already juggles dozens of languages, and where places are called by several names simultaneously. Something can be written on a signpost, but everyone will keep on calling it by its former name. Everyone still says Gurgaon. So does it really matter?
Yes. The BJP’s name-changing spree is just one part of a larger campaign to erase Muslim culture from India — from encouraging cow vigilantes to prevent from eating beef, to politicians suggesting that mosques aren’t “necessary” for Muslims to continue to practice their religion. Andit is an important element because city names carry a history, they are the proof of how intertwined the lives of Muslims and Hindus have been in India for centuries.
The BJP wanted to give the impression that while India was under the rule of the Mughal empire, the country was on pause. Nothing new was created. As though the Muslim rulers did nothing but break or distort what was already there. This goes as far as suggesting that the Muslim-built Taj Mahal was built on the site of a Hindu temple.
“It feeds on a deep-seated inferiority complex among Hindus that the symbols representing India largely bear a Muslim identity, thereby making India look like a Muslim country. We take comfort in the so-called fact that nearly 95% of Muslims in India were originally Hindus who were later converted, and it is therefore possible to restore them to their Hinduness. It is the same belief that plays out in the quest to rename places and monuments — they don’t need to go, they only need to be renamed and rehabilitated,”
explains Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University
Apoorvanand even goes as far as calling the BJP’s moves against Muslims “Cultural genocide.”
The nationalist project of the present ruling party is based on the idea of making invisible and subjugating an entire population to keep the majority in a permanent state of dominance. This renaming is part of a cultural genocidal project.
In their attempt to erase centuries of Muslim presence in India, what the party leaders are presenting as a “return” to a past before India was distorted by Muslim culture is, in fact, an entirely imaginary culture, with fake place names to boot.
“We fail to see in the excitement generated by the incessant renaming of towns and railway stations in India that the past, which these new old names allude to, is an imagined land that we are being invited to inhabit.”
An invitation which party-leaders hope will be attractive enough to capture votes in the current elections. An screen hiding the uncomfortable reality of their terms: in five years, the BJP has failed to bring any true progress on the economic front.