This time Diwali began with another bang. It was announced by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh that Faizabad will now be called Ayodhya. The declaration was followed up soon after by the deputy CM of Gujarat’s declaration that Ahmadabad should be renamed Karnavati.

These declarations, coming within one month of renaming Allahabad as Prayagraj, compelled one to ponder on the issue of Allahabad once more to see why Allahabad, or for that matter any other city whose name has been changed in recent times, couldn’t remain (or name) to be so. Can the incident of Allahabad also explain the other recent moves?

Going back in history, Allahabad as a fort and city was laid out by Emperor Akbar in 1574 after he realised the strategic importance of the place. It is mentioned by contemporary and primary historians like Abul Fazl, Abdul Qadir Badayuni and many others. It means ‘Abode of God’ (Akbar called it Ilahabas).

After over 400 years, now that the name of the city has been altered, one’s mind is deluged with a multitude of thoughts. What is in a name? Why was it changed? Is it because the name was for a tyrant ruler who was repulsive to the majority population? Or after a ‘dynasty’ that looted Hindustan for over 200 years and never went back? The answer was obviously no.

So, is it that the culture of is Hindustan unilateral and monolithic? That it begins at an indecisive time, composed of the elements embedded in a particular geographical zone, and glorious only up to a defined time-period? Those who have the idea of history know that the cultural history of Hindustan is not just about synthesis but also integration. From an early period, Hunas, Parthians, Sakas, Kushans, Arabs, Tajiks, Turuskas, Moguls arrived and adapted to its environs. Indian history is about contestation and accommodation, conflict and conciliation, discourse and dialogue. It was and is about the encounter of cultures.

Culture cannot be narrowly defined. It is an ever-evolving identity unbounded by time and space. Cultural geography intrudes into political boundaries and overlaps with them. It can encompass different religions and mix in certain regional or local traditions.

But the discourse of culture as intrinsically linked with a single religion is so strong that one never tries to look beyond it. It is an elitist view/ definition of culture, coming from those who dominate one ethnic group or the other. It fails to see that over the years different cultural groups can intermingle with each other and give shape to new identities, cultures and traditions deriving from the old.

Isn’t it ironic that in modern times, some migrants from beyond the Hindukush are regarded as harbingers of Indian culture and traditions, while others are considered as an alien concept, simply because they followed a dissimilar faith? That we have set concrete boundaries and timezones in the evolution and development of cultural trends. The genesis of this notion certainly lies in an imposition of our modern thought and ideas on the medieval past.

Somebody said, ‘Allahabad Akbar ki nishani tha’ (Allahabad was a mark or sign of Akbar). Was Akbar so unscrupulous that his legacy should be obliterated? In today’s divisive politics Akbar, and other such figures, present a real problem.

Aurangzeb is denounced for it is believed that he was a bigot and an oppressor. But then why has Akbar been slated and cornered? He was the one who developed the idea of an integrative polity, composite nobility, and Sulh i Kul (Absolute Peace). He showed his inquisitiveness in understanding diversity.

Whereas there is enough evidence to show that the present regime has no problem with tyranny or bigotry. The problem is a broad perspective, to have a vision, to reflect eclecticism. Secularism is the problem of the communal. And communalism emerges from an extreme form of nationalism.

The idea puts under trial the nationalists’ confrontation of the colonial construction of historiography. The repudiation of colonial notions of history is half-baked, and inherent within it is the promotion of singularity and an ‘othering’ of the communities. For medieval Indian history, some among the nationalists maintained the colonial stand. And they are extending it to the present time. The notion was that the medieval Indian period was the period of struggle of the indigenous rulers against the foreigners, in the form of sultans of Delhi and the Mughal emperors.

Linked with it is the vitriolic hatred against the Muslims initiated in nationalist thought in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which has been so religiously nurtured in the past four years with the dissemination of an ideology, the idea of an ‘other’. It is part of a larger political objective: to make ‘Indian’ into a different identity, to erase the identity and contribution of a particular community, to rub off all signs of their recognition with this landscape.

It will lead to a permanent rupture in the fabric of society, and Muslims will be turned into aliens in their own land.

Akbar is secular and he is a Muslim, therefore he must be targeted.

Questions are also raised on the name itself, Allahabad. Why can’t this appellation exist today? Is it because the name is identical/ can be identified with God but a Muslim God? God as Allah must be a tyrant, bloodthirsty ‘daanava’ whose name must be scrapped.

In the medieval past, the names of the Supreme Being, prophets and deities of different religious communities were interchangeably used in various regional literary cultures, monumental edifices, meteorology, in an extravagant manner. Allah, Khuda, Viswakarma, Vishwanath, Sunyarupa, Kartar would substitute for one another in numerous writings and epigraphs. On the Qutb Minar is inscribed Vishwakarma and on the Kirti Stamb of Rana Kumbha, Allah. Akbar himself is the one depicted as Rama in
and in the Bhavishya Purana as a rebirth of Brahmachari Mukund belonging to the gotra of Sankaracharya.

The point is that ‘Prayag’ is a holy land and so is ‘Abode of Allah’. The difference is that the expression is in Arabo-Persian vocabulary. Does it change the meaning, the essence? It is only in the modern politicised thought of fanaticism and charged nationalism that one cannot imagine the substitution of a word with one from the vocabulary of an other language.

Exchange of any kind in terms of culture is inconceivable in the modern political and cultural thought of the subcontinent.

The ideology of the ‘other’ is also a convenient alternative model for ‘vikas’, in which religion can act as an opium and put people on a high where everything around them virtually turns into paradise. Whenever the government fails on the political economic front, to live up to its promise of development, it can take recourse to the ‘other’ idea to claim that our present troubles are due to the presence of some degraded souls.

On a lighter note, perhaps the stigma that the present regime is that its ideologues were hand in glove with the colonialists during the struggle for independence, and now lead those in power to make their bid in driving the ‘foreigners’ out of the country in the 21st century.

Particularly disturbing is some of the criticism of the government’s name changing moves. Some critics try to connect the word Allahabad with the ancient past and mythology. Others strive to connect it with the liberal religious ideology of Akbar to justify the earlier name. Why this apology – does Hindustan comprise only early India? Aren’t the early medieval, medieval, early modern and colonial parts also of our history, and constituents of our legacy? Does Allahabad have any less history than Prayag?

In today’s India the life of the ‘other’ is precarious. It extends both to the living and non-living, organic and non-organic, human or city or monument. Secular has become another despicable word. The objective is to disseminate the Hindutva agenda of one nation, one people, ensuring a deep rooted animosity for everyone else in general, and for Muslims in particular.

It is in this frenzy that, in a nation which declares itself a secular and welfare state, the government unabashedly and fearlessly employs idioms and dialects pertaining to a specific community, blatantly ignoring its multiplicity. Allahabad is only one recent victim, ironically a place known for its ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. There will be many more, as in the recent case of Faizabad.

It is necessary to ponder that an obsession for setting everything straight, for restoring things to normalcy, ‘Jo tha wahi kar diya’, is lethal. It leaves one wondering what the plight of Homo sapiens will be, if we become what we were in the past. If we are so consumed with our glorious past, maybe we should start trying out names like Neanderthalgarh, Erectuspur, Sapiensgram…

Samana Zafar teaches history at the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. The views expressed in the article are those of the author and not of the Jamia Millia Islamia or The Citizen.