By Rajeev Khanna
In the midst of the MeToo campaign with journalist and Minister MJ Akbar at the centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party went ahead to change the name of Allahabad — a city established by Mughal Emperor Akbar — to Prayagraj.
Caught unaware the Twitterati is joking about this now. With the more well versed in economics also joking about the banking sector being in deep trouble as the fate of Allahabad Bank is still to be decided!
Jokes apart this business of renaming places is a serious issue. Over the last few decades there have been many places, cities, towns and even prominent local destinations that have been renamed. Some have been given their traditional names like Kolkata, Chennai, Vadodara, Bengaluru etc. while others are said to have been renamed purely out of political consideration like Mumbai, Mughalsarai and now Allahabad.
Do these politicians looking always for diverting public attention from pressing issues and catering to their core voter base ever realize how painful it is for the people? Will they ever be able to understand the sense of belonging that people have towards places and their names? Do they really believe that by changing the names of places they can erase the old names from the minds and hearts of the people?
Starting from the latest example of Allahabad, the general perception is that the Yogi Adityanath government had taken the decision to rename the city since it had a ‘Muslim’ sounding name. A person like me who had his maternal grandparents living there for almost five decades was always told not only by them but also many others that the place got its name from Deen-i-Illahi, an egalitarian faith propagated by Akbar and was known as Illahabad. It was the British who started spelling it as Allahabad.
My mother came from a practicing Hindu family and despite her formal schooling from a RSS supported institution, had teachings of Kabir and Raskhan on her fingertips till her dying day. I still cherish those childhood days when I was taken to the Yamuna banks and the Sangam. The visit was never complete without a visit or at least a narration about the towering fort built by Akbar and the prasad of some mouth-watering Pedas from the Hanuman temple just outside the fort. This is perhaps the only temple of a temple with an idol of Hanuman lying horizontally at a depth below the ground level.
Allahabad Fort was constructed by Akbar in 1583. He named the fort Illahabad (blessed by God), which later became Allahabad. There is a version that Prayag was the area around the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna (Sangam) and meant place of offerings. Yet another version says that Allahabad was originally called Kaushambi by the Kuru rulers of Hastinapur who developed it as their capital.
Since I used to go to Allahabad from the hilly Himachal Pradesh for winter holidays, I also remember the charm of the short boat rides in the Yamuna for which I always created a scene. And the boatmen, whether they were Muslims or from the Mallah community, mostly refused to charge anything from my mother saying she was a daughter from their city who had been married in the hills and was on a visit to her parental home. How could they charge from their daughter?
This is the Allahabad that has hung on my conscience over four decades and the decision to change its ‘Muslim’ sounding name pains me. For me it will always remain Allahabad.
The same Adityanath government failed to learn from its experience of having renamed Mughalsarai railway junction Deen Dayal Upadhyay junction. The government, the BJP and even its ideologue, all became the butt of hundreds of jokes about that not deter it from changing the name of Allahabad.
I just wonder how a poet like Akbar Hussain Rizvi who is better known as Akbar Allahabadi would have reacted to the decision. He was known for his satire and ability to put a humorous touch to the most serious of political and personal matters. His couplet ‘Akbar dabe nahīñ kisī sultāñ kī fauj se lekin shahīd ho ga.e biivī kī nauj se’ (Akbar was never afraid of any Sultan’s army but was scared for life by the exclamations of his wife) is one of the finest examples of his ability. I wonder what he would have written about Allahabad becoming Prayagraj.
On a more personal note I remember how my grandmother who had migrated from Rawalpindi in Pakistan at the time of partition continued to harbor fond memories of a locality named Mohanpura where she had spent the happiest days of her life right till her death. I was told by a Pakistani acquaintance that the locality got a ‘Muslim’ sounding name after partition but he qualified this disclosure with the remark, “Old timers still refer to it as Mohanpura.”
The political class has never understood the people’s sentiments about places. Even in Delhi it is easier for people to guide one to Connaught Place or CP rather than Rajiv Chowk.
Similarly in Shimla the state government had renamed two prominent hospitals Rippon Hospital and Lady Reading Hospital as Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital and Kamla Nehru Hospital. But majority of the people do now know these by their new names and even porters guide you to ‘Rippon’ or ‘Lady Reading’.
But maybe deep down, the politicians do understand when not to cross the limits. Perhaps that is why the BJP despite having had a powerful Chief Minister (now Prime Minister) Narendra Modi has put the re-christening of Ahmedabad as Karnavati on the backburner. Sources say that the party had passed a resolution for naming it as Karnavati almost 18 years back. In their public speeches the Hindutva leaders mostly refer to Ahmedabad as Karnavati or Amdavad but very rarely as ‘Muslim’ sounding Ahmedabad.
For an Indian who always identifies with names of places, it is very difficult to live in cities where localities have no names. I have lived in Chandigarh where localities are known by Sectors and their numbers. It is difficult getting used to numbered destinations and telling people that one had gone to “17, 35 or 22” for shopping or “16 or 32” for a medical check up.
Similarly identifying “Gha 5” or “Cha 2” roads for reaching a numerical destination in Gujarat’s capital city of Gandhinagar was always a problem.
It is time the political class stops playing name games and instead starts focusing on the real issues at hand.