Allahabad renamed, in time for the polls

A procession during the Muslim holy month of Muharram in Allahabad on Sept 21. The city's name is a British corruption of Ilahabas, the name given in the 16th century by Mughal Emperor Akbar.
A procession during the Muslim holy month of Muharram in Allahabad on Sept 21. The city's name is a British corruption of Ilahabas, the name given in the 16th century by Mughal Emperor Akbar.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BJP move seen to appease Hindu hardliners, who did not want Islamic-sounding name

Mr Akshat Lal Srivastava, a history enthusiast, went to sleep in a city he loved and knew like the back of his hand, but woke up to a new one. For Allahabad, where he has lived all his life, had been renamed Prayagraj on Oct 16 by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

The move, which comes months away from the 2019 parliamentary elections, is seen to appease right-wing Hindu groups clamouring for the city of Allahabad to be sanitised of an "Islamic-sounding" name. The state is led by Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu religious leader who took over as the state's chief minister in March last year.

With the city renamed, Mr Srivastava decided to follow suit and switched his last name to Ilahabadi (someone from Ilahabad, in Hindi). "Changing Allahabad's name has made me feel alien in my hometown. It makes me feel homeless at times," said the founder president of the Allahabad Heritage Society. "My whole identity, love for Allahabad have been snatched away by an outsider."

His act of defiance was one of many set in motion in this city, which is known for its intellectual heft and argumentative character.

Allahabad, which played a key role in India's struggle for independence, is famed as the site of the confluence of Ganges, Jamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers. It is equally famous as a crucible in which Hindu and Islamic influences fused to create a widely loved and practised culture.

Ilahabas was a name that the Mughal Emperor Akbar chose for the city he set up in the 16th century. It was a clever move that encapsulated both Hindu and Muslim cultures. While "Ila" means divinity in Sanskrit, "Ilahi" refers to the same in Arabic. The name was later changed to Ilahabad and corrupted to Allahabad by the British, which has been wrongly interpreted by Hindu right-wingers as the "abode of Allah".

Right-wing groups have argued that this change corrects a historical wrong in which Prayag was renamed as Ilahabas. However, those opposing the change say the two have always been distinct identities. Prayag is better known as a pilgrimage site on the banks of the Ganges, one that still exists.

The change to Prayagraj is part of a larger Hindu right-wing trend that seeks to purge names and influences that may be associated with Islam. The railway station at Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh (Mughals were a dominant Muslim dynasty that ruled India) was renamed in August after Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, a right-wing ideologue and leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of BJP, which leads the federal government today.

LOSS OF IDENTITY

Changing Allahabad's name has made me feel alien in my hometown. It makes me feel homeless at times... My whole identity, love for Allahabad have been snatched away by an outsider.

MR AKSHAT LAL SRIVASTAVA, who changed his last name to "Ilahabadi".

There are even clamours to rename Lucknow, another iconic city in the state, to Lakshmanpuri, after Lakshman, from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

However, the idea of Allahabad as a city that transcends its geographical confines has "flowered under provocation" from this change of name, said Professor Neelum Saran Gour, a fiction writer born and still based here. Discussions in online groups have been charged with "electricity in the air" as people responded by creating their city in the virtual world.

"There was a sudden harking back to all that Allahabad means and signifies to its people. It was wonderful to see a notional city afloat on social media that was not confined to any geographical place," Prof Gour told The Straits Times. For her, one of the posts that particularly stood out was the video of an old Allahabadi based in Hyderabad reading out the Urdu translation of the Bhagavad Gita, from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

"There is an ongoing reaching out to define the syncretic culture which has made this city," she adds.

This name-changing frenzy has even caught up with Shimla, the former summer capital of British India, as right-wing groups demanded that its name be changed to Shyamala, which they claim is its former name.

"The name Shimla is a sign of oppression," says Mr Aman Puri, the Himachal Pradesh state president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, one of the organisations lobbying for the switch. "Slavery can be mental, physical or spiritual. We should be reverting to the old names as much as possible to try to get away from mental slavery."

But changing names is a tactic that governments of all hues, not just those from the right, have adopted in India. Even left-wing ones have switched anglicised names for indigenous ones to pacify local linguistic and cultural groups.

The results have been mixed. Calcutta was changed to Kolkata but the city's leading English daily, The Telegraph, continues to cock a snook every day by referring to the city by its former name. Chennai, which replaced Madras, or Bengaluru, which pushed out Bangalore, have had a smoother transition.

While names may be changed by an abrupt political move, the perennial organic identity of a city nurtured over centuries, many feel, outlasts any such decision.

"Not only is there enormous subjectivity in the writing of history, there is equal subjectivity in the reception of history," Prof Gour says. "There is such a culture of cynicism, humour and argument in this city. After a while, the edge of this change will be blunted and life will go on very much as it has."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline 'Allahabad renamed, in time for the polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe