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opinion

Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based journalist.

Indians have often demanded that the countries to which they have migrated should, after a suitable period, grant them citizenship. If a government refuses to do so, they become angry. It’s my right, my children were born here, I am settled here, this is my home now.

Fair enough.

Yet descendants of the Muslim Mughal dynasty, which ruled India for almost 400 years, are considered outsiders by those same people who wish to claim citizenship, today’s Hindus. Although their forefathers came from Central Asia, the Mughals settled in India. Some took Hindu wives, made India their home and died here. So why is the current government, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), busy renaming towns to remove any names that sound even remotely Muslim and replacing them with Hindu ones? The federal government has given consent to the renaming of at least 25 towns and villages in the past year. The latest is in Uttar Pradesh where BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has renamed Faizabad district as Ayodhya. Last year, he gave Mughalsarai railway station a Hindu name. Last month, he renamed Allahabad city as Prayagraj. Other BJP chief ministers are also going to get rid of Muslim-sounding names.

Why do Hindus, who are the majority and currently ruled by the BJP, which glorifies Hindu culture, seem so insecure? So much so that renaming a city satisfies some obscure and deep need? From their behaviour, you would think they were a besieged minority seeking solace in symbolic acts.

Indians, of course, are not the only ones to rename cities. The Bolsheviks (who even renamed their country) turned St. Petersburg into Leningrad to honour Lenin. Opposing empires have turned a beautiful city variously into Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. The Vietnamese got rid of Saigon (a westernized form of the traditional name) and made it Ho Chi Minh City as a rejection of French colonialism. Ever since the end of apartheid, South Africans have renamed streets, airports and towns to obliterate those given by their Afrikaans oppressors. And Indians have renamed major streets named after British personages for the same reason – to repudiate their colonial rulers.

But to erase names given by the Mughals, their own ancestors? This is not the same as repudiating foreign rulers (the British) or indigenous oppressors (the Afrikaans). The reason for the renaming is that the BJP and some of its supporters cannot abide the act that India was ruled by Muslims. Externally, they feel loathing and hatred for the Mughals qua Muslims. Internally, they feel sheepish and diminished that a Hindu-majority country came to be ruled by Muslims and for so long.

This practice is plain silly. The BJP have three Muslim ministers in the government right now. Why not get them to change their names, too? And why not, as respected historian Irfan Habib has suggested, get the BJP president Amit Shah (a Hindu, of course) to change his surname because the name Shah is of Persian origin?

The renaming business, if taken to its logical conclusion, would require that insecure Hindus stop eating biryani (a Mughal dish), stop wearing the sherwani (a long, formal coat), stop listening to Sufi music and shut down the Taj Mahal (don’t laugh – some members of the Hindu fringe claim preposterously that the monument built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was originally a Hindu temple). In fact, the Taj Mahal in particular upsets Hindu extremists because it is the symbol of India for the world – and it is Muslim.

When you suffer from an inferiority complex, you feel compelled to launch a renaming campaign as a way of telling your Muslim minority, your fellow-citizens, that they have made no contribution to India’s cultural life. That whatever the Mughals did is of no value, despite the fact that it is their buildings and monuments that Indians and foreigners admire.

Indian Muslims have already been forced by this government to be on the defensive over the issue of beef, which has been used to attack and lynch them. But to go on a renaming spree, which sends the message that their cultural contribution is zero, is the height of pettiness and a new low.

The latest spate of renaming is also an insult to Indian voters. A general election is due next year and it takes no great depth of political analysis to see that the BJP hopes that renaming cities will help voters forget that it has hardly fulfilled any of its grandiose promises and that life for most ordinary Indians continues to be as hard as ever. So rename cities rather than create jobs.

Rename Faizabad rather than tackle the pollution in Faizabad. Rename Mughalsarai railway station rather than keep the platforms clean and give travelers modern amenities. Rename Allahabad rather than remove the stinking piles of rubbish and drains clogged with filth.

In fact, under this government’s own Ministry of Urban Development’s cleanliness rankings last year, most of the major cities in Mr, Adityanath’s state, Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest, fared badly on all parameters. But why bother trying to address that?

Getting rid of Muslim names is both a spiteful petty act against Muslims and bread and circuses.

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