Friday’s protests in Rajya Sabha over renaming Mughalsarai Junction railway station after Deen Dayal Upadhyay notwithstanding, this is not the first example of such political editing of history, and it is unlikely to be the last. Parties in power across the country have done this routinely — most recently, Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi was renamed after former President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.
The life and philosophy of Deen Dayal Upadhyay has been celebrated since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014, and gained momentum after the party’s triumph in the UP Assembly elections earlier this year. A yearlong celebration of Upadhyay’s birth centenary began in September 2016 and will conclude next month. Upadhyay, who was closely associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, co-founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951, which was re-born as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. Upadhyay was found dead at Mughalsarai railway station in 1968, and sections of the Sangh Parivar have expressed suspicions over the reason for his death.
Before Mughalsarai, Farah town near Mathura, close to where Upadhyay was born, was named after him. The new civil terminal at Agra’s Air Force airport will also be named after the Sangh and BJP icon. The civil terminal at Gorakhpur will be named after Gorakhnath, the 11th century yogi, of whose temple Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is the mahant.
The political project of changing names was taken up aggressively by Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati during her tenures as Chief Minister of UP. A dozen districts got the names of Dalit icons the BSP cherishes: Ambedkar Nagar (Akbarpur), Bhim Nagar (Sambhal), Rama Bai Nagar (Kanpur Dehat), Kanshiram Nagar (Kasganj), Gautam Buddha Nagar (NOIDA), Jyotiba Phule Nagar (Amroha), Sant Ravi Das Nagar (Bhadohi) Sant Kabir Nagar (Khalilabad), Mahamaya Nagar (Hathras), Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj Nagar (Amethi), Prabuddh Nagar (Shamli) and Panchsheel Nagar (Hapur). While the BJP has been criticised for attempting to paint over the legacy of the Mughals in renaming Mughalsarai and Farah, Mayawati too superimposed her Dalit iconography on old, established names of Hindustani language and culture.
The Samajwadi Party, BSP’s rival in UP, largely did not create its own set of new names, but chose to turn the clock back on some of the changes that Mayawati made. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav reverted to original names such as Amroha, Sambhal, Hapur, Shamli, Kasganj, Hathras and Amethi — the restoration of Hindustani names was the SP’s way to reassure its substantial Urdu-speaking base. During his time as Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav had created two districts named after historical places associated with The Buddha — Kushinagar and Siddharthanagar. Mulayam did not impose the icons of his own socialist ideology on established names of places.
Under Mayawati, habitation development schemes for areas with substantial Dalit populations were named after Babasaheb Ambedkar (villages) and Kanshi Ram (urban). Akhilesh broke with his father’s policy and gave the names of socialist icons Ram Manohar Lohia and Janeshwar Mishra to schemes of village development. Mayawati built parks and memorials named after Ambedkar, Ramabai Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram; the SP created its own Lohia Park and Janeshwar Mishra Park in Lucknow.
The renaming of the Farah and Mughalsarai stations after Deen Dayal Upadhyay is in line with the BJP’s larger political project of broadbasing its icons and establishing them in a wider Indian consciousness. The party has always felt that the Congress utilised the iconography of the stalwarts of India’s freedom movement in its post-Independence politics. It has now framed its response along two lines that converge at the end — the first, aimed at diluting the political capital of the Nehru-Gandhi family by aggressively promoting the iconography of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Ambedkar, Lohia, Jay Prakash Narayan and Madan Mohan Malviya, who were in many ways ignored by the Congress; the second, intended to build up a new iconography of figures such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Upadhyay and Syama Prasad Mookerjee, whose appeal has so far been largely restricted to ideological and political circles affiliated with the Sangh Parivar.
The renaming of Farah and Mughalsarai should be seen in this context. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led this political project from the front. In his speeches, he has clubbed Mahatma Gandhi, Lohia and Upadhyay in a troika of Indian political thought leaders of the last century. The exclusion of Jawaharlal Nehru has been obvious, as has been the attempt to appeal to the socialist strand of Indian political thought.