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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Explained: Why the stakes are high in renaming of Aurangabad as Sambhaji Nagar

The controversy has led to a war of words between the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) allies Shiv Sena and Congress, with the BJP trying to corner the Sena on the issue. Why is so much at stake, and for whom?

Written by Vishwas Waghmode | Mumbai | Updated: January 6, 2021 8:36:40 am
renaming Aurangabad, Sambhaji Nagar, Maharashtra govt, Indian express explained, Indian express newsPaintings in the Ajanta caves, among several tourist spots in Aurangabad district. (Express Archive)

A long standing demand of the Shiv Sena for renaming Aurangabad city in Maharashtra as Sambahji Nagar has resurfaced over the last few days. The controversy has led to a war of words between the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) allies Shiv Sena and Congress, with the BJP trying to corner the Sena on the issue. Why is so much at stake, and for whom?

The city and its name

Aurangabad was built in 1610 by Malik Ambar of the Nijamshahi dynasty. It was renamed Aurangabad by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb when he made it his capital. Aurangzeb, who lived in Aurangabad until his death, tortured and killed Chhatrapati Sambahji Maharaj, son of the Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

In the late 1980s, the Sena started to expand beyond the Mumbai-Thane region and came to power in the local body in the Aurganbad city. During the victory rally on May 8, 1988, Shiv Sena chief the late Balasaheb Thackeray announced that the city would be renamed Sambhaji Nagar. “Balasaheb had justified the renaming saying that Sambhaji Maharaj was kept captive by Aurangzeb who tortured and killed him,” said Chandrakant Khaire, former Sena MP from Aurangabad.

Since then, the Sena has been using Sambhaji Nagar instead of Aurangabad in political rhetoric and in the party newspaper Saamna. In 1995, the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) passed a resolution to rename Aurangabad as Sambhaji Nagar.

The then Sena-led government in Maharashtra headed by CM Manohar Joshi issued a notification seeking public suggestions and objections on changing the city’s name. Then Congress corporator Mushtaq Ahmed challenged it in the High Court, which disposed of the matter stating that no decision had been taken. “Then, I went to the Supreme Court that granted a stay on the notification and the status quo was maintained. After the Congress-NCP came to power in 1999, the government withdrew the notification,” said Ahmed, who is now with NCP. He said if MVA takes a decision on renaming, he will challenge the decision in court.

Since then, the renaming has been a contentious issue that resurfaces ahead of every election. It has now become a point of tension between the MVA alliance partners ahead of the AMC elections, likely to be held in the first quarter of this year.

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Why the name matters

Eager to corner Sena and challenge its Hindutva credentials, the BJP has been daring its former ally to effect the name change. The BJP has repeatedly taunted Sena about the difficulty of keeping an old promise with its new secular allies the Congress and NCP.

In March 2020, the Maharashtra cabinet approved a proposal to rename the Aurangabad airport as Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj Airport. However, this has not yet got the go-ahead from the Centre. Sources said the Divisional Commissioner has sent a report on the renaming of Aurangabad city to the government.

Aurangabad city’s population of 11.75 lakh (Census 2011) includes 51% Hindus and 30.8% Muslims. The Lok Sabha seat is represented by Imtiaz Jaleel of AIMIM, who defeated four-time Sena MP Khaire in 2019. So, a decision to rename the city will resonate in the civic polls, as well as across the state.

Parties and their stakes

The Sena is keen on the renaming to assert its Hindutva agenda, while the Congress has opposed the move for fear of upsetting its Muslim supporters in the city. If the Sena shows caution for the sake of the coalition, the BJP will project it as a dilution of the Sena’s saffron credentials. Failure by the Congress to take on the Sena, on the other hand, will be projected by the AIMIM as a betrayal of the former’s secular credentials.

The BJP hopes cornering the Sena would force it to go for broke, possibly causing a split in MVA. Talk of the Sena going for a Cabinet resolution on the renaming has elicited angry reactions from the Congress, but there is no definite indication that CM Uddhav Thackeray is about to take such a step.

Other than its potential as a coalition divider, the issue may also give the BJP a weapon to mobilise its cadres ahead of the election. It badly needs a victory after its failure to form the government last year, and setbacks in the Legislative Council and local body elections.

But pushing this pedal hard could also backfire on the BJP. Its ally the Republican Party of India, which draws its votes from Muslims and Dalits in Aurangabad, has said it will oppose any move to rename the city. Also, the BJP may find itself sidelined if the war of statements between Sena and Congress makes these two parties the main opponents. The BJP, for its part, hopes that the RPI’s opposition will keep Congress from occupying that space fully.

AIMIM MP Jaleel said that every five years, the Sena and BJP bring this issue out so that nobody raises questions about water, sanitation, roads, gardens, open spaces and jobs. “We have the greatest respect for Sambhaji Maharaj but to use his name for cheap political gains is highly condemnable,” Jaleel tweeted.

The NCP has so far been careful not to get caught in the war of words between its two allies. Deputy CM Ajit Pawar has only said the Opposition is trying to create a rift between the MVA allies and a decision on renaming would be taken collectively.

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