What’s in a name?” asked the wise Bard and answered: “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, II, 2, 43-44) By the same token, a sprig of asafoetida, by any other word or name, would smell as fetid. So, I want to ask: Will Prayagraj be less poor, less crowded, less chaotic, less lawless in regard to traffic laws, less illiterate, more open, more salubrious than poor old Allahabad? The city has not changed for the better over the last 60 years since my parents made it their home and where I have lived permanently for the same number of years.
The Allahabad that I remember from 1953, when I came here as a young man to study at the feet of the giants of English studies in those days (SC Deb, PE Dustoor, and many others) was a city of peace, quiet, erudition and urbanity. It was a city of Hindi and Urdu and even English writers, Sanskrit and Arabic-Persian scholars, scientists, historians and economists, and saintly Hindus and Muslims who imprinted their name on the pages of the city’s glorious history.
I, like many others, have seen the beloved city of Nirala, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Mahadevi Varma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Sukhdev Prasad Bismil Ilahabadi and scores of others slide ineluctably deeper into the slough of culturelessness, and the filth of urbanisation and unplanned expansion. Will all this change when you remove Allahabad and install Prayagraj in its place?
Does name-changing also mean game-changing? Perhaps, in this case, it does. A senior leader declared that the change will erase Akbar’s name from the people’s memory. What will that achieve? It won’t fill the people’s belly, it won’t find a suitable husband for the rickshaw puller’s daughter, it won’t prevent a helpless man’s daughter from being raped. Will there be more betis saved and more betis educated and given employment?
What and who exactly was Akbar, I’ll leave for the historians to testify. I just want to testify that Allahabad was not the name given to the city by Akbar. Akbar named it Ilahabas/Ilahabad. The holy city of Prayagraj remained where it was and still is: on and around the confluence of Triveni, Ganga, and Jamna (or Yamuna, if you want to be a pedant) where the annual Magh Mela was held and is still held. Akbar elevated this part of the country by combining, in 1580, a number of existing subas (provinces); he created a new suba. Its headquarters was called Ilahabas/Ilahabad.
In Arabic, and so also in Persian and Urdu, ilah does not mean Allah, the “one and indivisible, the unbegotten who begot no one”. It simply means, “god, any god”. So when Akbar named the city Ilahabas/Ilahabad, he was doing an honour to the people. He called it the “abode of divinity”. If someone wants to change the name to Prayagraj, it’s not a disrespect to Akbar or any other benighted Mughal but to the divinity which resides here.
Where does the modern name Allahabad come from? It is a spelling and pronunciation given by the British. I don’t know if it was meant to spite the Hindus, or “honour” the Muslims, or it was just ignorance and cussedness. Most probably it was the latter. It’s not unlikely that ears that could hear Kanhapur (Kanha’s city) as Cawnpore and Lakhna’u (Lakshman’s city) as Lucknow and Avadh as Oude, would hear Allah-abad instead of plain old Ilahabad. No one who speaks any of the languages spoken here and around here — Hindi-Urdu, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Pratapgarhi — pronounces the city’s name as Allahabad, or Allah-Abad (The City of Allah). This name is a purely foreign entity. Abolish it if you will. No one will be happier than I, because it jars on my Indian ears. I grew up saying and hearing “Ilahabad” and am quite happy with it.
To seize an existing entity and rename it — for whatever purpose, malice, spite, assertion of small mindedness, denial of history — is obnoxious and not something that befits a sovereign, self-confident national government. It may feed the malice of a few and sadden the hearts of quite a few more, but it won’t add anything positive to the treasury of the nation’s psyche. Ironically, the names “High Court of Judicature at Allahabad” and “University of Allahabad” will remain unchanged, unless two separate amendments are promulgated by Parliament to the Acts which named them so. I understand that the change will cost a massive amount of public money.
It has been said that those who object to the change from Allahabad (Ilahabad) to Prayagraj have no knowledge of history. It has also been said the name change will eradicate Akbar’s name from Allahabad (Ilahabad)’s history. But the boot would seem to be on the other leg. The name Allahabad is a British legacy. Akbar’s true legacy to this city starts with the Ilahabad Fort—from where his beloved son Salim ruled as a rebel sultan, with a unilateral declaration of kingship over the Mughal Empire. Salim was here as rebel king from 1599 to 1604. He struck coins in his name, had his name mentioned as Sultan and Zill-ul-Lah in formal perorations before the Friday prayers. He assembled, in fact, created an Ilahabad school of Mughal painting here, had writers and calligraphers produce books of art and literature.
Let the Fort be pulled down (the cost in terms of riverine traffic, environment degradation and capital investment would be astronomical) but the annals of history cannot be emptied of those five years of Salim Jahangir’s rule. Then we have the Khusrau Bagh, where is buried Jahangir’s son and Akbar’s favourite grandson, who missed becoming the Mughal Emperor by a hair’s breadth. History is not a mere word in a dictionary that can be obliterated by fiat. It is a time, a people, and a sensibility. It stays with you, however much you may deny it.