The Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh has announced that Allahabad, one of its oldest urban centres, will hereafter be called Prayagraj. The decision reeks of arbitrariness and political motives, since the residents, the main stakeholders of the city of Allahabad, have not been known to pitch for a change of name as a priority. The city, once a teeming cosmopolitan centre of learning, cultural production, politics and industry, has been in decline over the past few decades, mirroring the marginalisation of this region in national affairs. The name change, an act of erasure of history and memory, is hardly likely to address any of the city’s problems or the many unfulfilled aspirations of its residents.
Allahabad is located at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical, unseen Saraswati. As has been pointed out, the vast space at the sangam where the Kumbh is held has always been referred to as Prayagraj. Mughal emperor Akbar is credited with the building of the modern Allahabad city in the 16th century, when he constructed a fort that overlooked the sangam, which then had immense strategic value. It is this Mughal connection that seems to be driving the revanchists who wants to wipe out all references to Mughal history. A BJP spokesperson has tried to connect the renaming of Allahabad, and before that, of Mughalsarai, with the Namami Gange project, suggesting that a river holy for Hindus cannot have any reference points related to past Muslim rulers. Ironically, Akbar is said to have chosen the name Ilahabad for the city to press his syncretic religious idea espoused in the Din-i Ilahi; Ilahabad is the city of gods, its pluralistic heritage includes not just Hindu and Islamic traditions but also a Christian lineage derived from its colonial inheritance.
The puritanical zeal among BJP leaders to sweep clean UP’s social, cultural and political spheres of Islamic influence is dangerous. Muslims constitute nearly 20 per cent of the state’s population — at over 38 million it is comparable to the entire population of Kerala, or Poland. To deny such a large population its due share in public life, and collective memory, is to practise exclusionary politics. In the past two elections — the 2014 general election and 2017 assembly polls — the BJP had refused to field a single Muslim from any of the 80 Lok Sabha seats or the 403 assembly constituencies of the state. It seems the party wants to extend this political untouchability to other spheres and censor and edit even cultural markers in the state’s civic life.