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Renaming the City

Threats and violence, including lynchings, are increasingly normalised for minorities in India. The Citizens Religious Hate Crime Watch in India, which tracks crimes that target an individual or group because of their religious identity, reports that victims are predominantly Muslims, and perpetrators Hindus.

Recently a video ad was circulated on social media, referencing the fear gripping communities: an Indian Muslim boy checks the lunch box prepared by his family, to ensure it doesn’t contain chicken in the fear that it could be considered meat and he could be lynched. This fear for their safety is palpable among families in Kashmir when loved ones travel to India, but now this apprehension is felt by anyone who falls outside the mainstream. 

A few days before, an acquaintance, an Indian Muslim, had to travel to a different part of the country where other faith groups formed the majority, to attend a job interview. His family was so worried for him that he considered cancelling it. He asked me, and other friends, to assure his parents that he’ll be safe there. I could sense the tension and uncertainty preoccupying his parents.

In recent years we have witnessed the rise of Hindutva, which has fuelled discrimination against minorities and the rise of Islamophobia. The statements given by BJP leaders are inflammatory at best. According to BJP MP Subramaniam Swami: ‘Muslims should acknowledge that their ancestors are Hindus, otherwise they shouldn’t have voting rights… If a Muslim of India doesn’t accept that his forefathers were Hindus he can be patriotic, but he is anti-national.’  

In this kind of hostile atmosphere, cities of Muslim heritage are subject to Hinduisation, from Allahabad to Prayagraj, Ahmedabad to Karnavati, proposed first in 1990 and 2001 by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Other name changing proposals in the pipeline are: Aurangabad to be changed to Sambhajinagar, Hyderabad to Bhagyanagaramu, Osmanabad to Dharashiv, Ahmednagar to Anandnagar, Agra to Agravan or Agrawal, Muzaffarnagar to Laxmi Nagar, and the suggestion-list is growing.

This name changing splurge has provoked intense criticism of the government, many of whom have pointed out that BJP leaders should change their own names before renaming cities. Irfan Habib, a noted historian, mentioned that the names like Munsi, Majumdar and Shah also have Islamic origins: ‘Shah is a Farsi word, not Sanskrit. If they have to change names, they should change their own names first, and then change the names of cities’.

This rewriting of history isn’t in their verbal statements alone. Attempts to recreate history in the textbooks include reference to Muslims as foreigners, as ‘Others’. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India is troubled by ‘1200 years of slave mentality’, implying he, and his party, clearly perceive the entirety of the medieval Muslim era, as a period of colonialism of the same category as the British Raj. It is this perception that they are breeding in the public minds, which has led to divisive outcomes.    

There are voices challenging this poisonous atmosphere. Many are vocal in their objections but are nervous about the consequences. According to Assadudin Owaisi, AIMIM chief, ‘Freedom of speech is the right to check the authoritarianism of the Government, but it has now became an exclusive right to the powerful persons of the country.’

Muddasir Ramzan is an aspiring writer and a PhD candidate at the Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at muddasirramzan@gmail. com