Imagine if the state of Texas decided it didn’t like any reminder of its once proud independent past (it was its own nation from 1836-1845) and decided to rename Houston. Henceforth, the title, which had reflected General Sam Houston, president of the short-lived Texas republic, would become known as Bushville, after the last names of the 41st and 43rd American presidents.
The scenario may sound ridiculous, but this is close to what happened in India recently. Residents of Allahabad, a city in the northeastern part of the country that has roughly the same population as Houston, woke up one day to find out they were living in a place with another name.
NPR, which is running a series this week on how India is redefining itself through the Hindu faith, told how this happened.
Tens of millions of Hindus took a ritual dip in the Ganges River this winter as part of the largest religious festival in the world — the Kumbh Mela. For centuries, the festival has been held in various cities in northern India, including Allahabad.
But when pilgrims arrived this year for the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad had a different name.
Last year, officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party changed the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj — a word that references the Hindu pilgrimage site there. The name Allahabad dated to the 16th century, a legacy of a Muslim ruler, the Mughal Emperor Akbar. "Today, the BJP government has rectified the mistake made by Akbar," a BJP official was quoted as saying when the name was altered.
Name changes for cities aren’t entirely unknown. After all, in 2016, Barrow, Alaska, residents voted to change the name of their municipality back to Utqiagvik, its original Inupiaq name.
But the folks in India are onto something much deeper. This isn’t simply the renaming of Indian cities to reflect pre-British colonial heritage. This is erasing the region’s Islamic history.
Over the past five years of Modi's term as prime minister, Hindu nationalist politicians from the BJP have renamed Indian towns, streets, airports and one of the country's biggest train stations, swapping names that reflect Muslim heritage for Hinducentric ones. In doing so, they are revising the map of India and trying to rewrite its history.
Now where have we heard that before? Well, a United Nations committee has denied any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount despite irrefutable archeological evidence. That is, the first and second temples never existed. Neither did Kings David or Solomon.
A Muslim holy place sits atop a former Jewish temple and its occupants wish to rewrite the history of the Mount’s past 3,000 years, leaving out vast swatches of the Bible. The Israeli government won’t remove the al Aqsa mosque. However, the Hindus razed a historic mosque in Ayodhya 27 years ago with thousands of people killed as a result. The protests were massive.
Another NPR story talks about how, after 27 years, the destruction of a mosque and the killing of thousands of protestors, the Hindu majority wants to finish the job.
On Dec. 6, 1992, a mob broke through barricades around the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque in Latifi's hometown of Ayodhya in northern India. He points to where the mosque's three massive stone domes used to be. It's now an open, dusty lot, as wide as a football field, lined with barbed wire…
The mosque was built when India was ruled by the Mughals — Muslim emperors. They built thousands of mosques, forts and other landmarks all over northern India, including the country's most famous: the Taj Mahal, which houses the tomb of the emperor Shah Jahan's favorite wife.
Hard-line Hindus had been calling for years for the Babri mosque to be destroyed. It was built on the exact spot in Ayodhya where Hindu faithful believe a Hindu god, Lord Ram, was born. Some believe a Hindu temple stood there centuries earlier, though it's a matter of debate among archaeologists.
In the late 1980s, calls for the Babri mosque's destruction grew louder. India's dominant political party at the time, the left-leaning, secular Congress party, was mired in corruption scandals. Hindu nationalists — those who believe India should be a Hindu nation — were gaining influence.
The old quarter of Ayodhya, where the Babri mosque stood, is home to dozens of Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Ram and related gods. But many Hindus now want a new Ram Mandir, a temple to Lord Ram, to be built on the same spot where the mosque stood…
What happened in Ayodhya in 1992 was a milestone for Hindutva, or Hindu pride. It's a key element of Modi's vision for India as he runs for reelection this month and next.
For Hindu voters who care deeply about Lord Ram's presumed birthplace, step one was destroying the Babri mosque. Step two is building a Hindu temple in its place. The leaders of Modi's BJP say that after three decades, their party is the force most capable of doing that.
If Modi wins again, and everyone is suspecting he will, keep your attention on what happens at Ayodhya and whether Allahabad’s new name “sticks.” How Modi is proposing to treat India’s Muslim minority is quite different than how the Israeli government gingerly handles its Muslim populace.
Keep a lookout for more NPR news on the region and a continuation of their India series. What goes on in India doesn’t tend to stay there and the more coverage we can get of the volatile Hindu-Muslim mix there, the better.