Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath did not give any reason for changing the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj, but it is clear that the decision was prompted by the BJP’s politics. The BJP is uncomfortable with any name which has an Islamic, especially Mughal, origin or association, be it of a city, a road, a railway station or other bodies and institutions. Only recently did the central government rename the Mughalsarai station in UP as the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya station. Faizabad may become Ayodhya and Nurpur in Himachal Pradesh, associated with Nur Jahan, may become Ram Singh Nagar. There is also a move to change Ahmedabad to Karnavati. There was no demand from the residents of Allahabad for a change of the city’s name. The demand was made by the BJP and its government has agreed to it.
Allahabad is located at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, and the Sangam area has traditionally been known as Prayag. The modern city of Allahabad was built by Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century and he named it ‘Ilahabad’ in a reference to Din-i Ilahi, the syncretic faith propounded by him by merging elements from different religions. But neither Akbar nor the idea of an inclusive religion passes the Hindutva muster, and the tradition that they represent is considered alien. It was therefore to be rejected. The urge to change names arises from the idea that history needs to be purged of all that is not suitable to the BJP-RSS worldview and therefore are arbitrarily and ideologically dubbed ‘alien’. In the process, history is distorted and rewritten, and tradition is falsified. Distortions and misrepresentations are done in many ways, by making new narratives, whitewashing some events and personalities and demonising others, and banishing some and inventing others. The name changes are a part of this.
Such an exercise does violence to the idea of India as an inclusive and pluralistic society — the very idea of Din-i Ilahi and the inspiration behind Ilahabad — which has a tradition where different steams have flowed in, mixed and commingled. A city is not like a rose that would smell as sweet by any other name. It does not live just in the present but has its roots deep in the past, in the lives of all the people who have come and gone and in all the events that have swept through it. Its name evokes all these associations. Allahabad, though itself a corruption of Allahabad, is at a confluence of many intellectual, cultural and political streams of past and present India. The name evokes that composite identity, and to change it is to erase memory and black out a part of its identity. It seeks to change our imagination and, therefore, our idea of ourselves.