Prejudice by Any Name
A SHORT essay ascribed to legendary Khwaja Ahmed Abbas ribs India's atavistic urge to change
names of cities and towns from their extant versions to something old if vague. When Benares was
renamed Varanasi to comply with an identity rooted in mythology, Abbas wrote: "I landed at therailway station. The freshly painted signboard celebrated Varanasi. Outside the station, the
sweetshop announced itself as Varanasi Mishthaan Bhandaar. At the post office, the clerk was
stamping letters and parcels with his new official seal. Varanasi, Varanasi, Varanasi, it went. I asked
the man the name of the city we were both in. He said Benares."
It's still Banarasi sari, Banarasi thumri and Banarasi paan, however, just as Mumbai continues to have its
Bombay High Court or Bombay Stock Exchange and Bombay Duck, which is actually the name of a
Curiously, the politically inspired name-changing spree has ignored a rather obvious foreign influence
from its ambit - the keenly sought and embraced identity called Hindu. It is uniformly acknowledged that
the name originated in West Asia, apparently as a description of India's dark-tanned inhabitants.
There's reference in a Persian verse by Hafiz Shirazi to a black mole on the beloved's cheek, for which the
poet, to his ruler's chagrin, was willing to surrender the fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. (Agar
aa'n Turk-i-Shirazi bidast aarad dil-i-maara'h / Bi khaal-i-hindu yash bakhsham Samarkand-o-Bukhara ra.)
Good manners elude the RSS, given its gargantuan appetite
for hate. For this and more, it cultivates a perverse sense of
It is also agreed that there was no reference to Hindu in Vedic texts. What passes for Hindu revivalism is
essentially a new construct, a work in progress. That's why well-regarded historians believe that Hindus
can be anything but fundamentalists, for unlike Semitic religions and some others such as Sikhism, there is
no all-embracing fundamental to define a community.
Respected historian Irfan Habib stirred up the pot for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party the other day,
slamming its apparent resolve to erase Muslim references in India's past. Habib cocked a snook at the
ruling party by pointing out how the surname of Amit Shah, the BJP's president handpicked by Prime
Minister Narendra Modi, is of Persian origin. In the pre-election melee of changing names of towns and
cities from their Muslim references to a real or imagined ancient origin - Allahabad as Prayaag and
Faizabad as Ayodhya, for example - Shah too must drop his name, says Habib.
His surname 'Shah' is of Persian origin and not of Gujarati, the professor told the Times of India. That
insight should ideally give heart to the BJP's opponents ahead of next year's electoral showdown. Sadly,
some self-serving ideologues of the main opposition Congress party seem to be searching for a Hindutva-
like identity themselves, and have announced in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh that cow urine would be
commercially packaged as an elixir.
"Even the term Gujarat itself is of Persian origin. It was called Gurjaratra earlier. They should also change
it," the 87-year-old professor emeritus says. When recently the Modi establishment renamed Delhi's
Aurangzeb Road, Habib challenged the government to erase the name of Todarmal from a road named
after Emperor Akbar's Hindu aide.
The BJP government's renaming spree is very much in line with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's
(RSS) Hindutva policy, says Habib, recalling that in Pakistan too ill-advised changes were made to comply
with the country's regressive Muslim ideologues. "The BJP and its right-wing supporters want to change
things which are non-Hindu, particularly of Islamic origin."
Habib's comment on Shah came when a BJP deputy suggested that the city of Agra be renamed after a
trading community that has a presence in the city. He claimed his Agrawal community were followers of
Maharaja Agrasen who allegedly ruled Agra.
Habib trashed the suggestion, saying the entire history of Maharaja Agrasen was mythical. "It's nothing
but fiction. Secondly, the Agrawal community claims its origin from Agroha in Haryana, and not Agra. So,
both the arguments for renaming the city do not hold water."
How did Agra then come about? Habib, a widely respected academic, believes the first time one heard of 'Agra' was in the reign of Sikandar Lodhi in the 15th century. Before that the area was more prominently
known as Doab - land between Ganga and Yamuna.
Disowning Muslim influence in India with spite could recoil on the RSS, which has been traditionally
headed by Maharashtrian Brahmins. Their handpicked Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis too
is a Brahmin whose surname was a Mughal title, as zamindar and munim elsewhere have a Muslim
imprint. Most pivotal in the region's history was the peshwa, a Persian gift. There would be gastronomical
issues with gulab jamun, jalebi, halwa and kulfi, which could be discarded for their Muslim affinity. The
expansion of Islam sent many foreign communities scurrying to India, and they all brought their food with
them. Each wave brought a culinary habit and with the passage of time all of these got absorbed in the
local cuisine of India.
When the Marathi-speaking RSS chief next holds a public meeting he may want to refrain from calling it a 'jahir sabha', a Marathi blend of Persian (zaahir) and Sanskrit (sabha).
Marathi poems of Eknath in the 17th century were presented as arjadast (arza-dast). Mocking the
chauvinist RSS, Marathi retains Arabic-Persian idioms and expressions in their original forms, such as
adab "culture, literature, good manners". Good manners, however, elude the RSS, given its gargantuan
appetite for hate. For this and more, it cultivates a perverse sense of history. The Urdu poet Firaq
Gorakhpuri, a Hindu, it has to be said in these times of polarising identities, described the making of his
India as a confluence of foreign caravans. "Sarzameen-i-Hind par aqwaam-i-aalam ke Firaq, qaafiley
bastey gai, Hindostan banta gaya." There is no scope for any mob to un-ring the bell of history even by
whitewashing the names of a few roads and cities.