Changing names: neither passion nor pastime but juvenile mischief

The futile, even foolish, demands for changing allegedly Islamic names reflect poorly on people making such demands, writes Arun Sharma

Changing names: neither passion nor pastime but juvenile mischief

Arun Sharma

Histories make men wise, thought Elizabethan essayist Francis Bacon. He would have revised his opinion, had he been alive and in India. That is because a particular period in Indian history, dating from the entry of the barely sixteen years old Arab military commander Muhammad ibn Qasim in Sind in the year 711AD till roughly the battle of Plassey in 1757, has made many Indians lose their head.

What else can explain the frenzied demands to change names of cities and monuments with Mughal or Muslim association, the latest being the demand to change the names of some 40 villages and all roads with Mughal or Muslim names located within the outer limits of Delhi, and in the Capital city itself ?

What else can explain their insistence to survey the basement of the Taj Mahal for evidence, if any, of a Shiva temple there, to insist on the survey of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, and the Idgah complex in Mathura for a similar reason, and to insist on reading the Hanuman Chalisa from the Qutub Minar, which they claim was Vishnu Stambh?

This idea to change namesis senseless, as changing names of places will not change the past. By changing the name of Akbar Road to Rana Pratap Road is not going to convert the defeat of the Rajput warrior at Haldighati at the hands of a Mughal army led by Raja Man Singh, into his victory.

Indeed, if taken to its logical conclusion, the exercise to erase what are called by these people ‘symbols of slavery’ would mean demolition of the Red Fort, the Fatehpur Sikri and thousands of other buildings across the country.

Such a scenario would also require the Prime Minister to deliver his Independence Dayspeech from a locationother than the Red Fort. The country’s capital could actually be shifted to Ayodhya, which would make it a perfect setting for the Hindu Rashtra, though it is ridiculous to separate Hindu culture from Muslim culture or ‘purify’ the one from the other. As renowned historian Irfan Habib mentioned in a speech some time ago, ‘If the BJP is really intent on changing names with Islamic roots, then Amit Shah should first change his own name’ because Shah having a Persian root.

There are thousands of words and traditions with Arabic, Persian or what is perceived as Muslim background which have been so assimilated by Hindus as to be unrecognisable as foreign. One wonders that when the word baraat is Arabic, how did it come about that there was a baraat of Shivji (Lord Shiva)?

In Rajasthan, and I believe in some other Northern states too, the wedding procession that sets out from the groom’s house for the bride’s house is known as nikasi, a variation of nikah, which is Arabic. I stayed for some time, in one of my elder cousin’s flat in a building called Bakhtawar, in South Mumbai. The name Bakhtawar is a popular name for boys in many Muslim countries. It was, perhaps, also the name of an Iranian God.

I also recall that the name Bakhtawar was found in rural Rajasthan among Hindus. The Late Khuswant Singh cites that the name Iqbal can pass as a Hindu, Sikh or a Muslim name, as in Iqbal Narain, Iqbal Singh and Mohammad Iqbal respectively.

Islamic rule in India was not all about conquests and killings. Contrary to popular perception, the country also benefitted from the Turk-Mongol and Afghan invasions, especially during the Mughal period.

The Mughals unified India under one Empire that by the time of Aurangzeb’s rule extended up to 3.2 million square kilometres, roughly the size of modern India. The Mughal Court was famous for its grandeur and its enormous wealth. Poet John Milton mentions Lahore and Agra among the cities seen by Adam from the hill of Paradise:

…City of old or modern fame, the seat

Of mightiest empire…

And Samarkand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,

To Paquin of Sinaean Kings, and thence

To Agra and Lahore of Great Mogul…

(Paradise Lost, Bk, XI,385-9)

Thomas Moore, another celebrated poet, in his classic work Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance, written in 1817, observed that ‘brilliant displays of life and pageantry among the palaces and domes and gilded minarets of Lahore made the city altogether like a place of enchantment.

It is also erroneous to claim that Mughals were foreigners. Once they came down to the Indian subcontinent and settled here, they became Indians, just as the Aryans did some 3500 years before them. Moreover, Mughal Emperors, after Akbar, had Rajput blood in their veins, as Akbar was married to a Rajput princess. If motherhood has to be equally honoured as paternity is, then beginning from Jehangir onwards, Mughal emperors had Hindu blood as well.

It is also wrong to assume that Hindus and Muslims were in perpetual conflict with each other. In fact, Hindu identity was subsumed under caste and regional loyalties like the Rajput, Marathas, Brahmins etc. Mughal armies against Rana Pratap and Shivaji were commanded by Rajput commanders. This could not have been possible had there been general enmity between the two communities.

Not only was there absence of enmity between Hindus and Muslims, there was much social interaction between them, during the Mughal period. In her book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, historian Audrey Truschke says that the heyday of Muslim rule in India from the 16th to 18th centuries was, in fact, one of ‘tremendous cross-cultural, religious or cultural respect and fertilization, not conflict.

Truschke argues that the current anti-Muslim violence led by the Hindu right groups erroneously ‘erases Mughal history and writes religious conflict into Indian history where there was none, thereby fuelling and justifying modern religious intolerance’.

She points out that Muslims were in fact “deeply interested in traditional Indian learning. Quoting from Sanskrit sources, she writes that there were interactions among Muslim, Hindu and Jain religious scholars during the height of Mughal power from 1560 to 1650.This period also saw translation of many Sanskrit texts into Persian.

“The Mughals held onto power in part through force, just like any other empire,” Truschke admits, “but you have to be careful about attributing that aggression to religious motivations.” The Mughal empire was clearly not intent on turning India into an Islamic state.

Such sane voices are however drowning in the din of abusive propaganda carried on by extremely crude and intolerant Hindu groups, which have called the historian a whore and a bitch and threatened her with rape.

When will better sense prevail?

(The writer is an independent commentator. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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