India Is Changing Some Cities' Names, And Muslims Fear Their Heritage Is Being Erased Officials have been altering names to become more Hinducentric. "It is very dangerous for national integrity and unity," says a historian. The changes accelerated ahead of this year's elections.
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India Is Changing Some Cities' Names, And Muslims Fear Their Heritage Is Being Erased

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India Is Changing Some Cities' Names, And Muslims Fear Their Heritage Is Being Erased

India Is Changing Some Cities' Names, And Muslims Fear Their Heritage Is Being Erased

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The world's biggest democracy, India, is holding elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running for a second term. This week, we're bringing you a series of stories about social issues that matter in this election. And Modi is a member of a Hindu nationalist party that's changing the map of India. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports on how the names of Indian cities and landmarks are being changed and what that says about how Indians view their history.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Millions of Hindus splashed into the Ganges River this winter as part of the world's biggest Hindu gathering, the Kumbh Mela...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: ...Which, for centuries, took place in a city with a Muslim name, Allahabad. India is a majority-Hindu country that was ruled by a Muslim empire, the Mughals, for more than 300 years and after that, the British. The name Allahabad came from a Mughal emperor in the 16th century. Last year, officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party changed the name of this city to Prayagraj, the name of an earlier Hindu settlement here. It might seem like a merely bureaucratic hassle. The high court is keeping the name Allahabad; so is the local university. At the head post office, postmaster Ram Nath Yadav says he will change the name on the sign outside, along with a lot of rubber stamps inside.

RAM NATH YADAV: All the names, all the stamps are to be changed. It will take time.

FRAYER: The issue here, though, is not just the name of one city. In the past five years, Hindu nationalist politicians have renamed towns, streets, airports and one of the country's biggest train stations. A generation ago, Bombay was renamed Mumbai. Madras became Chennai. But this is a new wave of name changes, and it's not about erasing colonial titles. It's about erasing Muslim ones.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Vocalizing).

FRAYER: About 1 in 6 Indians is Muslim. They're the biggest faith group after Hindus. In Allahabad, many Muslims trace their lineage back centuries.

ASHRAF AHMED: It's basically our culture and heritage. Muslims currently facing some problem from this government.

FRAYER: You're speaking more quietly and more quietly.

AHMED: (Laughter) Yeah.

FRAYER: So this is a sensitive thing.

Ashraf Ahmed is a Muslim IT business owner who spoke furtively when I met him outside his neighborhood mosque. This is a country where Hindu Muslim riots have erupted many times.

Has the situation for Muslims changed?

AHMED: No, nothing yet. Yeah.

FRAYER: You said yet.

AHMED: Yeah, a little bit. You can - for Muslim, it's a little bit tense these days.

FRAYER: You're nervous.

AHMED: Yeah, little bit nervous for current situation on government policies.

FRAYER: He worries that erasing his hometown's Muslim name is a step toward erasing his history, his identity, disenfranchising India's Muslim citizens. Modi's government has also proposed a new Indian law that grants citizenship to anyone facing religious persecution in neighboring countries, except if they're Muslim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOGI ADITYANATH: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "We cannot let Muslim invaders from centuries ago define us today," says the man behind many of these name changes, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India's biggest state, Uttar Pradesh. He's a Hindu priest and a member of Prime Minister Modi's ruling party. He's frequently railed against Muslims for allegedly committing what he calls love Jihad - marrying Hindu girls. Historian Heramb Chaturvedi was at his office at the University of Allahabad when he first heard about the name change.

HERAMB CHATURVEDI: I was in the university, and I was totally aghast.

FRAYER: He's a Hindu too, but he's totally against the name change. Look around this city, he says.

CHATURVEDI: Typical Mughal architecture - you'll find typical Mughal architecture, and they're absolutely intact - beautiful paintings, calligraphy.

FRAYER: This is the land of those Muslim emperors and also of the Buddha and of Gandhi. Diversity is India's strength, Chaturvedi says. But an entire lifetime after casting off colonial rule, India is now reclaiming its Hindu-ness or Hindutva. The push has been led by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. And it's not only renaming cities. It's also rewriting school textbooks. It's banned beef in many states because cows are sacred to Hindus. And it's encouraging Indians to take a more critical look at their history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Tour groups roam the Allahabad birthplace of the late Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. It's an ornate mansion, the Indian equivalent of Mount Vernon or Monticello. Nehru wanted India to be a secular, multifaith country. For decades, Nehru was revered, one of India's founding fathers. But his vision has fallen out of favor with those in power now.

YOGESHWAR TIWARI: Every nation goes through course correction, and there is nothing wrong in course correction.

FRAYER: Yogeshwar Tiwari heads the University of Allahabad's history department. He's the other historian Chaturvedi's boss. But he vehemently disagrees with him. Tiwari believes Hindu accomplishments have been covered up for centuries and that Hindu pride has been mislabeled as right wing by leftists, colonial rulers and elites - yes, even by India's own founding fathers.

TIWARI: Under Nehru - Nehru was a socialist, and under him, the left historians, they gained dominance, center stage. So anything which was not palatable to them, they dismissed it, saying, oh, this is right wing. History is neither right. History is neither left. History is history. Let's take it that way.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Unintelligible) that's a social problem.

FRAYER: At the Allahabad Public Library, which also has yet to change its name, patriotic 20-somethings are studying to be civil servants. Sarita Jaiswal says her school books always use the word Allahabad, but new information has now come to light, she says.

SARITA JAISWAL: (Through interpreter) We're re-examining ancient Hindu texts and sharing excerpts responsibly on social media. I agree with the new effort to remap areas and rewrite history. I want to work in government to be a part of this.

FRAYER: If she passes her exams, she'll be part of this new class of civil servants, not just renaming Indian cities and landmarks but reinterpreting Indian history through a Hindu lens. They may enact small changes with big consequences over time. Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Allahabad, now Prayagraj, India.

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