Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Rajya Sabha MP Shwait Malik (center right) joins BJP national secretary Tarun Chugh (center left) and other BJP workers in posing with brooms to mark the start of a 'cleanliness drive' commemorating the birthday of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Amritsar on Sept. 17. (Photo by Narinder Nanu/AFP)
India's ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on a name-changing spree as it attempts to re-label famous places associated with Muslims and adopt Hindu names instead, in line with its Hindu nationalist ideology.
The BJP government in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, renamed the city of Allahabad as Prayagraj on Oct. 24.
The new appellation is linked to the city's ancient name, Prayag, which means "a place of sacrifice." The Hindi word raj, which denotes a king or regime, was added.
The city, which lies on the banks of the Ganges, among the holiest rivers in Hinduism, got its former name from the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 17th century.
Meanwhile, a train station in the same city formerly known as Mughalserai, which translates as "a Mughal inn," has now been renamed Pandit Deendayal Upadhaya Station, adopting the name of the co-founder of the BJP.
Dinesh Sharma, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, told the media on Nov. 15 that the government is also considering changing the name of Allahabad University to Prayagraj University.
"Since the name of Allahabad has been changed to Prayagraj, it's obvious there would be demands to rename other institutions in the district. We will be taking a decision on this after due consideration," Sharma said.
On Nov. 13, Faizabad, another city in the state, was renamed Ayodhya — the ancient city where the Hindu lord Ram is believed to have been born.
Ayodhya is also the name of a tiny town in the state where Hindu groups are pressing to build a temple in tribute to Ram after they demolished a controversial mosque there in 1992.
Hindus claim the Mughal ruler Baber built the mosque in the 16th century after demolishing a Ram temple that had formerly stood in its place.
Faizabad got its name are after the Muslim ruler Sadat Ali Khan was made regional governor by the Mughals in the 17th century.
People perform rituals as part of the Hindu festival of Chhath Puja on Nov. 13 at the Ganges River in Allahabad, considered a holy city. The Uttar Pradesh state government in October changed the city's name to Prayagraj, linking to its ancient Hindu name of Prayag, which meaning 'a place of sacrifice.' (Photo by IANS)
Now BJP leaders are demanding other cities and towns like Muzzafarnagar and Agra, which also have strong Muslim connections, also be renamed. They want Agra to be called Harigarh, which means "the place of Hari." Hari is another name of the Hindu god Vishnu.
The sweeping move to "Hinduize" key geographical locations on the Indian map has come directly from the state cabinet headed by Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh's chief minister and a Hindu priest-turned-politician.
Projected as the BJP's new face in India, he also serves as chief priest of the state's famous Gorakhnath (Shiva) temple in Gorakhpur.
Adityanath is known for his hard-line views. In 2005 he was accused of being an active member of a re-conversion drive known as "Ghar Wapsi" where 1,800 Christians were reportedly converted to Hinduism in the town of Etah in Uttar Pradesh.
He is also known to make inflammatory speeches and has gone on record several times urging young Hindus to avenge the "insult of Muslims" marrying Hindu women.
Indian Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath during the opening ceremony of a solar power plant in Mirzapur on March 12. (Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP)
But rights activists have upped the ante and say that if the name-changing trend is allowed to continue unchallenged, it will create chaos in the country.
BJP critics like Christian leader A. C. Michael suggest the move is line with the party's accepted ideology of turning India into a Hindu nation, where people of other religions would be relegated to the status of second-class citizens.
"What is wrong with this move is that it's being done based on hatred. It's being done to deliberately hurt the followers of one religion and appease another," Michael told ucanews.com.
"The government, instead of acting as a champion of one religious group, must act as a neutral body and take care of people who hail from various ideologies and faiths," he added.
Khalid Ahmad, who studies medieval history at Islamic University in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, told ucanews.com that various reports indicate the BJP-led federal government plans to authorize the renaming of 25 cities and towns that have strong Muslim ties before the national election next year.
"There is a high chance the government will rename the southern Indian state Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar, and Ahmadabad as Karnavati. All this is being done to appease the majority Hindus and make Muslims feel more insecure," said Khalid.
Ishika Gupta, a blogger who writes mainly on history, said that, "a lot of tax payers' money is being wasted on changing the names of these cities. The government could have used those funds for the betterment of the poor."
For Sameer Yasin, a rights activist based in New Delhi, this is just another political tactic aimed at diverting people's attention from more pressing economic, social or political issues.
"The national elections are just five months away and instead of talking about development and the economy, we are debating changing the names of our cities. This is nothing but a government plank to divert attention away from the real issues," Yasin said.
Half of India's 1.2 billion people are younger than 25, with two-thirds under 35, and many are struggling to find jobs.
A recent report by the International Labor organization indicates that 399 million of India's 535-million-strong labor force next year will only be able to land a menial or low-grade position.
"The government wants to run away from such issues and it has found an escape route in the politics of appeasement," Yasin told ucanews.com.
Hindus make up 80 percent of India's population. Muslims account for 14 percent and Christians just 2.3 percent.