Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia

International travelers to India looking forward to a visit to the monument of love regarded as the seventh wonder of the world – the Taj Mahal in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra – may soon be shocked to learn that the city is nowhere to be found on the Indian map.

The historic city established by Muslim rulers could soon be renamed as Agrawal or Agravan under an unofficial scheme being undertaken by the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) which is in power in Uttar Pradesh and at the Centre.

The demand to replace the Mughal-era name of Agra came last week from a legislator of the ruling BJP on the grounds that Agrawal, a Hindu caste, had its roots in Agra.

This argument has left many perplexed.

Five monarchs have been credited with transforming the city including the Afghan King Sikandar Lodhi, who made Agra the capital of his empire in the 16th century. There, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal a century later.

The monument alone attracts over 7 million visitors annually with more than 800,000 of them coming from overseas.

The city’s tourism sector which includes hotels, eateries and other monuments like the Fatehpur Sikri fort, has a turnover of approximately Rs 10 billion (US$ 138 million), Mahatim Singh, secretary of Tourism Guild of Agra (TGA) told Asia Times.

The talks over Agra’s possible name change has shocked the locals. Many businessmen and residents fear that the move might affect the tourism industry badly after years spent marketing The Taj Mahal using Agra’s name means that now overseas travelers identify India with the name of the city.

Traders have also expressed their discomfort. They argue that it would cost huge sums of money to change the names on their signboards and hoardings across the city.

Residents have also claimed that the government’s top focus should be development in Agra, and that renaming the city would not help this in any way.

A writer based in Uttar Pradesh said, “Rather than wasting public money for renaming places, it would have been better if the government had spent the money to uplift the poor Hindus and arrange livelihood, education and healthcare for them.”

There is concern as the BJP government has, in only the last two weeks, already renamed Uttar Pradesh’s two prominent cities established during the Mughal era: Allahabad is now Prayagraj (Prayag is a small town in the district of Allahabad) and Faizabad is named as Ayodhya (one of its own towns is believed to be the birthplace of Hindu God Ram).

Months after Ajay Singh Bisht, also known as Yogi Adityanath, assumed office as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, the Mughalsarai railway station in the state was renamed to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya station. Surprisingly, neither the city, nor the station had any connection with Upadhyay, a right-wing leader, other than the fact that he was found dead near the railway station in 1968.

Taking a cue from the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and his party, who seem to be on a re-naming spree, leaders in other states of the country are also considering changing city names.

Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani expressed interest in renaming Ahmedabad as Karnavati. The BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra led by Devendra Fadnavis is considering changing Aurangabad and Osmanabad’s names to Sambhajinagar and Dharashiv respectively. BJP legislator Raja Singh claims that Hyderabad may become Bhagyanagar, if the BJP wins in the Telangana state election scheduled for December 7. He also says that the cities named after Mughals and Nizams will be rechristened.

Not everybody agrees with this new trend. “All these cities need to be developed as better tourist destinations by enhancing their infrastructure. The name change will neither give a facelift to the city nor generate jobs. It won’t even help erase the Mughal history from the country. Yogi’s [Bisht] symbolism laced with Hindutva assertion only aims to increase polarization ahead of parliamentary elections next year,” says senior journalist Harendra Shukla.

As reported, BJP legislator Sangeet Som explained the name-change decision by the party, saying, “(the) BJP is just trying to bring back the culture of India, which was deliberately changed by the Muslim rulers to end Hindutva. Therefore BJP is working just to safeguard and retain the Indian culture back by renaming the cities with their original names (sic).”

But history and the BJP are not on the same page. Speaking with Asia Times, social scientist Abdul Shaban quashed the BJP claims that Mughals had changed the names of Indian cities. He said, “Allahabad, Faizabad and Ahmedabad which are being renamed now, were set-up by the Muslim rulers close to the then thriving cities of Prayag, Ayodhya and Karnavati respectively.”

‘We did what we felt was good’

Bisht, (46) is the first and only man in Indian history who serves as a chief priest of a Hindu religious seat (Gorakshnath Peeth) along with being Chief Minister of a state.

After renaming Allahabad – a city founded by the Mughal emperor Akbar who named it after the syncretic faith he introduced, Din-e-Ilahi – Bisht said, “We did what we felt was good. Where there is a need, the government will take the steps required.”

When asked about Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s bold statement and other possible name-change claims by BJP leaders, professor Shaban said, “The message is loud and clear- BJP will continue to propagate agenda of Hindu assertions at the cost of India’s multi-ethnic social fabric.”

Development or Hindutva ?

The BJP presented itself as a “pro-development” party during previous elections, a shift from earlier postures when Hindutva topped the agenda.

“However, the Narendra Modi government’s failure on all crucial fronts coupled with consecutive losses in by-elections in the last four-and-a-half years, has forced it to switch back to the Hindutva hardline it is known for,” political scientist Ramesh Dixit told Asia Times.

Hindutva poster boy Yogi [Bisht] now leads the party campaign subtly instead of “development man” Modi, say observers.

“Despite setbacks in Uttar Pradesh by-elections which included Yogi’s [Bisht’s] own parliamentary seat, he enjoys the party’s backing due to his rising popularity across India,” says a senior BJP leader.

In a little over a year, Bisht has become the second-most important campaigner of his party, behind only Narendra Modi. He is the most searched-for Indian politician on Google, and some see him as the BJP’s future prime ministerial candidate.

While the BJP has played its biggest gamble on Bisht, opposition party Congress is unimpressed. They have strongly opposed the renaming of many places.

“Neither Yogi [Bisht] nor Modi can deliver on their election promises including the one on construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya which is pending at the Supreme Court. Hence, they keep religious sentiments to divert public attention from real issues such as unemployment and agricultural losses. However, people can’t be fooled any more. They would teach BJP a lesson in 2019 elections,” says Congress spokesperson Anshu Awasthi.

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