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The Politics of Editing History: Name-Changing in the Recent Past – I

V Vamsi Viraj |
India’s self-image as a nation has been moulded out of opposition to the British through a largely inclusive freedom struggle.

In the recent past, we have witnessed a drastic increase in the practice of renaming cities, railway stations, and other public places. Some changes were made to reflect the widely used vernacular pronunciations (Mangalore to Mangaluru, Mysore to Mysuru), others involved restoration to their pre-colonial names (Rajahmundry to Rajamahendravaram), while still others were carried out for populist reasons (Chennai Central Railway Station to Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. M. G. Ramachadran Central Railway Station). Some  name changes, however, betray a creeping saffronisation of our public spaces (Allahabad to Prayagraj, Faizabad to Ayodhya, Gurgaon to Gurugram, Mughalsarai Junction to Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, etc).

There have been vigorous debates on name-changing on social media, newspapers, magazines, and in academia. A typical justification is that such renaming reclaims past glories and cultures that had been suppressed by Muslim ‘invaders’. This 2-part article tackles a series of interlinked questions that arise from the above justification. How is this renaming different from renaming places with colonial origins (Madras to Chennai, Bombay to Mumbai, etc.)? Is the practice genuinely about reclaiming forgotten cultures and redressing a wounded civilization? More importantly, have the pre-existing, ancient cultures been forgotten or violently erased by the dynasties frequently referred to as ‘Muslim invaders’? By imagining them in such religious and predatory terms, the question is whether this phenomenon is uniquely grounded in the religiosity of these ‘invaders’. This final question is important because locating their actions in their religious beliefs ensures that their Islamic culture can be shown as being in complete opposition to pre-existing indigenous cultures. These supposedly besieged cultures are linked to peoples mostly practising various strands of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. This article contextualises the motives behind the kings’ destructive tendencies, grossly exaggerated to begin with, and how their behaviour was part of established political norms of medieval warfare.

Have pre-existing Indic cultures been destroyed by Muslim invaders?

The emergence of mongrel empires in the second millennium CE, no matter where in the subcontinent they were based, led to a flourishing of exchanges between various languages and communities. Tamil poems were written by Muslims, some as puranas in praise of Prophet Mohammad, others as folklore, and still others as epic poems. Hindu or Sanskrit epics were translated into Persian or vernacular languages, respectively. The term Hindu itself denoted a people from a particular geography, without referring to religion. Similarly, ‘Indic texts referring to the invaders from the northwest used a variety of terms in different contexts, including yavanas, mlecchas, farangis, musalmans, and Turks. Such terms…rarely denoted a distinct religious community conceived in opposition to Hindus’.  

Contrary to claims of Indic cultures being attacked and thus needing redressal through renaming, there is considerable scholarship that highlights efflorescence of art, architecture, and literature1 across all communities and languages2 in the subcontinent in precolonial times, and of sophisticated Mughal contributions to administration and military affairs. This is not to discount the brutal destruction wrought by predatory forces led by invaders such as Muhammad Ghori, Muhammad Ghazni, and Bhaktiyar Khalji. Despite scant evidence3, these invasions are cited as one of the prime reasons for the downfall of Indian Buddhism in the second millennium CE, following the apparent sacking of Nalanda. 

Many Persian and Arabic texts from the medieval era exaggerate by waxing eloquent about how reigning kings strongly adhered to the Islamic faith. This was seldom true. Judging kings on grandiose claims, while ignoring their lived practices and actual behavior, is disingenuous. There is scant evidence for any systematic destruction of Indic art and architecture by Islamic rulers. Had instances of temple destruction been driven by the Muslim theology of iconoclasm, shrines all over India, from ordinary villages to big cities and towns, would have been consistently pillaged over the five centuries of Islamic rule from Delhi. The resulting number of temples destroyed would be far higher than the few dozen that Richard Eaton estimates were destroyed based on epigraphic evidence and primary textual sources. 

In reality, Islamic rulers selectively demolished temples that were recognized as sites of royal authority of rivals. The destruction was motivated by political, rather than religious, rivalry. In her biography of Aurangzeb, Audrey Truschke writes that he did not destroy temples, whether in Varanasi or Mathura, for the specific purpose of building mosques. Rather, he did so in response to threats to his power from those places. She shows how Aurangzeb was a complex character whose primary motive was power maximization, not the pursuit of religiosity, and argues persuasively that he was anything but a zealot. For instance, his so-called zealotry does not explain how he employed more Hindus at elite levels than any of his Mughal predecessors.

The mansabdari system was highly effective in absorbing regional chieftains into the Mughal ruling class and, consequently, sustaining the Mughal apparatus of warfare. This would not have been possible if the emperors were zealots out to destroy systematically. Nor would they encourage deep Indic–Islamic cultural exchanges, with Sanskrit and Persian literary cultures thriving simultaneously in the Mughal court. Most people willingly participated in the empire even if the king belonged to another community, region, or religion. Seldom did they have to do this under coercion or through conversion. 

The conversions themselves, another hot topic, were seldom carried out violently. Conversion was popular among the oppressed sections of the society. It offered them a chance to live more equitably. As Harbans Mukhia points out, the highest density of Muslims in the subcontinent before the nineteenth century was always in the peripheral regions of the medieval empires: present-day Pakistan in the west, Bangladesh in the east, Kashmir in the north, and Kerala in the south. 

Besides, Bangladesh recently surpassed India in some per capita indicators while recording increasing growth rates compared to India’s unprecedented decreasing growth rates in the last 5 years. Consequently, we have witnessed falling migration, possibly illegal, from the former to the latter in the recent past. If this removes the bogey of ‘termites’ entering India, the phenomenon of finding evils to exorcise in the past could become more pronounced as we go forward.

Is this phenomenon uniquely grounded in the religiosity of these invaders?

In Indic folklore, Hindu rulers also destroyed temples and burned down cities. As Diana Eck points out in Banaras: City of Light, ‘the Puranas record an old rivalry between Krishna and Kashi…In these tales, Krishna is said to have beheaded the king of Kashi and burned the city down’. In another tale, Divodaasa, a king of Kashi, destroyed the shrine of the deity Nikumbha after his propitiations for a son failed. The burning of the Khandava forest, with all its tribes and animal inhabitants, is one of the most violent episodes of the Mahabharata. Krishna and Arjuna stand watch, butchering escaping creatures, routing Indra and other gods who come to save the forest, as Agni consumes it for a week. In Yuganta, Irawati Karve argues how Krishna and Arjuna symbolized the conquering settler in this episode, brutally establishing himself over new lands, forerunner to Europeans colonising the Americas. 

Most historical texts boast of the destruction wrecked by kings, whether in India or elsewhere. Chola temples carry inscriptions of all conquered regions and kings. Sacking cities and destroying temples was not unique to the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughals. Rulers in all parts and from all faiths of India engaged in this, be it the Cholas sacking the Pandyas and vice versa, the Chalukyas sacking the Pallavas and vice versa, or the bloody tripartite struggle among the Gurjaras, Palas, and Rashtrakutas. In other instances, mosques were built by the kings of Vijayanagara just as Islamic rulers restored or protected Hindu temples.

Recent research shows that a temple’s location in a state ruled by a Muslim ruler neither increased nor decreased the likelihood of its destruction.4 Rather, the possibility of a temple’s desecration is ‘primarily determined by Hindu-Muslim battle outcomes’. As imperial armies forged ahead, temples and shrines were pillaged to stamp authority over rival armies and kings. On the other hand, shrines were also raided for wealth, and not by Islamic invaders alone. The rhetoric of Chola conquests mask their expeditions for what they really were: plundering raids.5 Ceylon’s prosperous Buddhist institutions faced repeated attacks from Chola kings in pre-modern times, not on account of their creed but for their manifest wealth. To finance their armies, the Imperial Cholas also taxed the Jain population and imposed punitive fines on their monasteries. Aurangzeb is often vilified for introducing jizya, a tax on non-Muslims. Neither is this, if true, unique to Aurangzeb (or Muslim rulers more generally) nor is it a definitive indication of zealotry. 

Thus, temples, shrines, and religious institutions were open to attack and taxation either as a way to contest the authority of their royal patrons or to fill the coffers of the invading king, but never for solely religious reasons. This was a pervasive phenomenon well before the arrival of Islamic dynasties to India. Despite the condemnation of idolatry by Islamic texts in those times, it would be simplistic to situate temple destruction in their iconoclastic beliefs. As Richard Eaton describes, ‘attacks on images patronized by enemy kings had been, from the sixth century AD on, thoroughly integrated into Indian political behaviour’. ‘Turkish invaders,’ he continues, ‘when attempting to plant their own rule in early medieval India, followed and continued established patterns’. Power and superiority (or benevolence) was projected by destroying (restoring) symbols and landmarks of rival (allied) powers. 

How is this different from changing colonial names?

European colonialism that dominated India from the eighteenth century onwards is considered to be qualitatively different from what existed before. Proponents of this view argue that Europeans carried out enormous loot, enacted destructive trade policies, and drained India’s wealth. However, when it comes to economic reasons, there is mounting evidence that colonial policies, institutions, and infrastructure, notwithstanding their self-serving intent, resulted in rising levels of prosperity. Dave Donaldson stresses how important the Railways were in opening up the hinterlands of India to trade with the coast and the world, resulting in raised agricultural incomes and improved living standards. Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, the first Dalit autobiography by a Telugu, speaks of the rise of three generations of a family migrating to Secunderabad under the employ of the Railways. There’s a book to be written on how Railways transformed the lives of Shudra and Dalit castes by offering them a more equitable way of life in cities and towns. 

The agricultural sector, however, stagnated in the first half of the twentieth century. The business sector in India grew significantly in the same time period, whether by measures of per capita income or by national income.6 As for the vaunted prosperity of Mughal times, recent research indicates how Indian GDP per capita declined uniformly between 1600 and 1750. Angus Maddison’s data7 suggests India was always poor in terms of per capita GDP. It’s per capita GDP was $550 in 1500 and remained stagnant at $533 in the first half of the nineteenth century. Contradicting these findings, new research8 suggests that India was prosperous at the height of Mughal power under Akbar, but then declined gradually.  

But none of this cohered with the lived experience of a majority of India’s indigent population. For many years and across regions, the Company and the Raj lacked legitimacy. Despite the high rhetoric of a civilising mission, they were constantly anxious of losing power. This is evident from the pervasive and persistent use of force by the British to retain power for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their methods of governance broke from that of past Indian rulers in fundamental ways. The changes they introduced in the economy, administration, and agriculture led to various sections of society rebelling in sudden bursts of localised violence. Vanishing ways of life spawned mass revolts by tribals, peasants, and ex-soldiers. 

There was also the fact of agricultural stagnation and recurring famines, alongside brutal use of force, indentured labour, and human rights abuses. By the twentieth century, the imagination of the public was fired up by the Congress movement and there was mass consciousness of the Raj being inimical to Indian interests. Indeed, as William Dalrymple points out, ‘Within 20 years of the end of the Raj almost all major indices of human development…had all immeasurably improved…average lifespans had increased by as much as a decade’. Thus, it follows from this history of perceived injustice, of being left behind by the colonizers as the rest of the world industrialised and developed, of the idealism of our freedom struggles, and of reclaiming our lost memories, that names of places with colonial origins would be changed accordingly. 

On the other hand, the Mughals seldom faced civil rebellions of a nature that the British faced in almost every decade of their reign in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Popular revolts must be taken to mean mass movements of a revolutionary nature and not power plays or fights for survival by kings and dynasties against more powerful kings and dynasties. The executions of Sambhaji or Sikh leaders by the Mughals should be viewed through the lens of power struggles and power projections. Popular legends about Guru Tegh Bahadur being executed for failing to convert to Islam are not backed by contemporaneous sources, be they Sikh or Persian accounts. Rulers tend to be insecure when there is a perceived threat to sovereign power. This is also evident today in how hundreds are wrongly booked for sedition despite conviction rates being abysmally low. The Mughals were cruel just as the Rajputs and the Marathas were cruel in dealing with threats to their power. Rebels faced almost certain death. 

The Mughals or the Delhi Sultanate were not the only ones who faced threats to their power. The Vijayanagara Empire or the Imperial Cholas had to face challenges to their power from satraps or rival kings. The same applies to how kings and kingdoms across India (be it in Tamil country or eastern India) tried to break free of the Marathas who were expanding in the eighteenth century. The impact of Maratha invasions can be seen in the literatures of eastern India. Brajanath Badajena’s Samara Taranga (Waves of War), the only historical poem of pre-modern Odiya literature, narrates the repulsion of the Marathas by the Dhenkanal forces.9 Tirthankar Roy writes of Maharashtrapuran by Gangaram, a Bengali poem, that ‘describes in graphic detail how Maratha mercenaries raided western Bengal in the 1740s, tortured merchants, carried out a genocide and raped women’. There was no nationalist fervour in any of the battles or conquering armies of these years.

India’s self-image as a nation has been moulded out of opposition to the British through a largely inclusive freedom struggle. The minority that failed to be sufficiently included ended up as two other nations. The BJP-led governments at the Centre and State levels, with their intellectual moorings in the discourse of Hindutva, are changing this self-image by invoking a religious brand of nationalism that seeks to reimagine the nation as a de facto Hindu Rashtra. This is done by projecting backwards onto our history a sense of civilisational loss, slavery, and plunder. They are building an ideological construct of a golden age that existed a thousand years ago and India supposedly entering dark ages after that. Once we start looking for memories of destruction beyond the pre-modern period, there will always be episodes and eras to feel aggrieved about. This is despite the people of those times possibly not having felt aggrieved themselves.

Drawing parallels between the British and the Islamic rulers before them is a case of false equivalence. The British transplanted their forms of knowledge, administration, and education without systematically understanding the lives of the people in the subcontinent. This led to cultural and epistemological erasure. By changing colonial names, we are trying to symbolically reclaim lost histories and ways of life. This logic behind name-changing is important as it differs from what is happening today. 


1. Rizvi, S. A. A. 1987. The Wonder that was India, Volume II: A Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Subcontinent from the Coming of the Muslims to the British Conquest, 1200–1700. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

2. Pollock, Sheldon, ed. 2003. Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

3. Truschke, Audrey. 2018. “The Power of the Islamic Sword in Narrating the Death of Indian Buddhism.” History of Religions 57 (4): 406–35.

4. Iyer, Sriya, Anand Shrivastava, and Rohit Ticku. 2017. “Holy Wars? Temple Desecrations in Medieval India.” Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 1705, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge.

5. Spencer, George W. 1976. “The Politics of Plunder: The Cholas in Eleventh-Century Ceylon.” Journal of Asian Studies 35 (3): 405–19.

6. Roy, Tirthankar. 2019. How British Rule Changed India’s Economy: The Paradox of the Raj. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

7. Maddison, Angus. 2010. “Statistics on World Population, GDP, and Per Capita GDP 1–2008 AD.” Groningen, Netherlands: Groningen Growth and Development Centre, University of Groningen

8. Broadberry, Stephen, Johann Custodis, and Bishnupriya Gupta. 2015. “India and the Great Divergence: An Anglo-Indian comparison of GDP per capita, 1600–1871.” Explorations in Economic History 55: 58–75

9. Mansingh, Mayadhar. 1957. “Oriya Literature.” In Literatures in Modern Indian Languages, edited by V. K. Gokak, 118–27. Delhi: The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum

V Vamsi Viraj is based in Mangalagiri and works for the political advocacy NGO, Yuva Galam.

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