Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

The deep divide inside the birth of Prayagraj

In a city grappling with its loss of importance on the national stage, a change in name shifts the focus from infrastructure and development

Prayagraj: Walking through the muddy, uneven plains of the Ganga and Yamuna on the ghats of Prayag, which is the confluence of three rivers, including Saraswati, the sound that stands out amidst the hullabaloo of tourists and temple priests is ‘Jai Prayagraj’.

An outsider may get confused and assume that the people are celebrating the Uttar Pradesh government’s recent decision to change the name of the city from Allahabad to Prayagraj. But casual small talk would instantly reveal that, for centuries, people visiting these ancient ghats have latched on to Jai Prayagraj as a greeting, instead of the more widely known Bollywood variant, Ram Ram.

“Jai Prayagraj is part of our culture and identity," said Rajesh Bharadwaj, a 48-year-old priest, who has performed rituals on the banks of the two rivers for over 30 years. “It is our way of telling the world that we are from the holy place of Prayag. It is not about religion; this is the unspoken custom and culture of the ghats. Nobody taught us to greet each other like this, yet we do it. For us, there has been no change. We have always called this area as Prayagraj. Now, even the government will start doing it," he added.

There is certainly a constituency that has embraced the name change with glee. But a significant section of what used to be called Allahabad is unhappy too. Across India, many governments have played the name game—from Chennai and Gurugram to the scuttled attempt to conjure a Paschim Bongo (in place of West Bengal). It’s a game in which historical offences are litigated through the idiom of modern signboards.

But in a country where every community not only has its own customs, but often, its own history, government sanction to a new name (even a widely used one) hardly ever goes uncontested. Thus, for some, Prayagraj is an expression that has always been heard in the ghats; while, for others, a city which served as a temporary home to at least seven prime ministers, and nurtured a unique confluence of cultures, can never be confined to just the ghats.

Dissatisfaction is particularly high among the city’s Muslims, who constitute a sizeable 13% of the population. “The government should focus on transforming the lives of people, but they are only changing the name of the city. How will it improve my life?" asked Waliullah Engineer, a city resident who runs a non-profit organization called the Indian Minorities Front. “The state government is making an attempt to dent the composite culture of the city. We live in a democracy and the government should at least try to talk to the community before changing the name of the city," he added.

Local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders are upbeat despite the voices of opposition as they feel the move may appeal to a segment of Hindu voters. Uttar Pradesh is key to the BJP’s chances in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as the party had won 73 of the state’s 80 parliamentary seats in 2014. Incidentally, the BJP had lost a by-election to an opposition alliance in Phulpur (a part of the Allahabad district) in March.

Vishal Sharma, a 32-year-old priest, is among the many vocal proponents who back the move. “For centuries, during Hindu rituals, we always identified ourselves as residents of Prayagraj. Allahabad was the name of the city; Prayagraj is about culture and essence of the region," he said.

This tiff between “mere name" and “real emotion" reached its climax on 14 October when chief minister Yogi Adityanath passed the order changing the over 500-year-old city’s name.

The demand had first been placed before another BJP chief minister, Kalyan Singh, way back in 1991.

The final push

While the demand may have been pending for 27 years, the change in nomenclature came rather suddenly. A day before the official order was issued, the city administration had organized a meeting of the Margdarshak Committee, a group of 100 prominent residents, including vice-chancellors, MPs and MLAs. The actual agenda was to discuss preparations for the Ardh Kumbh, to be held in January 2019.

“During the meeting, someone suggested that we should change the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj," said Badri Narayan, director of Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, who attended the meeting that day. The underlying motive was that it will not only give the city its due identity, but would also correct a historical wrong by the Mughals, he added.

The popular belief is that when Mughal emperor Akbar visited the region in 1574 to quell a rebellion, he changed the city’s name from the erstwhile Prayag to Illahabad (the abode of the Gods), which then got anglicized by the British to Allahabad. But Prayag and Illahabad were most likely adjacent but distinct entities, much like how the modern city of Delhi is built on top of multiple cities.

The Margdarshak Committee didn’t spend time debating such finer points of history. Narayan says the gathering chose to make a decision based on a show of hands by the prominent citizens of Allahabad. “We were asked how many of those present wanted the city to be renamed as Prayagraj. Most people raised their hands suggesting that they agreed. Then, we were told that people who do not want the name to be changed should also raise their hands. Not a single hand was raised. People who did not agree with the decision also did not raise their hand. The chief minister took a decision and soon renamed the city to Prayagraj, which was formally announced the next day," added Badri Narayan.

Changing the names of cities and districts for reasons of politically expediency is of course not new to Uttar Pradesh politics. Several chief ministers have been responsible for renaming a number of districts—from Gautam Buddha Nagar, Kanshiram Nagar to Kaushambi.

Popular culture vs history

This is not a very progressive decision," said Prateek Raj, 21, a student of business administration, while sipping coffee with his friends at the Indian Coffee House in the city’s posh Civil Lines area. “We are neutral about it. We want development. The essence of the city comes from the name of Allahabad. The government can change the name, but how will you take away the Allahabadi culture of the city and 500 years of history?" he asked.

“This whole idea is silly," said Rajul Mathur, a former professor at Allahabad University and grand daughter-in-law of noted writer Munshi Prem Chand. “Changing of names will not change anything. It is a political stunt before the elections," she added.

Although there are written records of the city being called Illahabad or Illahawas in Akbarnama and other books written around that period, there is no written document to suggest that the name of the city Prayag was changed and made Illahabad. During his stay in the area, Akbar had started construction of a fort in 1574 which was completed in 1611. During the same period, around 1580, Akbar divided his domain into 12 Subahs or states and one of them was Allahabad, with its capital at Allahabad city.

“The decision has nothing to do with history or religion. It’s just the beginning. They want to rename so many cities," said S. Irfan Habib, historian and writer. “They now want to rename Faizabad as Ayodhya, though the two are twin cities. They want to create binaries to polarize people. They want to use history to polarize the present and help their political agenda," he said. “Prayag and Allahabad have existed together. Both the names have been used. Akbar did not replace Prayag with Allahabad, but he had created a new city," Habib added.

But historical facts and popular belief are often not natural allies. Many residents steadfastly hold the belief that the entire region has always been called Prayag.

The only point of common agreement is the broad certainty regarding the antiquity and historical importance of the region—which is also perhaps why a symbolic issue has snowballed into a wider debate. “The reference to Allahabad starts when Akbar built a fort, but Prayag was in use even in medieval times. We have evidence of Chinese travellers visiting these areas; Greeks and Parthians too visited these areas. It was a very cosmopolitan region," said Sunil Gupta, director at the Allahabad Museum.

“The antiquity of the region has not been appreciated. There is Kaushambi close to Prayagraj, and the Kara-Manikpur area which was governed by Alauddin Khilji before he took over the throne of Delhi. There is an Ashokan pillar in the city’s fort. There is scientific evidence that great cities once flourished in this region," added Gupta.

Historic wrong corrected

In a region steeped in stories of so many epochs in the past when it played a central role on the national stage, the call to reclaim a piece of that past with a new name has an enticing appeal. “A king came and changed the name of the city to Allahabad. But now we have a Hindu chief minister, so he has renamed the city as Prayagraj," said Aseem Bharadwaj, a 28-year-old priest.

Many local Congress leaders say that the BJP government has successfully managed to convey a message to the people that a historic wrong has been corrected.

Beyond the sudden, seemingly all-consuming fight over the city’s name though—there are graver concerns which need more immediate attention. Large parts of the city are undergoing road expansion work in preparation for the Kumbh, causing much public griping about the slow pace of work.

“The roads are bad. The government is planning to organize a Kumbh Mela, but at the present speed, nothing will be ready," said Ruksar Ahmed, a 23-year-old bookshop owner near Allahabad University.

The city’s new airport is expected to be inaugurated only next year; with a few large halls in the old airport building doubling up as the “terminal" for now. Many parts of the city look like a work in progress, waiting for some much-needed change. In that, Prayagraj is representative of many other badly managed Indian cities. The committee of prominent citizens that met two weeks ago was supposed to look into these real, tangible problems. Instead, the city got a new name.

Allahabad or Prayagraj will carry on, with one or—more likely—many names. The train that connects the city to the national capital, Delhi, has been called the Prayagraj Express for quite some time. The main ongoing effort to modernize, the smart city entity, retains Allahabad on its website, with Prayag making an appearance in brackets.

However, the loss of importance on the national stage; the decline of a once celebrated Allahabad University to a shadow of its former glory, and an inability to address the basic infrastructure concerns of its citizens are perhaps far bigger worries. Once the dust settles on the battle over a suitable name, Prayagraj may have much left to tackle.