India's Supreme Court has dismissed a Hindu nationalist leader's petition to rename all cities and historical places of the country, which he said had been named after those he called "barbaric foreign invaders" several centuries ago.
In his petition, Ashwini Upadhyay, a lawyer and the leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sought permission from the court to appoint a "renaming commission" to prepare a list of "ancient (Hindu) historical-cultural religious places" named after the Muslim rulers during their rule and offer Hindu names.
In dismissing Upadhyay's petition, the two-judge bench said the proposal went against the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution.
"We are secular and supposed to protect the Constitution. You are concerned about the past and dig it up to place its burden on the present generation. Each thing you do in this manner will create more disharmony," the bench said.
Beginning in the 12th century, a succession of Muslim empires — most notably the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal empire — dominated the Indian subcontinent for almost seven centuries. During Muslim rule, the growth of trade and commerce was accompanied by the brisk growth of towns and cities across the country.
The Muslim rulers established many towns, naming them after themselves or their ancestors.
Historian Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, a professor of medieval history at India's Aligarh Muslim University, agrees.
"This way, we find names of places linked to (named after) Muslim as well as Hindu builders or their progenitors. Religion was certainly not the basis for naming places [in] those days," Rezavi told VOA.
Some places already renamed
In the last few years, several places with Muslim-sounding names have been renamed by BJP governments. In 2018, the north Indian city of Allahabad, founded by Mughal emperor Akbar, was changed to Prayagraj. Mughalsarai, a nearby historic railway junction, was renamed Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction. Pandit Upadhyaya was a 20th century Hindu nationalist leader.
A week ago, Aurangabad — a city named by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in western India — was renamed Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar. Chhatrapati Sambhaji was the son of Hindu warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji.
With the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Hindutva — nationalist groups — have increased demands for renaming many Muslim-sounding locations.
In his petition, BJP leader Upadhyay claimed that historical locations found in ancient Hindu religious texts are known by the names of so-called "foreign looters."
"Successive governments have not taken steps to correct the barbaric act of invaders and the injury is continuing," Upadhyay's petition stated.
Justice K.M. Joseph remarked that Upadhyay's petition was looking at the past selectively, targeting Muslims — India's largest religious minority — specifically.
"India is today a secular country. Your fingers being pointed at a particular community, termed barbaric. Do you want to keep the country on the boil?" he asked.
Alok Vats, a senior BJP leader, defended Upadhyay's petition.
Vats told VOA, "The tyrannical Muslim rulers who demolished Hindu temples and forcibly converted Hindus to Islam are in no way to be revered and remembered hence the name change is justified. The same applies to the colonial rulers. Now, under the present BJP leadership, the Hindu sentiment is at its peak. The Sanatanis (Hindus) are out to undo all the nefarious and anti-Hindu doings of the past."
Muslim-sounding names at risk
Muslim leaders and activists in India, though relieved by the Supreme Court's rejection of Upadhyay's petition, are worried about the rise of Hindutva evident in the country since BJP came into power.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, told VOA that the Supreme Court's refusal to accept a petition to order the setting up of a renaming commission is reassuring.
"At least it clearly defines that it is wrong to change [the] names of historical places, but I do not think that the present dispensation will be deterred," he said.
Khan said, sooner or later, Hindutva forces would try to obliterate all Muslim-sounding names of cities, towns, villages and roads, in a bid to make Islam and Muslims in India invisible.
"This goes hand in hand with deleting passages and chapters from Indian textbooks and fabricating a new history. Future generations will think that Muslims did nothing while ruling India for [seven] centuries," Khan added.
Historian Rezavi said, unlike today, religion was not a criterion for naming places founded in the medieval period by the elite — for either Muslims or Hindus.
"Even old 'Hindu' names were continued (by Muslim rulers) without giving a thought that [they] were not Muslim. (In the 16th century,) Mughal emperor Akbar established a city and named it Ilahbās, meaning 'Abode of Hindu goddess Ila.' Akbar was Muslim. But he named the city after a Hindu goddess," Rezavi said. The British rulers converted the name of the city from Ilahbās to Allahabad, meaning 'city of Allah.'"
Audrey Truschke, historian and associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told VOA that the renaming of historical places with Hindu-sounding names is part of a larger "genocidal project."
"The BJP seems to be accelerating their loathsome calls for a Muslim-free India, in both the past and the present. … They scream of barbarians in the past that are so far removed from historical figures that they are better described as figments of the Hindu nationalist imagination. Such demonization bodes ill for Indian religious minorities," she said.