Of the many issues that unite India’s ruling BJP and other parties which pander to Hindutva extremists, is a notion that historic names of Indian cities and monuments ought to be changed in order to reflect a purely Hindutva view of history. This Hindutva view of history automatically proscribes place names and even some ordinary words as being the products of “foreign” influence, on the basis that they are remotely related to periods of Indian history in which Islamic sovereigns ruled parts of what is now the Republic of India.
In reality, the Farsi/Persian words that today dominate many of India’s languages including Hindi and Indian English, along others, have been part of south Asian culture for centuries and in some cases for millennia. If a small multi-cultural country like Singapore can be at peace with its comparatively modern history of multiculturalism, than surely a vast country like India with thousands of years of unique cultures, ought to be able to do the same.
First of all, it helps to remember that the name India itself is derived from ancient Farsi – the lingua franca Achaemenid Empire. Making matters all the more embarrassing for contemporary politicians who seek to present Hindu religious culture as a monolith, the truth is that the very name Hindu itself has etymological roots as a geographical rather than religious distinction. The word Hindu has its origins in the Sanskrit word Sindhu which refers to what is now referred to in English as the River Indus, a waterway that is located primarily in modern Pakistan. Locals in Pakistan and parts of India still typically refer to the river as The Sindhu. Of course, the Pakistani province of Sindhi, derives its name from the same root word.
The word Sindhu was eventually Persianised (centuries before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH) as Hindu and came to refer not only to the river itself but to the peoples who lived east of the river. Likewise, the term Indoi (from which the word India is derived) was merely a Hellenised version of the Persian Hindu. Furthermore, it was only in the late 18th century when European imperialists in south Asia began to refer to the non-Muslim populations of south Asia collectively as Hindus.
In this sense, the contemporary BJP narrative of a dominant Hindu culture that was somehow eradicated by Islamic rulers of Turkic or Turko-Mongol descent who were culturally Persianate, is not actual history, but instead represents a deeply narrow minded distortion of history. With the exceptions of the ancient Maurya Empire and Gupta Empire, the medieval and late modern sovereigns that have come closest to uniting India and south Asia as a whole, have either been those led by Muslim rulers or in the case of the British Raj, European rulers with no indigenous connection to Asia.
Prior to the consolidation of British imperial rule, the two most prominent medieval to late modern sovereigns in India were the Delhi Sultanate and later, the larger Mughal Empire. Indeed, the Mughal Empire was the most vast non-European Indian sovereign of the modern era. As such, the Mughal cultural, linguistic and architectural influence on contemporary India is vast. As the Mughal built Taj Mahal remains India’s most internationally recognised piece of architecture, it goes without saying that post-1947 India has benefited greatly from the deep and wide cultural legacy of the Mughals.
This is a multicultural history that should not be ignored but rather embraced. Furthermore, whilst sovereigns like the Mughal Empire rose organically through the natural movements of peoples throughout the vast central-to-south Asian space, the Mughal empire cannot be compared to European imperialists who consciously sailed across the world, solely for economic gain. Thus, the growth of ancient, medieval and even early modern land empires in Asia are in no way related to the maritime colonialism of late modern European empires. In this sense, the Mughal Empire is no more foreign to modern India than the ancient Maurya Empire. Likewise, the fact that the Mughal leaders adopted Persianate customs is not even to say that Persianate and Islamic influences in modern India are the same thing. Persian influence on south Asian names and cultures dates back to an ancient period that long predates the conversion of Persia to Islam.
Thus, while the country now known as The Republic of India was always a cornucopia of multiple religious, cultural, linguistic and artistic traditions, contemporary Hindutva politicians aim to present an “us vs. them” fake historical narrative that actually insults diverse Hindu and other non-Islamic traditions throughout contemporary India. This is so because the Hindutva narrative essentially argues that the culture of modern Hindus in northern India is somehow more authentic than the indigenous non-Muslim cultures of southern India. Furthermore, the Hindutva narrative is actively trying to erase centuries of peaceful Islamic influence in south Asia and thus represents a direct attempt at culturally cleansing Islamic traditions from the lives of practising Muslims in 21st century India.
It is therefore critical to realise that the contemporary BJP led assault on Muslims in India is not just limited to the mob violence which is clearly sanctioned by elements of the ruling party and their far-right allies. The historic city of Allahabad in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has recently been the site of controversy after the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath decided to unilaterally rename the city Prayagraj. Likewise, while Indian tourism associations promote the Taj Mahal as one of the country’s top destinations, the Archaeological Survey of India have now taken the decision to prohibit Muslim pilgrims from worshipping in the Taj Mahal’s mosque on every day of the week except Friday.
And yet while many Muslims living in India in 2019 are being targeted both directly and through cultural cleansing at the hands of the BJP, RSS and other extremist groups, as Shoaib Daniyal points out, many of the common names for garments, buildings, foods and even daily expressions that are part of modern Hindi, are loanwords from medieval Farsi, mainly owing to the Persianate culture of the sultans at Delhi and later Mughal rulers.
In this sense, the very culture of the BIMARU states, the BJP’s Hindi political heartland sometimes referred to as the “cow belt”, owe as much to the cultural influence of past Muslim rulers as do other parts of India, Pakistan and the broader south Asian region as a whole.
Taken as a whole, watching Hindutva leaders call for the elimination of well known historic place names in order to remove Islamic characteristics from India’s real history, is like watching politicians cut off their noses to spite their faces. While India’s constitution calls for a state that is secular by law and multicultural as a matter of fact, the Orwellian reality of Hindutva is that ‘all cultures are equal, but some are more equal than others’, where the clear subtext is that ‘anything remotely Islamic in cultural character, is automatically inferior or even suspect’.
This is not real history, but is instead cultural cleansing in the name of “history” that can barely disguise stark, raving Islamophobia.