Farmers in at least three states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be erupting into revolts, but the agrarian crisis isn't the headache of the government in Uttar Pradesh, also ruled by the BJP. Rather, its priority, at the moment, involves a much graver issue: renaming a prominent city in the state.
Mughalsarai, in UP's Chandauli district, which has one of the busiest railway junctions in India, is the latest irritant that has left Chief Minister Adityanath's administration with a brewing ideological unrest. While the BJP and its rightwing allies want it to be named after one of their intellectual pillars, Deen Dayal Upadhay, the Congress claims Lal Bahadur Shastri to be the more suitable candidate.
Before we get into the thick of the debate, a quick recap of the broad agendas set by the government in power in UP.
The BJP's focus in UP, after the well-being of cows and the safety of women, is on 'inclusive governance'—a term that means different things to different people. But those who expressed doubt about the sincerity of this promise from a Hindu hardliner like Adityanath faced a barrage of media reports after the new CM took office.
These stories portrayed the softer side of his orthodox personality in an obvious attempt to 'normalise' him. Apart from apocryphal tales of his kindness to animals, especially to those of the bovine species, we were informed of his cordial relationship with Muslims, some of whom he employed in his mutt in Gorakhpur. As if that wasn't enough, his reputation as an equal-opportunities employer trickled down to people of lower castes too, we were told.
In one week, every controversial statement he made during his 18-year-old career as a member of the Lok Sabha was whitewashed. FYI, here's a refresher: a demand to rename India as Hindustan or, better still, as Poorvanchal; a threat to convert 100 Muslim girls for every Hindu girl who embraces Islam; his belief that there's "no difference in the language between Shah Rukh Khan and Hafiz Saeed".
Let's, for a moment, assume the CM's chair had a transforming effect on Adityanath and he turned over a new leaf. But his activities, since he assumed power, don't inspire much faith in that theory. Least of all, his latest project to rename a well-known destination on the map of his state belies his 'good intentions'.
So what's wrong with Mughalsarai?
The UP government hasn't cited any specific reason for its dislike of the name, except to want to change it to honour Deen Dayal Upadhay, in his centenary year. Upadhyay died in mysterious circumstances in 1968 at Mughalsarai station. So what better way than to call the place by his name to ensure his lasting afterlife in public memory? Too bad if some mean-minded folks want to wager another guess (hint: the reference in the existing name to a religious community that the CM claims to profoundly care for).
In most reasonable societies, the primary objection to changing an age-old name of a popular transit point would involve practical considerations. Has the UP government factored in the expenses in reprinting train timetables? Or thought about the fact that millions of passengers and residents would have to get used to 'Deen Dayal Upadhyay Nagar' overnight? (Apparently, the RSS has been using this moniker in their internal documents since the 1970s.) Addresses to be changed, cartographic alterations to be made, textbooks to be revised: the nightmare will get only more monstrous with each passing day.
Of course, in India these considerations tend to be bypassed for the more appealing option: foisting a rival character as a worthy opponent to lend his name to the place instead. And so we have a contender in Lal Bahadur Shastri, independent India's second prime minister, who was born in Mughalsarai in 1904.
As things stand, Shastri seems to have little hope against a figure whose name has been already proposed for a port, an airport and a national government office. But as far as the BJP's motto of sabka saath, sabka vikas (a catchier slogan, summarising its aim of inclusive governance) goes, Shastri seems more eligible for such an honour.
Born a Kayastha, unlike Upadhyay who was a Brahmin, Shastri grew up in a milieu that embodied that most robust expression of Bharatiya sanskar: the joint family. His mother, widowed at a young age, moved to his grandfather's place, who also died within a couple of years. Since then, Shastri's family was looked after by his mother's cousin, well enough for him to have eventually become the prime minister of the country. As a model a man of humble origins who soared to unexpected heights, Shastri is your model hero.
As a child, Shastri studied Urdu under a maulavi, getting a far more syncretic education than Upadhyay ever did. Eventually, he dropped his caste surname, Verma, and opted for Shastri. The convenor of the Jana Sangha, who succeeded Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, didn't blatantly oppose the caste system, even though he claimed to follow a philosophy called Integral Humanism. The latter, influenced by Gandhi's views of rural economics and Hindu spirituality, wasn't free of prejudices against Muslims either.
In one of his lectures, Upadhyay said, "Here too, there were castes, but we had never accepted conflict between one caste and another as a fundamental concept behind it." He went on to explain, "If conflict among them was fundamental, the body cannot be maintained ... If this idea is not kept alive, the castes, instead of being complementary, can produce conflict. But then this is distortion." Contrast this insidious normalisation of the caste system with Shastri's active role in fighting it, as he threw himself into Gandhi's mission to uplift the so-called 'Harijans'.
If the UP government is keen to honour a spirit of inclusivity, breadth of intellect and overall stature, it doesn't need to look further than Shastri—a real leader of the people who aimed for sabka saath, sabka vikaas, in the best sense of the phrase.
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