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Cringe politics of Adityanath govt renaming Mughal Sarai railway station

Daily O
By Professor  

Denouncing a quaint Muslim-sounding name is nothing but a sunk investment driven by a dastardly ideology.

Some urban critics have recently introduced the coinage, "cringe pop" into the Indian critical dictionary. I thank them deeply. Their prescient vocabulary will now come in handy describing the politics of renaming places — now a railway station — in Uttar Pradesh, under its new chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. The strategy of renaming places, to give them a discretely Hindu identity, is pop politics at its worst.

Nonetheless, it is not just horrible, it is in fact profoundly grotesque and unfortunately worth debating vociferously, at least in the area of "cringe politics".

Cringe pop is defined as those putative-musical exhibitions: "so bad that you cannot stop watching them". If cringe politics is also to have a definition — and if I must buy some real estate in the popular urban dictionaries — I would describe it as that farcical class of politics which makes the opposition cringe with distaste, rather than offend with apt rejoinders or politically willed resistance. An occupational hazard of cringe politics is that it will attract more talkers than political fascism would; cringe politics is so insufferable that you cannot stop suffering it.

What's the beef about Mughal Sarai?

Earlier this month, a Yogi Adityanath-led UP cabinet passed a resolution to rename the Mughal Sarai railway station after the RSS ideologue and BJP leader, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Before readers and colleagues are quick to conclude what my political leanings are, I must confess to the regards I have for Upadhyaya.

In February 1968, Upadhyaya was found dead under mysterious circumstances, at the Mughal Sarai station.

In many ways he was a Gandhian, a radical humanist. Although, he was supposedly the founding editor of Rashtra Dharma, which was a magazine to promote Hindutva nationalism, he never used his name on any of its editions. Rather than being able to criticise him for any untoward communal or bigoted ideology, I can only "cringe" with the knowledge of how the name of this great thinker is now being misappropriated by the UP government.

In February 1968, Upadhyaya was found dead under mysterious circumstances, at the Mughal Sarai station. That seems to be the sole motivation behind the cabinet's resolution to rename the station after him.

The decision is a cheapening of the name of a renowned ideologue, given the history of his death. It has been rumoured that Upadhyaya was murdered, rather than having died in an accident. Where someone died accidentally or was murdered cannot become the reason for naming a monument or a public institution after him.

It will only result in the curdling of the dead philosopher's blood, which may come back to haunt the state government as bad blood between the two of its largest communities — Hindus and Muslims.

Instead, a good reason why the Mughal Sarai station could be renamed is if Mughals ate beef, there. The name Mughal Sarai is more generic than unique. There might be several Mughal Sarais today, in India. My own memories of the station are associated with the British colonial history of India, instead of Mughal or Muslim rule.

Mughal Sarai is the place where Humayun's army had rested while on its way to battle the army of Sher Shah Suri, in present day Sasaram. But more significantly, late 19th century onwards, it was the all-important junction between the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway and the East Indian Railway routes. The Mughal Sarai railway station was built in 1880, during the heyday of British railway expansions, in India. The station is one more living testimony to the Empire's fortitude, political and engineering genius, and of course its penchant for plunder. Stations like Mughal Sarai came up with the huge railway investments that happened in India during 1870-1895, at the cost of millions of Indian lives lost to man-made famines, due to the utter ignorance of the country's irrigation needs.

Yogi government's strategy of renaming places, to give them a discretely Hindu identity, is pop politics at its worst. Photo: PTI

The history of the station is more in its geographical location — which makes it the fourth busiest railway station in the country — rather than just in the name. In fact, if it was proven beyond a doubt that the Mughal army of Humayun had indeed eaten beef during their transit in Mughal Sarai, Adityanath's cabinet might have good reason to rename the station, at least in consistency with its policy of banning cow slaughter in the state. But that would still beg the question: why Deen Dayal Upadhyaya?

How much can history be obliterated?

The proposed renaming of Mughal Sarai is not a sudden political change. The stage has been set for Adityanath's entry for more than two years. At least, since early 2015, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal had been calling Mughal Sarai as Deen Dayal Nagar, in their communication and manifestoes.

Adityanath's political career comprises numerous instances of renaming places and streets in Gorakhpur, his constituency, since 1998. Urdu Bazaar to Hindi Bazaar, Humayun Nagar to Hanuman Nagar, Ali Nagar to Arya Nagar, Miya Bazaar to Maya Bazaar or Islampur to Ishwarpur! The renaming in most cases is mind-bogglingly ingenious — it is also dangerous.

In many Hindu and Muslim families, children have been brought up to believe that other community deliberately chooses to practise the opposite religious or cultural norms in order to foster identitarian alienation or antagonism. Adityanath's policy is none the wiser. His choice of names is aimed at communal polarisation — a certain homonymity leading to obliteration of history.

One line of argument — Adityanath's own — could be that the same hegemonic politics of naming a place on the basis of Urdu, Humayun, Ali, Miya or Mughal is being repeated-renaming is only retributive justice. This ridiculous argument has convincingly fooled masses. After the mythological origin of a name, it gathers many a strand of history, many a myth, legend and epic. Renaming it in order to counter a primal communal mythology is to obliterate the complex history of the long interim that has been.

What's the beef about Mughal Sarai? Photo: PTI

One of the most loved and controversial Anglo-Indian railway raconteurs, Rudyard Kipling, left traces of history of the Indian Railways, in many of his writings. His story, The Bridge-builders, is about the building of a fictional Kashi Bridge, modelled on the Malviya (originally Dufferin) Bridge, which was built in 1887 to connect the Varanasi and Mughal Sarai stations.

Kipling also wrote of Jamalpur, a railway station and town bearing a most distinctly Muslim name. His story, "The Man Who Would Be King", begins with the triumphant sentence: "The beginning of everything was in a railway train upon the road to Mhow from Ajmir."

Imagine renaming Jamalpur or Mhow either due to concerns of their overtly Islamic origins or large Muslim populations living there! Renaming streets bearing names of unwanted imperials such as Aurangzeb, Dalhousie, or Lansdowne may be explained in a political dumb-charade of indemnifying a national identity. However, denouncing a nomenclature linked with trivial aspects of a certain community — a quaint Muslim-sounding name — is nothing but a sunk investment, driven by a dastardly ideology. It is a great drain on tax payers' moneys, histories, memories, aspirations and a great offence to the griefs of the unemployed of the state, and the nation, who voted a cringeworthy savant into power.

Cringe pop does not operate in a vacuum, without its own political context. In fact, this so-called-genre of outlandishness is one glaring symptom of all that is wrong with the political will of our parliamentary democracy. Undoubtedly, due the same reason why cringe pop succeeds today, cringe politics is incipiently and solidly gaining ground, from once having been nothing better than a fringe community of freaks. Some of my colleagues may call this fascist.

I absolutely disagree. Death by cringing cannot be conveniently blamed on fascism. I blame it on the bizarre tolerance of the cringe-pop-fandom in this country.