Abstract: Nationalism is mostly regarded as a positive phenomenon needed for the strength and unity of the nation. Nevertheless, not all its kinds are congenial for the development of the nation. This essay endeavours to demonstrate that how India is incrementally leaning to a new and vigorous form of nationalism, which on the one hand derives its strength… Read More »


Nationalism is mostly regarded as a positive phenomenon needed for the strength and unity of the nation. Nevertheless, not all its kinds are congenial for the development of the nation. This essay endeavours to demonstrate that how India is incrementally leaning to a new and vigorous form of nationalism, which on the one hand derives its strength from the Hindutva ideology; and on the other, is largely carried out in governmental activities. The name changing politics is the latest in the list, in which the saffron faced Religious Nationalism, is blatantly manifesting its contours. The essay seeks to throw light on this issue by taking a cue from the pages of history to argue that Religious Nationalism is, in actuality, nothing but instrumentalisation and orchestration of religion for power politics. Concomitantly, it is not only constitutionally dangerous and quixotically impractical but it also undermines the very principles upon which the nation rest. || Read From ‘Ghar Wapsi’ to ‘Naam Wapsi’: Resurgence of Saffron faced Religious Nationalism in India on Legal Bites


The intensity of the debate and discussion revolving around the inchoate axis of nationalism seems to be unprecedented in India. From the JNU controversy to the intolerance debate, it seems that everything at its very core harbours the concept of nationalism. To make matter worse, there has emerged a self-professed group of nationalists, who have self-authorized themselves in allocating the epithet of ‘anti-national’ to those who criticize the government’s Hindutva ideology. Amid this brouhaha, the concept of nationalism still seems to be engulfed in the enigmatic threads of obscurity. In this background, it is plausible to start this essay with a brief historiographical introduction on nationalism to eradicate the risk of proposing any claim in abstraction, which this essay seeks to make.

The Element of Religion in Nationalism

It might appear awkward to modern ears, especially if they belong to an ethnic nation, that the early definition of nationalism has hardly had any element of religion in it. Religion and Nationalism were seen as alien concepts with respect to each other. The apparent antithetical dichotomy involved between the two contested terms, ‘religion’ and ‘nationalism’, emanates from the long-standing conventional view that nationalism is the product of modernization, which in turn had its logical genesis from secularization, the apparent arch enemy of religion. The nineteenth-century political thinkers, ostensibly, Karl Marx, J.S Mill, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and others, all predicted the slow demise of religion in all domains. This view also has strong resonances in the writings of the modernist scholars, such as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Eric Hobsbawm, all have described nationalism as the product of modern conditions, namely, capitalism, bureaucracy, industrialism, urbanization and the like. Anderson, though believed in some religion elements functioning in the periphery of nationalism when he acknowledges that ‘imagined communities’ of old were once ‘sacred imagined communities’ bound by religious ties, but ultimately focuses on economic factors, particularly ‘print capitalism’. These scholars have emphasized modernity of nations thereby jettisoning any kind of sacred aura.

It did not take long to realize the defects of thrusting upon a linear and universal form of nationalism to explicate all its form throughout the world. Very soon, religion was seen as returning from its coffin when it began to show its resurrecting face in most of the national movements: Freedom struggles of ethnic nations like India, Zionist movement and the formation of Israel, Iranian Revolution, to name a few. It was thus argued that Europe was an exception and not the rule. In this context, the categorization of ethnic and civic forms of nationalism enumerated by Hans Kohn becomes crucial to address the nuances that the heavy-loaded term ‘nationalism’ holds. Kohn definition of nationalism appears to be comparatively less controversial as he defines it as ‘a state of mind’ in which the supreme loyalty of state is toward the nation-state. The civic form of nationalism had its genesis in the Western countries, which found its expression in political and economic changes. The kernel of the French Revolution of 1789 was based on ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’; it is seen as the iconic quintessence of civic nationalism. On the flip side, the backward state of political and social development led to the emergence of ethnic nationalism in the Eastern countries in which the original impulse came from the cultural contact with some older nationalism; it looked for its justification and its differentiation to the heritage of its own past, and extolled the primitive and ancient depth and peculiarities of its traditions in contrast to Western rationalism.[1]

It would not be completely implausible to postulate that Religious Nationalism is an off-shoot of Ethnic Nationalism; this becomes more pronounced when mostly Ethnic Nationalism derives its source of power from religion. The term could be taken to mean that religion must be central or at least one of the central features to national identity and to conceptions of a given nation.[2] A workable, albeit oversimplified, definition comes from Barbara-Ann J. Reiffer in the following words: “Religious Nationalism is the fusion of nationalism and religion such that they are inseparable.”[3] This scholarly definition might sound akin to modern ears, especially Indians and specifically after 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The ambience in the country is best suited to explicate the case of Religious Nationalism where every act of nationalism is seen by some self-professed nationalists through the kaleidoscope of religion and if, by chance, the kaleidoscope happens to be secular, the mosaic changes to anti-national patterns.

At this backdrop, this essay endeavours to show that the Religious Nationalism, which is blatantly manifesting its contours in bizarre episodes of mobocracy and name changing politics, is in actuality nothing but instrumentalisation and orchestration of religion for power politics. Concomitantly, it is not only constitutionally dangerous and quixotically impractical but it also undermines the very principles upon which the nation rest.

The Raison d’être behind Name Changing

The Hindutva wave in the country has reached an unprecedented level ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party has come to power. The party emblem, a saffron coloured lotus (in striking contrast to the natural pink lotus), signifies its intimate ideological and organizational links to the Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh (RSS). Practically speaking, the party has also lucidly demonstrated its Hindutva ideologies in myriad ways.

Starting from taking the curved path of controversial Ghar Wapsi campaign, it reached the house of intolerance debate, climbed the stairs of vigorous cow protection movement which culminated into the infamous mobocracy, and now it is knocking at the doors of Name Changing politics, which is the latest in trend.

True that India has a long history of changing names of the places, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta all got rechristened as Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata respectively. But what makes these cases different than the ones we witness under the BJP led government is the fact that the former does not have a communal blot on its face, unlike the latter. Currently, Uttar Pradesh is leading the march of name changing politics with its new chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, who is waving the saffron coloured flag of naam-wapsi. The name changing movement is seen at all levels of administration with Faizabad district becoming Ayodhya district; Mughalsarai junction becoming Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (named after the RSS ideologue) junction and the most impactful of all, the historic city, Allahabad becoming Prayagraj.

It isn’t a rocket science to guess the common factor in all the names that have been changed nor have the name changers hid their real objectives behind this. BJP lawmaker, Sangeet Som while addressing this issue commented, “BJP is just trying to bring back the culture of India, which was deliberately changed by the Muslim rulers to end Hindutva. Therefore BJP is working just to safeguard and retain the Indian culture back by renaming the cities with their original names (sic).”[4] It is explicitly clear that the Muslim sounding names have been rechristened with the alleged objective of bringing back the ‘Hindu culture’ of the country and eradicating the ‘Muslim’ elements.

To use ‘Indian culture’ exclusively for Hindus makes it implicit that the Muslims are not part and parcel of the Indian culture. The renaming of cities, towns, roads, and public places manifest stark communal tendencies and is seen as a conscious attempt to eradicate the Muslim influence on them.

Its impact has transcended the boundaries of the nation and is felt in the world platform through the foreign media which has reported the contentious issue as a Hindu-Muslim conflict. The Guardian headlined it in the following way: Hindu nationalist-led state changes Muslim name of the Indian city, while Al Jazeera titled it, India’s BJP changes Muslim name of Allahabad to Prayagraj. Thus this Hindu-Muslim tension has put a question mark on the secular character of the Indian nation on the world platform.

The Hindutva ideology implicit in Name Changing Politics

What is worse is the fact that these moves are no more connected to some fundamentalist organization working at a smaller level; it is, in fact, being carried out by the government itself.

These moves clearly undermine the nomenclature of the party; the acronym ‘BJP’ has Bharatiya (Indian) and Janata (People) in its nomenclature but the party through its controversial leaders and contentious statements, as well as activities, have made it clear that its conception and connotation of ‘Bharatiya’ and ‘Janata’ are not the same as enshrined in the Constitution of the country

It is deeply influenced by the old saffron coloured Hindutva ideology that was framed in the work of M. S. Golwarkar, ‘We, or our nationhood defined’ (1939). Here, the idea of India is defined in the light of five common criteria for the concept of the nation: geographical unity, race, religion, culture and language. In this framework, the Hindus are regarded as the indigenous inhabitants of India from time immemorial whereas Muslims are naturally ousted and treated as threatening others, ostensibly on the ground of having adopted a foreign religion and culture.[5] This myopic notion of ‘Bharatiya’ finds expression in changing the names of places to bring back the ‘original’ culture of the country by removing ‘foreign’ elements.

Historically speaking, there is no evidence to prove the indigenous character of the Hindus and of the Aryan race in India. If we further go back in history we find another man who used more or less the same argument but it was targeted against the Hindus instead; Jotiba Phule, the founder of Satyashodhak Samaj (1873) is known in history for his support for Aryan invasion theory proposing that Aryans, like Muslims, conquered the land and suppressed its indigenous people.

Therefore it becomes highly contentious to ponder over the claim of bringing the Indian culture back, for what is regarded as the proud culture under the Hindutva ideology is condemned by the Dalits and lower classes as a symbol of Brahmanic supremacy and Dalits oppression.

The crux of this short historical narrative is that history has witnessed this ‘blame game politics’ right from the very beginning, but the fact of the matter is that the concept of nationalism is too sophisticated to be comprehended by playing such myopic games. Nevertheless, what remains uncontested in history is the fact that India has always manifested a truly assimilative character, and this assimilative character played a crucial role in giving birth to what comes to be known as Independent India, known for its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual diversity.

Secular Nationalism versus Religious Nationalism

If we keep history aside and see the developments from a pragmatic lens, the Hindutva ideology clearly seems to appear incompatible with the Constitution of the country. The essence of the constitution is duly enshrined in its Preamble that begins with the following phrase: ‘We, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA’. Here ‘we’ denotes all of its citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs, cultures, customs, race, language and gender. But by emphasizing that the name changing of places is meant to restore ‘our’ culture which is different from ‘their’ culture, the name changers challenges the ‘we’ feeling of the citizens. This alone makes the subsequent declaration in the Preamble problematic. The word SECULAR in the Preamble is the worst victim hit by the Hindutva ideology of name changers. The constitution embodies a positive concept of secularism in which all religions in the country have the same status and support from the state, irrespective of their strength. But the saffronisation of public spaces transgresses this as it seeks to metamorphose the secular nature of the country by favouring Religious Nationalism in public domains.

The Preamble also secures for all its citizens’ EQUALITY and FRATERNITY, but the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’ make these high values hopeless. The name changing politics has deeper meanings, it does not merely draw a line of distinction, it also projects the ‘other’ as ruthless conquerors of the past that corrupted the holy land of India and brought about an alien religion from a foreign land contaminating its culture. BJP spokesperson, G.V.L Narasimha Rao sees name changing as an effort to “connect the current generation to our glorious past, and to erase the deep scars of subjugation that have badly injured our cultural psyche.”[6] The statement implicitly suggests that ‘our cultural psyche’ is different from ‘their culture’. It thus makes it implicit that ‘us’ and ‘them’ never equal; the former has a distinct culture and while the latter are oppressors of that culture. It is for the same reason that fraternity could never develop among these two bipolar binaries. It also affects the Right to Equality that subsumes Article 15 of the Fundamental Rights which provides that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, sex, or place of birth. Although name changing of places is not a case of discrimination against any citizen, it, however, certainly is a discriminatory practice on the part of a state which aims at stigmatizing a specific community and highlighting their ‘otherness’ on religious grounds.

The Preamble further states that it secures these high values to its citizen to assure “the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”, thereby fulfilling both individualistic and socialistic requirements needed for a healthy nation. This rationale is doomed by the name changers for they not only attack the dignity of a single individual but put a question mark on the dignity of the entire individuals of a particular community by projecting them as ‘foreigners’ and ‘aliens’ which naturally jeopardizes the unity and integrity of the country.

Contrary to the popular belief, Religious Nationalism never had its root in Indian soil, for it is the land of myriad religions and the monopolisation of one religion over the land was never evident in history. This is primarily also because India has given birth as well as adopted many religions, and even in the same religion, we find myriad forms and versions operating in different parts of the country.

Therefore even if one assumes in the possibility of the government’s claim of bringing back the original culture, it still remains nebulous as to what counts as ‘original culture’ as Hinduism could not be defined as a monolithic religion, let alone culture, thereby rendering the whole enterprise an impractical utopia.


George Bernard Shaw has rightly commented:

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”.

The name changers have certainly not learned anything from the history of the land and their claims to ‘turn back the clock’ through the saffronisation of public places is not only impractical but also threatening for the integrity and unity of the nation. The Hindutva ideology has failed to acknowledge the impossibility of discarding the historical specificities that have shaped the nation in making it what it is today, i.e., a democratic, sovereign, socialist, secular, republic. Verily, like the Metternich system, this too has no future but one may not ignore the dangerous denouement that may follow such developments. It is indeed a crucial time to take lessons from the past to preserve the most precious entity that we possess: the Indian nation.

By – Humaira Afreen

Presidency University, Kolkata

This Essay was shortlisted in the Third Edition of the National Essay Writing Competition on Nation and Nationalism 2019

[1] Hans Kohn, The idea of Nationalism: A study in its origins and background (Transaction Publishers 2008) (1944).

[2] Philip W. Baker, Religious Nationalism in modern Europe 13 (Routledge 2009).

[3] Barbara-Ann J. Reiffer, Religion and Nationalism: Understanding the consequences of a complex relationship, 3(2) SAGE 215, 225 (2003).

[4] Alok Pandey, “Agra to Agarwal”: BJP’s leaders Want to Rename More Uttar Pradesh Cities, NDTV (Nov. 10, 2018, 7:46 AM), https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/bjp-leaders-want-agra-renamed-as-agarwal-after-changing-names-of-allahabad-faizabad-1945047.

[5] Christopher Jaffrelot, The Hindu nationalist movement and Indian politics 1925 to the 1990S 53-34 (Hurst and Company, 1998).

[6] Bhavna Vij-Aurora, Allahabad to Prayagraj: The Politics of Name Change (Nov. 15, 2018) https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/allahabad-to-prayagraj-the-politics-of-name-change/300886.

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Updated On 18 March 2020 9:25 AM GMT
Humaira Afreen

Humaira Afreen

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