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HomePoliticsAurangabad or Sambhajinagar? Far from Kashi, communal politics simmers in Aurangzeb's capital

Aurangabad or Sambhajinagar? Far from Kashi, communal politics simmers in Aurangzeb’s capital

Ahead of civic body polls, Shiv Sena’s decades-long quest to have Aurangabad renamed to Sambhajinagar has made a comeback in mainstream Maharashtra politics.

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Aurangabad: It has been four years since the Aurangabad communal riots of May 2018, but even today, as Pushpa Sancheti walks down the congested lane of the city’s busy Raja Bazar area, memories still come unbidden — of violence unfolding in the very alleyway that leads to her home. Her neighbour and friend, Sunita Bhandari, walks beside her. She, too, remembers the horror of the riots, in which two persons died and more than 50 were injured.

“Their people [Muslims] were prepared in advance with drums of kerosene, bricks, and stones. They set parts of the houses and shops in our neighbourhood on fire. Our people [Hindus] also retaliated in unity. Otherwise, our people usually never unite like this,” Sancheti said.

The riots are long over but communal tensions haven’t disappeared. The city’s political history has been mostly shaped by the Shiv Sena, which has since the 1980s propagated a Hindutva agenda here. In the last civic body elections, in 2015, the Sena retained its 25-year-old hold on the Municipal Corporation. Notably, that year, the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) emerged as the chief opposition.

With the city’s civic body expected to go to polls later this year, along with other major municipal corporations in Maharashtra, politicians are, as they have done in the past, leveraging Aurangabad’s undercurrent of communal polarisation to set their agendas across the state.

For one, late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s decades-long quest to have Aurangabad renamed to Sambhajinagar has made a comeback in mainstream Maharashtra politics. The city currently takes its name from the 17th-century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and is also his final resting place. This has long galled the Shiv Sena, not least because Aurangzeb is said to have murdered Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son Sambhaji in 1689.

It rarely comes up in the political discourse that the city has had older names too. It was founded in 1610 by African slave-turned-military leader Malik Ambar as the new capital for the Ahmednagar sultanate. Back then, it was known as Khirki. After Ambar’s death in 1626, his son Fateh Khan renamed the city as Fatehnagar, which, by 1633, fell to the Mughals; 20 years later, Aurangzeb made it his capital and changed its name to Aurangabad.

Centuries later, the Mughal emperor is still at the centre of several controversies, most recently in the debate raging around his alleged destruction of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. His name alone riles some people, such as in the case of Delhi BJP Yuva Morcha members reportedly defacing the Aurangzeb Lane signboard in Delhi last month.

The BJP and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have also been trying to push the Shiv Sena on the backfoot on the renaming issue in their larger tug of war over whose commitment to Hindutva is stronger.

On 1 May, at a rally in Aurangabad, MNS President Raj Thackeray had directed his party workers to play the Hanuman Chaalisa loudly outside any mosques that violate loudspeaker norms.

Later that month, AIMIM leader Akbaruddin Owaisi, too, stirred the communal pot when he paid the tomb of Aurangzeb in Khuldabad a visit. Owaisi’s act received sharp reactions from the BJP and Shiv Sena, while the MNS dared the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in the state to raze the tomb altogether.

Also read: Why Shiv Sena won’t back down from renaming Aurangabad despite risk to alliance govt

Communal agenda

According to the 2011 Census, Hindus comprise about 68 per cent of Aurangabad’s population, and Muslims 21 per cent.

Some, like Sancheti, say that minor communal scuffles are not uncommon in several parts of Aurangabad, while some insist that the city is largely peaceful, and that it is only politicians who try to incite disquiet.

The MNS’ loudspeaker agenda and Owaisi’s visit to Aurangzeb’s tomb dominated the state’s political discourse, but, according to locals, the city remained largely undisturbed.

A view of Aurangabad’s Moti Karanja area | Picture by Manasi Phadke, ThePrint
A view of Aurangabad’s Moti Karanja area | Manasi Phadke | ThePrint

“Politicians keep raising communal issues now and then for their own benefit, but that’s not what people want,” Yusuf Khan Ismail Khan, who runs a steel shop in Aurangabad’s Moti Karanja area, from where the 2018 riots had originated, told ThePrint.

Khan, who is also a BJP functionary, added that Owaisi and other politicians have “visited Aurangzeb’s tomb many times” but it is now being made into an issue “because elections are round the corner.”

Shoaib Khan, who runs a small tea stall in Moti Karanja, described to ThePrint how the neighbourhood was on tenterhooks a day after Thackeray’s speech in Aurangabad. “But the day passed uneventfully. We live in harmony with Hindus here. It is the outsiders who come and try to spark disputes,” he said.

The surge in Aurangabad’s communal politics is closely linked to the Shiv Sena’s growth in the city. In 1985, the party had decided to formally adopt ‘Hindutva’ as a political agenda to fight elections and set up its first shakha (unit) in Aurangabad.

An Aurangabad-based Congress leader, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint, “The Shiv Sena’s sons of the soil, anti-migrants and anti-South Indian agenda in Mumbai was starting to lose steam and was limiting the party’s growth. Aurangabad’s history and its large Muslim population seemed ideal for the Shiv Sena to test the ground with its new-found Hindutva agenda.”

Also read: Sena-Congress rift widens as Pune, Osmanabad, Ahmednagar are pulled into renaming row

A Sena take-over

In 1988, the Shiv Sena contested the first-ever municipal corporation election held in Aurangabad, tapping into the anti-incumbency sentiment among the city’s Hindus against the ruling Congress, and emerged as the single-largest party.

The Congress, however, outsmarted the Shiv Sena by cobbling together an alliance with the Muslim League and installing their mayor. The very first civic election in the city was followed by communal riots.

It was also after the 1988 election that the issue of renaming Aurangabad as ‘Sambhajinagar’ was first brought up by Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray.

A view of the Marathwada Sanskrutik Mandal Ground in Aurangabad, from where Bal Thackeray first raised the name change issue | Picture by Manasi Phadke, ThePrint
A view of the Marathwada Sanskrutik Mandal Ground in Aurangabad, from where Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray first raised the issue of renaming the city | Picture by Manasi Phadke, ThePrint

In subsequent election rallies in the city, he would often throw the Marathi phrase ‘Khan ya Baan’ (Khan or the bow and arrow that is the Sena’s election symbol) at voters, drawing battle lines, with the “Muslim-appeasing Congress” on one side and the Sena on the other.

The city has remained a Shiv Sena stronghold, though the AIMIM’s influence has grown considerably in the past decade.

Also read: Shiv Sena comes up with ‘roar of true Hindutva’, to hold mega Mumbai rally to counter BJP, MNS

The name game

Sadia Khan who lives in Shahganj, Aurangabad, told ThePrint that she had voted for the Shiv Sena up until 2019. “They spoke about roads and drainage, not the renaming issue, so we voted for them,” she said.

However, after the 2018 riots, no one from the Shiv Sena approached Khan and her family. It was the Muslim leaders who helped them pick up the pieces. Since then, Sadia Khan has switched over to the AIMIM.

Khan and almost everyone in her neighbourhood refer to the city as Aurangabad. The signboards and most businesses in the city mention ‘Aurangabad’ in their addresses.

However, the Shiv Sena shakhas and the BJP offices in the city advertise their address as Sambhajinagar. In the shops and residences lining the Marathwada Sanskrutik Mandal Ground, from where the Thackerays have made their promises of renaming the city time and again, people refer to the city as Sambhajinagar. “Only they [Muslims] call the city Aurangabad. For us, it has always been Sambhajinagar,” the owner of a grocery shop located right across the ground said on condition of anonymity.

In the locality around Aurangabad’s Shiv Sena Bhavan, too, people call the city ‘Sambhajinagar’. The irony that the building stands in a neighbourhood called ‘Aurangpura’ is lost in the din.

A shop in Aurangpura near the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Aurangabad with 'Sambhajinagar' in its address | Picture by Manasi Phadke, ThePrint
A shop near the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Aurangpura, Aurangabad, that mentions ‘Sambhajinagar’ in its address | Picture by Manasi Phadke, ThePrint

Sanjay Kenekar, a BJP leader from Aurangabad, told ThePrint that renaming the city was “Balasaheb’s dream”, and, therefore, very important for the party’s Hindutva agenda. “People need things that are emotionally uplifting as much as they need development, food, and water,” he said.

“The Shiv Sena will not do anything about it now because they are sitting in the lap of people who are opposed to it,” Kenekar said, referring to the Sena’s alliance with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party as part of the MVA.

The Shiv Sena’s first formal attempt to rename Aurangabad was in 1995 when the Manohar Joshi-led Shiv Sena-BJP government was ruling the state. A Congress corporator, however, challenged it in the Bombay High Court. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ordered status quo in 1996.

Shiv Sena’s Nandkumar Ghodele told ThePrint the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation has since then passed a name change resolution on two occasions — once when the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis was the CM along with a BJP-led government at the Centre. “If the BJP cared so much about renaming the city, why didn’t they send it to the Centre for approval then?” Ghodele, the last mayor of the civic body before it fell into the hands of an administrator, said.

He added, “It was Balasaheb’s call to rename the city and we will follow our leader’s directions. However, Khan or Baan is not Shiv Sena’s agenda anymore. Muslims like Uddhavsaheb too and we only talk about development.”

To the BJP’s jibes about the Shiv Sena not acting on its promise to change the city’s name despite being in power, the party has put the onus on the Centre, saying renaming cities is not under the state’s jurisdiction.

The Sena, however, has been taking small steps to show its commitment to the name change issue, such as party minister Subhash Desai writing to Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia to rename the Aurangabad Airport as ‘Sambhajinagar Airport’.

Meanwhile, the Congress has expressed its opposition to the renaming issue. Speaking to ThePrint, Congress Aurangabad District president Kalyan Kale, said, “We only believe in the MVA’s common minimum programme. We want development, good roads, and adequate water. I don’t think Shiv Sena will disagree with any of this…. Renaming the city should not be a political agenda. If you ask people about whether they mind calling the city Sambhajinagar, nobody will object. But, is it the need of the hour? No.”

Back in Raja Bazar, Sancheti and Bhandari pause when the topic of renaming Aurangabad comes up. Sancheti is all for it. Bhandari, however, just wants peace. “Why harp on about something that is not going to happen?” she said. “Let it be Aurangabad. Let us just live in peace.”

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: ‘Softened’ under Uddhav, why Shiv Sena is going back to its original aggressive roots


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