Mumbai: In 1988, the Shiv Sena emerged as the single-largest party in the Aurangabad civic polls for the first time — a victory that was followed by rioting and bloodshed. At the party’s victory rally, its founder Bal Thackeray declared that Aurangabad, which derives its name from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, would now be called ‘Sambhajinagar’, after Maratha emperor Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son.
Thirty-three years later, Aurangabad is set to hold another civic election next month, and the issue of formally renaming the city according to Thackeray’s declaration has once again cropped up, given that his son Uddhav Thackeray is now the chief minister of Maharashtra.
The issue is driving a wedge between the Shiv Sena and Congress, the ideologically-opposite members of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition. The Congress, which needs to protect its Muslim vote bank in the city from the increasing influence of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), is strongly opposed to the Shiv Sena’s renaming agenda. But, despite being aware of the Congress’ resistance, the Shiv Sena has been only needling it further on the issue.
The Chief Minister’s Office tweeted about a cabinet decision Wednesday, referring to Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar, and featuring a picture of Congress’ Amit Deshmukh, the minister for medical education and cultural affairs. This prompted a strong backlash from state Congress president Balasaheb Thorat, who said the renaming was not part of the coalition’s common minimum programme.
— CMO Maharashtra (@CMOMaharashtra) January 6, 2021
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Thorat said: “The common minimum programme of the MVA is designed to improve the lives of the people. How does renaming a city improve lives?”
The same day, Uddhav Thackeray also shot off a letter to the Union aviation ministry, reminding the Centre about the state’s earlier request to rename the Aurangabad airport as Chhatrapati Sambhaji airport. But Thorat did not object to this particular renaming.
Righting historical ‘wrongs’
There is a big reason why CM Thackeray is running the risk of unsettling the delicate MVA — a coalition of ideological rivals Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress.
Aurangabad is one of the most important urban power centres for the Shiv Sena outside of Mumbai and Thane. It is also a city where the party has built and sustained itself largely on a stark religious divide, and the consequent emotive issues — ‘Aurangabad’ versus ‘Sambhajinagar’ being its hallmark.
According to the 2011 Census, the district of Aurangabad has a 68.8 per cent Hindu population and 21.3 per cent Muslim population. Buddhists account for 8.4 per cent of the population, while Jains, Christians and Sikhs make up the rest.
The Shiv Sena has consistently fought elections in Aurangabad on the renaming plank, invoking sentiments of Maratha and Hindutva pride. In doing so, party leaders offer a slice of the city’s history.
Aurangabad was known as Khirki when Malik Ambar, the African slave-turned-military leader, founded the city in 1610 as a new capital for the Ahmednagar sultanate.
After Amber’s death in 1626, his son Fateh Khan changed the city’s name briefly to Fatehnagar. By 1633, Fatehnagar came into the possession of the Mughals, and 20 years later, when Aurangzeb made it his capital, he changed the name to Aurangabad.
Aurangzeb tortured and killed Chhatrapati Sambhaji in 1689. Shiv Sainiks often speak about the Maratha king “sacrificing” his life in trying to oust the Mughal dynasty, and say the renaming will bring about a sense of justice and the victory of good over evil.
Sanjay Shirsat, a Shiv Sena MLA from Aurangabad, told ThePrint: “I don’t know why anyone would oppose the renaming of Aurangabad. Some people are just doing so thinking it will help them win the city’s Muslim votes. But Aurangzeb was evil. No Muslim family names their child Aurangzeb.”
Aurangabad fell into the hands of the Nizams shortly after Aurangzeb’s death, under Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah, whose son later shifted the capital of the dynasty from Aurangabad to Hyderabad.
The Marathwada region, including Aurangabad, was merged with independent India on 17 September 1948, when the Indian military defeated the Nizam. Every year, 17 September is celebrated as a local holiday — Marathwada Liberation Day.
“People here suffered a lot of oppression and injustice under the Nizam rule. Somewhere, these taints on the city need to be wiped out. This is why we are strongly campaigning for the city’s name to be changed to Sambhajinagar,” Shirsat said.
Shiv Sena’s rise in Aurangabad
Back in the 1980s, Aurangabad’s history and its large Muslim population provided fertile ground for the Shiv Sena to sow the seeds of its larger Hindutva agenda, just as Bal Thackeray was expanding his party’s scope from being an anti-migrant, nativist regional outfit.
The Shiv Sena held its first formal session (adhiveshan) in 1984 in Mumbai when it decided that it needs to work for the entire state, beyond Mumbai and Thane. The following year, the party held its annual adhiveshan at Mahad in the Konkan region, where it reiterated its agenda to spread across Maharashtra and decided to adopt a wider Hindutva agenda, focusing on the Marathwada region.
“In 1985, the party established its first shakha (administrative unit) in Aurangabad and in 1988, contested the civic election in the city with much success, emerging as the single-largest party in its debut. Aurangabad is the nerve centre of Marathwada and soon our influence started spreading throughout the region,” a local Shiv Sena leader said on the condition of anonymity.
The Shiv Sena’s campaign for that election had a strong Hindutva flavour, as it agitated on issues such as Muslim personal law, enrolment of Jordanian students in the Marathwada University, and the prevalence of bootlegging, alleging that it was controlled by Muslim gangs. It also tapped into the anti-incumbency sentiment among Aurangabad’s Hindus against the ruling Congress.
The Shiv Sena’s entry into Aurangabad’s electoral politics was followed by communal riots. After the civic polls, the Congress, under then-state revenue minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, cobbled together an anti-Sena alliance to stake claim on the mayor and deputy mayor posts. The Shiv Sena took the battle to court, and a crowd charged into the city’s Muslim localities, leading to retaliation.
The violence soon spread to areas surrounding Aurangabad, such as Bidkin, Paithan and Jalna, and there were several deaths.
Hemant Desai, a political commentator and former journalist, said: “The Shiv Sena found support in the Marathas who were disillusioned with Sharad Pawar. The demand to rename the Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar (in the late 1970s) had created unrest, and Sharad Pawar had supported that change… When Sharad Pawar (who had briefly split from the Congress party) went back to the Congress (in 1986), the Marathas with him got frustrated and shifted their base to the Shiv Sena.”
Desai added: “Divisions between Hindus and Muslims, emotive issues… This is what the Shiv Sena is dependent on in Aurangabad because of the history and the demographics of the city.”
Though the Shiv Sena still holds sway in Aurangabad, the ground has gotten a bit shaky. The BJP has been aggressively expanding across Maharashtra, including in Aurangabad and Marathwada, while the AIMIM has also made strong inroads in the city.
In 2010, the Shiv Sena had won 30 seats in the civic body polls to 113 seats, while the BJP won 15, the Congress 19, and the NCP 11.
In 2015, the Shiv Sena retained its hold on the city’s civic body winning 29 seats while its then-ally BJP won 22. However, new entrant AIMIM emerged as the second-largest party with 25 seats, while the Congress was left battered with just 10 seats. The NCP won three, and Independent candidates and smaller parties clinched the rest.
In the Lok Sabha election last year, AIMIM’s Imtiyaz Jaleel defeated sitting Shiv Sena MP Chandrakant Khaire by a margin of less than 5,000 votes.
Currently, the Shiv Sena has two MLAs from Aurangabad — Shirsat and Pradeep Jaiswal — while the BJP has one, Atul Save.
The AIMIM’s rise and the Congress’ own need to regain lost ground makes it imperative for the latter to denounce any talk of renaming Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar.
Meanwhile, the BJP’s aggressive spread, and its attacks on the Shiv Sena for dithering on the renaming the city despite being in power, make it imperative for Uddhav Thackeray’s party to reiterate its commitment towards the renaming.
Previous attempts to change name to Sambhajinagar
Since Bal Thackeray’s 1988 rally, the Shiv Sena and its leaders have always referred to Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar. News reports and editorials in the party’s mouthpiece, Saamana, also refer to the city by this name.
For the party’s leaders too, the name change is a foregone conclusion. Every member who talks about Aurangabad, whether in interviews or campaigns, calls it Sambhajinagar.
The Shiv Sena’s first formal attempt to rename Aurangabad came in 1995, when the party’s general body passed a resolution about it. The Shiv Sena-BJP state government under CM Manohar Joshi also gave its nod to the proposal. However, a Congress corporator challenged the decision in the Bombay High Court, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which granted a stay. The matter then went into cold storage, according to the anonymous local Shiv Sena leader cited above.
“We tried to move a similar resolution in 2011, but the Congress-NCP government under CM Prithviraj Chavan did not entertain it,” the leader added.
In 2018, then-MP Khaire presented a bill in the Lok Sabha seeking the renaming of Aurangabad, on the lines of Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road, which was now called Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Marg after the former President of India.
“The reason for altering the name of Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar is the sacrifice of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, and his hard struggle to defeat Aurangzeb in Deccan by uniting Marathas,” Khaire said in the statement of objects and reasons.
The same month, following Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath’s decision to rename Faizabad district as Ayodhya, the Shiv Sena, then a junior partner in a BJP-led state government, demanded that the names of Aurangabad and Osmanabad too be changed to Sambhajinagar and Dharashiv respectively.
Shiv Sena MLC Manisha Kayande hit out at the BJP for its inaction on the name-change issue.
“The BJP is now criticising us, but if the party really wanted to change the name, then it should have acted on it at that time. The BJP and RSS talk about wiping out signs of Muslim invaders everywhere else in the country, so why not in Maharashtra? Even now, if the state government takes a decision, it will ultimately have to go to the Centre, where the BJP is in power,” Kayande said.
Playing it safe
For now, the Shiv Sena is playing it safe, but smart. CM Uddhav has refrained from directly commenting on the issue, but Thursday, the CM’s official handle made another mention of Sambhajinagar, despite the Congress’ strong objection to the state machinery using this name for the city.
Saamana carried an editorial taking a dig at the BJP for not making the name change while it was in power, and maintaining that the issue will not weaken the MVA.
Sanjay Raut, the party’s Rajya Sabha MP and executive editor of Saamana, said Bal Thackeray had already renamed the city and “only the paperwork is left”.
Party sources said Shiv Sainiks on the ground are keeping the issue alive by rallying people behind the renaming demand, and getting people to write letters to the government about it.