Sanskrit to replace Urdu on railway signboards in Uttarakhand

Move is criticised as there are fewer than 400 Sanskrit speakers in the state compared with about 400,000 Urdu speakers.

Roorkee railway station - Station board [Wikimedia Commons]
Officials say the decision was made as per provisions of the railway manual [Wikimedia Commons]

The names of railway stations written in the Urdu language on platforms will be replaced with Sanskrit in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand – a move critics say is part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party‘s (BJP) attack on Muslim cultural heritage.

The decision by India‘s railway ministry has faced criticism from the opposition, as there are fewer than 400 Sanskrit speakers in the Himalayan state of 10 million people, while the number of Urdu speakers exceeds 400,000.

“Changing the name is a process bound to happen. As per the rule, second language has to be displayed on the signage, and in our case, it is Sanskrit,” Beena Bhatt, the director of the Uttarakhand government’s Department of Culture, told Al Jazeera.

“I understand we have fever number of Sanskrit language speakers as compared with Urdu, but the state adopted Sanskrit as the second official language in 2010. So it has to be Sanskrit on the boards and not Urdu,” she said.

Indian railway officials on Sunday announced that the signboards of all railway platforms which have names of railway stations written in Hindi, English and Urdu will now be written in Hindi, English and Sanskrit.

Deepak Kumar, the chief public relations officer of Northern Railway, said the decision had been taken as per provisions of the railway manual, which says that names of the railway stations should be written in Hindi, English and in the second language of the state.

Uttarakhand was earlier part of Uttar Pradesh (UP) state where Urdu still remains the second language.

According to 2011 census data, the exact number of Sanskrit speakers in the state is 386, which includes 282 males and 104 females, while Urdu speakers are more than four percent of the population at 425,752 persons.


The Opposition Congress party in the state termed the decision “unfortunate”.

“It is very unfortunate and should be condemned by all. Why there is hate against a particular language? asked Pritam Singh, President Uttarakhand Pradesh Congress Committee.

“Congress party condemns it. We will oppose any such decision, we will impress on the state government to keep Urdu as well on the signage,” Singh told Al Jazeera.

“These are the deliberate controversies being created by the BJP government,” he added.

In October 2018, the BJP government in neighbouring UP state renamed the cities of Allahabad to Prayagraj and Faizabad to Ayodhya, saying it was “correcting wrongs” made by Mughal rulers during the medieval period.

Last week, the Supreme Court sent a notice to the state government after the name change was challenged in the top court.

In the same year in August, the UP government renamed the iconic Mughalsarai railway station near Varanasi – the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya station.

Many other BJP-ruled states have plans to change names of landmarks and cities bearing Muslim names as part of their cultural nationalism.

There have already been calls to change the name of Agra, where the famous Taj Mahal is located, to Agravan, or Agrawal and Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat state, to Karnavati.

Attempts to distort history

The BJP has also been accused of attempting to distort history by either removing or rewriting the Islamic past and Muslims’ contribution to nation building.

In 2017, the then BJP government in Rajasthan state revised history in the Class X social science book, where Hindu ruler Maharana Pratap is shown as the victor against Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th-century Battle of Haldighati. However, the battle ended inconclusively.

Similarly, the Maharashtra state government expunged portions from the Class VII textbook about the history of Mughals and the Muslim rulers in the state.

Professor Chandan Gowda, who teaches sociology at the private university Azim Premji in the southern city of Bengaluru, said the BJP “is hell-bent on Hinduising India”.

“I am actually shocked to see this. How are these Sanskrit signs going to help when you have so few speakers in the state?” he said.

“This government started with changing Mughal names or Muslim-sounding names, now they are going after the language, it is highly unfortunate,” he told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, an Uttarakhand BJP spokesperson has defended the move, saying “it is a railway rule to use second language on the signage”.

“We are not against Urdu. Everything should not been seen in [a] Hindu-Muslim prism,” said Vindesh Bisht.

Source: Al Jazeera