The Centre has decided to change the names of the Bombay, Calcutta and Madras High Courts to Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai respectively. Demands to change the names of these courts, which had been established under the orders of Queen Victoria in the 1860s, had been pouring in since the 1990s when the names of the three cities had undergone change.
A famous quote by Shakespeare had once raised the question, “whats in a name?” If we were to go by the history of India, the answer to this question would perhaps be, the very material that has built national identity among Indians.
Nation building in India and the fight for freedom from British rule has gone hand in hand. When nationalist historians, in the late nineteenth century, invoked a glorified Indian past, going against the history written by British historians, the idea was to instill a sense of ‘Indianness’ among the people of the nation, required to take a unified stand against the British.
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Re-visiting and attempting to wipe out the past is common in any post-colonial country. The Burmese government for instance, renamed its capital city Yangon from the British name ‘Rangoon’ in order to instill in its citizens a national identity by symbolically wiping out the British past.
Following the birth of independent India in 1947, one of the biggest challenges facing the new leaders of the country was to find a way to wipe out traces of the colonial legacy and unify the country under one national banner. Renaming cities, streets and localities in a way to reflect an “Indian” heritage rather than a “British” one was one way to inculcate among the masses a feeling of patriotism.
Over the years we have seen the renaming of several states and cities that indicate a local identity. Travancore-Cochin was renamed Kerala in 1956 after adding parts of Malayalam speaking Madra province. The Madras state was renamed Tamil Nadu and Mysore named Karnataka in 1969 and 1973 respectively. The three cities in which the Bombay, Calcutta and Madras High Courts function, underwent name change from the 1990s take on the vernacular version of their names.
However, independent India is close to 70 years old now. Generations who have no direct memory of the fight for independence have been born and reborn. The very fact that names of the three iconic courts still need to be changed in order to reflect an Indian identity perhaps goes to show how the nation is still struggling to get rid of its colonial hangover and stand on its own two feet independently.