Changing place names is not unknown in human history. In India, more recently, the renaming of places, cities, states and even streets, has been largely projected as an attempt to redress “past wrongs”. Predictably, these moves have generated a range of reactions from those who dismiss these as expressions of cynical identity politics to those who argue that these are important affirmations of agency. I must confess that, as an adolescent, I experienced a thrill in the renaming of Harrington Street in Kolkata (Calcutta then) as Ho Chi Minh Sarani specially as the street housed the American Consulate. Looking back nearly four decades later, I ask myself whether such a reaction was simply adolescent.
Historically, the naming of places can be understood both an act of environmental literacy as well as an act of power. Norman England saw the erasure of names that had Celtic origins, Spanish and Castillian names were grafted on the Amerindian islands during the voyages of discovery, and closer to our times, in 1930, Constantinople was renamed as Istanbul. The rationale for these was largely informed by considerations of power and administrative usage. The question of identity too, was linked to the acts of renaming — street names for instance had a close relationship with official political ideology.
Against this backdrop, how do we look at the plethora of name changes that India has accommodated since the 1990s? In some cases, the decision was to reverse the colonial legacy, in others, it was meant to be in consonance with the local pronunciation. The jury is still out whether name changes are enough to either reverse the problems that residents/citizens face or whether such acts of legislation sharpen their critical engagement with history. One may well argue that the politics of visibility (public statues or street and state name changes for instance) has the potential to affect a slow mobilisation that need not simply be dismissed as nativism. This is especially true of caste-related violence and discrimination. On the other hand, to correct all historical wrongs is not easy. Who decides what the correct history is of humiliation and who indeed tells us what the right prescription is to grapple with history as it happened, with all its brutality and interludes of peace and productive interaction? Name changes of states or cities cannot be the only answer even if they do perhaps reflect some local actualities. Kolkata is a direct transliteration of the Bengali pronunciation of Calcutta (there are myriad claims for the origin of this word). Mumbai, on the other hand, is connected to an obscure deity quite unconnected with the Portuguese name, Bombay, which probably derives from the Portuguese for ‘good little bay’; the replacement seems to have a hint of a political register.
Curiously Chennai, derived from some ancient land deeds in Telugu, has replaced the Tamil-origin name of Madras. In all cases there has been no doubt a desire to displace the colonial names despite the fact that these three cities owe their development to English trading initiative.
Now to come to the more immediate issue of the demand for changing the name of West Bengal to Bengal. The immediate context for this demand seems to have been the inter-state council meeting where, because of sheer alphabetical misfortune, the state’s chief minister was the last to speak.
As names go, Bengal is not such a bad choice; Banga or Bangla are equally acceptable, coming close to the suba of Bangala of Mughal times. From the Bengal suba to the Bengal Presidency and subsequently to West Bengal after Partition, the state has gone through a complex history of negotiation and transformation. The designation of West Bengal as an administrative division lost its relevance in 1947 when East Bengal became East Pakistan. Bengal can now go back to being Bengal and maybe aspire to set an agenda of thinking today for the rest of India to follow tomorrow.
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