Over a thousand cities, towns and localities in Tamil Nadu will now bear a changed name or spelling following the completion of a project that began two years ago. The government has explained it as a step to re-include the local, native contexts of names, that were ignored by the colonial administration, and for place names to resonate with their Tamil pronunciation. Henceforth, in official records, the English spelling of Coimbatore, the state’s second-largest city, will be Koyampuththoor, to resonate with its Tamil roots, whereas Egmore, a major railway terminus in Chennai, has been invested with some history and renamed as Ezhumboor to recall the fact that it was the seventh village bought by the East India Company, which built the port city of Madras, renamed some years ago as Chennai. Vellore shall be Veeloor and Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) gets an extra “th” to become Thooththukkudi and so on. The changes will be expensive, laborious, and confusing, particularly to non-natives, but they are likely to strike a chord in a state that defines its identity primarily in linguistic terms.
This bout of renaming is not the outcome of an emotional pitch or mobilisation against any perceived threat to regional identity or assertion of linguistic pride, as was the case in the past in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere. Earlier exercises of a similar kind were deemed to be acts of sub nationalist assertion, with anti-caste undertones; the ideologues often framed Sanskrit, Hindi, the non-Tamil or the Brahmin as the Other to emphasise an egalitarian impulse in asserting the Tamil self over other identities. It also shaped politics in the state decisively and redefined federal relations, for the better. The anti-Hindi agitations in the 1930s and 1960s were a major factor in facilitating the growth of the Dravidian Movement in the Madras state. Unsurprisingly, its political face, the DMK, renamed Madras state as Tamil Nadu, the land of Tamils, when it won office in 1967. The first World Tamil Conference was held soon after to emphasise the glory of the Tamil language and to celebrate the civilisational ethos of the Tamil-speaking region.
Linguistic sub regionalism has since become a part of the political consensus in Tamil Nadu, while continuing to be a platform to mobilise against the Centre, or to highlight the concerns of Tamils elsewhere, for example in Sri Lanka. The quiet manner in which the present government has gone about the renaming may point to a more mature phase of linguistic sub nationalism, which is confident of addressing its concerns without raising the spectre of an Other.
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