Unity for name change in Calcutta: Links with the imperial legacy
will go as Calcutta changes its name
By Calcutta Correspondent Subir Bhaumik, BBC World Service,
Wednesday 21 July 1999, published at 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
For more than 50 years after independence the imperial legacy of
Calcutta has endured.
In India's most populated city, names of roads, buildings and squares
may have changed, but even as Bombay became Mumbai and Madras became
Chennai, Calcutta remained the official name of the erstwhile capital
of Britain's Indian empire.
Now that will change. Calcutta, India's most populous city, is to have
a new name.
So too will the state of West Bengal.
The state assembly has decided unanimously to rename Calcutta as
Kolikata and West Bengal as Bangla, the way Bengalis like to say it.
The private member's resolution was tabled by a Marxist legislator
Robin Mondal. "Our state is predominantly Bengali, so the name of
our state and our largest city should be the way we say it."
"Calcutta and West Bengal should have been renamed before, but, as
far as we are concerned, it is better late than never," Mr Mondal
told the BBC later.
The demand for the renaming of Calcutta and West Bengal first erupted
at the Bengali Language Demands Committee, attended by scores of
Bengal's best writers, poets and cultural personalities.
Sunil Gangopadhayay, easily the state's most popular writer, says the
"renaming of Calcutta and West Bengal is necessary to preserve the
distinct Bengali identity of the city and the state, and to protect
the Bengali language from the growing preponderance of Hindi".
The likes of Mr Gangopadhayay take inspiration from Bangladesh, where
independence from Pakistan was followed by the undisputed supremacy of
the Bengali language in all affairs of the state.
"We need to use Bengali in all aspects of our life," says poet
Arun Mitra. He points to a recent survey conducted by the Calcutta
Metropolitan Development Authority , which says the number of Bengalis
in Calcutta's population has dwindled by 10% over the last 50 years.
But why is Bengal's ruling coalition suddenly waking upto this after
being in power for more than two decades?
The state's leading political sociologist Amal Mukherjee says it is
because the left is losing its political support in West Bengal.
"The Marxists have always made subtle use of Bengali
sub-nationalism to further their political base.
"Neglect by Delhi has remained their favourite election campaign
theme. Now as they lose their political support base, they will begin
to subscribe to regional politics directly and this renaming of
Calcutta and the state is the beginning of the process," Mr
Historian Nemai Sadhan Bose says that would be dangerous, and fraught
with the potential for violence in a state with an ailing industrial
economy and a growing unemployment problem.
But opinion on the renaming issue is evenly divided in the city. An
opinion poll in the Calcutta Telegraph on Tuesday showed 52% saying
the renaming was not necessary, 38% saying it was, and the rest were
Many Bengalis, though proud of their own culture, argue Calcutta's
multicultural identity is the city's greatest asset.
Others say that their children would face ruin in multi-racial India
if they gave too much importance to Bengali and neglected English and
In fact, a movement to re-introduce English in primary schools, which
was discontinued by the Left when it first came to power in West
Bengal, is gaining ground. A recent strike organised to raise the
demand was a total success.