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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.

Bengali demands

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?

Divided opinion

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 Mukherjee says.

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 undecided.

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 Hindi.

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.