Bengalis threatened to steal Anna Hazare’s column inches and social media thunder last week as they reacted to a piece of breaking news even more contentious than Mamata Banerjee’s fashion choices. Since becoming Chief Minister in May, Banerjee, or ‘Didi’ to her adoring fans, has promised to change the name of her state West Bengal – and that day has arrived. West Bengal shall henceforth be known as ‘Paschimbanga’ (pronounced ‘Poschimbongo’). ‘Paschimbanga’, cryptically, is the Bangla for ‘West Bengal’.
The state has its own precedent in name change, as Calcutta became Kolkata in 2001. The chief reasoning behind that move was to dampen the legacy of British rule – interesting given the city’s close political, literary and architectural ties with the Raj – as well as to follow the trend of other Indian cities returning to a local-language name, such as Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras) and Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). Such a move, it was argued, would reclaim the place for the language and culture spoken by people who lived in it.
While that cultural reasoning was there in Banerjee’s mind, her particular desire to hold an all-party meet and push a name change through was motivated by another, more curious factor. If you list the states of India alphabetically, it is West Bengal that sits at the bottom. One might feel this could only be a problem for the most afflicted obsessive compulsive, but the issue was with the order’s practical effect on government. Being last on the list of delegates to Delhi chambers, representatives from West Bengal would only be allowed to speak after the representatives from each other state and hence would not be adequately heard. After all, in the fast-paced world of Indian politics, those other representatives would by that time be snoozing in their chairs, off having samosas and/or quite disgustingly drunk.
As Banerjee’s campaign got off the ground a month or two back, a Bengali friend and I exchanged thoughts on what potential names could help the state of West Bengal be heard. ‘Aardvark’, perhaps? No, that would still leave alphabetical room for poor Uttarakhand to change their name again and snip in front. How about simply ‘A’? But wait, a state’s name need not be limited to alphabetical characters. ‘01′ would be clean, easy to pronounce and make a strong statement regarding the state’s vision for the future. ‘01′ in economy. ‘01′ in development. ‘01′ in name.
When the name change was officially announced, however, that friend was no longer cracking jokes. Rage and condemnation flowed swiftly from throughout the Bengali community:
“East Bengal doesn’t exist. So why call the state Paschimbanga?”
“We were already calling the state Paschimbanga in Bengali. So what was wrong with West Bengal?”
“Whatever i have to say cannot be said as it those are words that are used on the streets. All i have to say to the all party meet is, may you die of a horrible disease.”
“Instead of bothering about all this, the government should focus on how to better people’s lives.”
“What the Left did to West Bengal, Didi shall do to Poschim Bongo.”
“My state has a lunatic government. Just lunatic”
The requisite Facebook protest page appeared soon after. ‘Not Paschim Banga’ has nearly 7000 fans already – hardly a movement of Hazare-esque proportions but certainly a sizeable chunk of Bangla shock. The outcry seemed to be primarily a result of frustration at the state government’s priorities; after all, the state has not developed a sudden immunity to poverty or insurgent violence.
Disapproval also surrounded the choice even on Banerjee’s own grounds of alphabetical order. As we all know, ‘p’ could hardly be called a leader when letters need to be arranged, and the new Paschimbanga will now speak 21st in the House as opposed to its previous 28th. Why not simply ‘Bengal’? As stated above, there is no East Bengal – apart from a well-followed football team, who must be suffering a massive identity crisis right now.
On a more serious note, apart from these obviously baffling elements of the name change, there’s an element of tribalism about it as well. It has been suggested by senior commentators such as Shashi Tharoor that given the many peoples and languages of India, and their increasing tendency to clash, it would make sense for the lingua franca of the nation to be English – a language in which every Indian can aspire to speak well, but to which no Indian can claim a divine right. The regional ‘culture of outrage’ typified by organisations such as Shiv Sena would be more difficult to promote if English was the common point of reference across state borders. In the wake of Paschimbanga’s arrival, this idea is worth reflecting upon.
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