Name Game: Will Bangla Be More “Sonar” Than West Bengal?

Social Commentary

Name Game: Will Bangla Be More “Sonar” Than West Bengal?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Back in 1991 the New York Times’ correspondent Serge Schmemann roamed the streets of Leningrad asking people what they wanted the name of their city to be changed to and why. Or should it be changed at all? In an open vote the people of Leningrad voted for change, for the third time in a century – the city had earlier gone from St Petersburg to Petrograd and finally, in 1924, after the death of Lenin, had been named after the leader.

Of all the people Schmemann quoted, only one person understood the bureaucratic implications of the process. A police officer, who knew the cost of such an immodest initiative. “It’ll cost a lot of money to change the name, and at the same time children are dying in hospitals,” he said. In changing the name of Leningrad to Saint Petersburg, Russia spent approximately 150 million rubles. That’s roughly 163 million rupees.

Three decades later, children are still dying in hospitals, but Russia and India are on the same page, as the West Bengal parliament passes a resolution to change the state’s name to Bangla. The state’s contention is that in any meetings at the centre level, it gets the last chance to speak in alphabetical order – seemingly oblivious to the cost of such a wanton exercise.

We’ve already seen a spate of name-changing exercises through the ’90s. The ludicrousness is thus well-practiced. The switch from Madras to Chennai was supposedly an act of localisation, even as many of the city’s institutions, such as Madras University, remained untouched. Bombay became Mumbai, named after the city’s deity Mumba Devi, ushering in a new era of nativist politics. And more recently in an attempt to de-anglicise Orissa, it morphed into Odisha.

No matter what side of the divide you are on – whether you think it is driven by an impulse to reclaim a place or consider it an atavistic attempt, whether this is to inculcate a renewed sense of local pride or a hideous form of tribalism – you know that each of these stunts is paid for by the taxpayer’s money. Not to mention the time that the state and central governments spend on debating the issue (West Bengal has made two prior attempts to rename the state, and was each time rejected by the Centre) and executing the roll-out as efficiently as our five-year plans. This grand Bangla project, for example, has taken about two-and-a-half years of correspondence between state and central governments and is yet to get the centre’s nod.

Would changing UP’s name to Great Pradesh and Bihar’s to Bahut Badhiya Bihar alter the state of their problems as well?

This is surely the latest iteration of the Shakespearean question of “What’s in a name”. And the West Bengal government must be lauded for providing the most obscure of answers – that the state arrived low in the alphabetical order of things. A large part of the Bengal bureaucracy was apparently unhappy with this, but presumably not with the state’s ranking in the human development or accountability indices. Such juvenile fantasies and ideas can only be welcome in a country where problems related to governance must be so hopeless, that even those tackling them look for an escape. An escape arrived at by mundane non-activities like renaming roads, towns, cities, and states.

But one still must ask, what this climb in order, or this rebranding accomplish that must also be paid through the pockets of its citizens? Do those who struggle for jobs and basic amenities care if they live in West Bengal or Bangla, die in Bombay or Mumbai? So we must first edit the terminology: It’s not a name change we’ve got here, it’s a name-lift. In this regard, perhaps the TMC is only following the central government’s model of ushering in badlaav – by changing whatever is within their powers to change.

In switching West Bengal to something as localised as Bangla, the Mamata Banerjee government possibly plans to perpetuate a sense of pride in Bengali culture and heritage. But can cities, states and countries not rejoice in who they become, rather than what they are known or referred to as? Would changing UP’s name to Great Pradesh and Bihar’s to Bahut Badhiya Bihar alter the state of their problems as well? If so, let’s get on with it.

George Carlin once said that the government is stupid enough to believe that sterilising language that refers to a condition, changes the condition. Maybe, it does, at least in terms of perception. At which point, Bengal’s reason behind the exercise sounds even more stupid. If it is so much of an inconvenience for the bureaucracy to wait their turn at national-level meetings and conferences should all the Utkarshs and Varuns of the world also change their name to get ahead in class? Might all other states follow this lunacy and get new names starting with A or B, to the point that the country becomes a code in itself ABBAABBBBAAA?

In a country mortally threatened by climate, hunger, poverty, and unemployment what must the calendars of people who have name-change on their agendas look like, I wonder.

It is preposterous to think that the Indian bureaucracy and the political sphere combined have time on their hands to think about issues of roll call, things we weren’t even bothered about in school and college. It might serve us better to pass a law that blocks renaming exercises. Better than wasting crores on giving names to wholesomely bankrupt ideas, maybe our representatives ought to do something for those who die nameless as part of some random statistic on hunger and mortality.