In November 2014, along with 11 other cities in the state, the decision to rename India’s Silicon Valley Bangalore as Bengaluru was formalized by the Karnataka government. The decision was taken way back in 2005. Mangalore became Mangaluru, Belgaum was renamed Belgavi, Mysore was now Mysuru and so on.
For popular Kannada writer and Jnanpith awardee UR Ananthamurthy, an unabashed critic of Hindu nationalists who never hid his contempt for them, this was a dream come true. When the names were changed, Times of India ran a quote which he had given in an interview in 2005. He had then said,
“The name change is the first step to cope with retaining identity in the times of globalization and an increasingly anglicized world. It is to force English language to accept—within its sound system—a word like Bengaluru, which ends in a vowel rather than consonant. But the only way to survive in the modern world is by being bilingual. All our litterateurs—Kuvempu, Bendre, Karanth—or our noted administrators—S Nijalingappa, Kengal Hanumanthaiah—are those who have known both English and Kannada well. What we need is an education system where English is taught but the medium of instruction is Kannada. By this, we can establish our own conclave in the globalised world."
We have to thank our stars that Amol Rajan, the editor of The Independent, had roots in Pune. If he was from say Mangaluru (or Mangalore as his highness would like it), he would have targeted Bengaluru instead, and called UR Ananthamurthy a Hindu nationalist whose job ‘he must not be doing’.
In case you missed the news and are wondering what this is all about, The Independent, under the editorship of Amol Rajan - born in Kolkata, apologies Calcutta, and raised in London - has decided that it will refer to India’s financial capital as Bombay, and not Mumbai.
The problem is not that he wants to call the city Bombay. Many in Mumbai do that anyway, just like when it was called Bombay, most called it Mumbai. The problem is with the political and ideological grandstanding in what is seemingly a cheap publicity stunt. Apparently, this is all about Hindu nationalism.
Here are some gems from the AFP report on his decision.
"The whole point of Bombay is of an open, cosmopolitan port city, the gateway of India that's open to the world"
"If you call it what Hindu nationalists want you to call it, you essentially do their work for them"
"I'd rather side with the tradition of India that's been open to the world, rather than the one that's been closed, which is in ascendance right now"
There are some obvious questions to be asked here.
First, by calling it Bombay, is he then endorsing colonial appropriation? Was Bombay not a result of the British Raj? Why should the people of Maharasthra, for whom it has always been Mumbai, be forced to call their city something else? If Amol Rajan calls the city what the imperialist wanted it to be called, is he doing their work for them?
Second, why only Mumbai? What about Chennai, Kolkata (where he was born), Thiruvananthapuram, Puducherry and Odisha? Why not get back to Madras, Calcutta, Trivandrum, Pondicherry and Orissa? Is it his parochialism, that with his partial Marathi roots, he cannot see beyond his own state? Or is his understanding of India limited to a couple of cities?
Or is his problem only with the Shiv Sena brand of linguistic nationalism, not DMK’s Dravidian Tamil nationalism, the Left’s Bengali bhadralokism and Biju Janata Dal’s Odiya pride?
The latter is probably the reason – he hates the Shiv Sena’s Hindu nationalism, and so, he chose Bombay.
And that’s the problem, to think the change in name is about just the Shiv Sena or Hindu nationalism.
Here’s where we get back to UR Ananthamurthy, the man who hates the Hindutva brand of politics.
To say that the name-changing, in any part of India, has to do with any party or ideology is simply misleading. For many, it is, as URA put it, “the first step to cope with retaining identity in the times of globalization and an increasingly anglicized world.” For many locals, the cities have always been Chennai or Mumbai, through the colonial era. For a lot of others, the official name does not matter. There are still those who insist that it is Madras, or Bombay. And they continue to do so.
That doesn’t mean any political party imposing a change in name is necessarily right. Should it be Bombay or Mumbai? That question has no answer which satisfies everybody, and that’s why the never-ending debate is left to electoral politics. But the point is, to make the change in name just about ‘Hindu nationalism’ or the thuggery of Shiv Sena alone is just philistinism. Even so, this is a rather lethargic way to counter Hindu nationalism.
Rajan talks about the ‘openness’ of the city, and siding with those who are ‘open to the world’. What he would have realized if he had an open mind was that if I want to call my city Chennai, and not Madras, then I am not being closed to the world, I just don’t want his dim-witted, colonial idea of liberalism thrust down my throat.