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Places often change their names for good, sensible reasons. Is the alphabet one of them?

Being at the back of the line always sucks.
Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Being at the back of the line always sucks.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A region’s name is an identifying signifier of a collective ethnic, religious, and cultural group—being able to say you’re American or French or Nigerian not only links you to a geographic location, but also to a shared sense of values. Changing a region’s name can therefore either strengthen the sense of belonging in a group by making it more representative of them, or weaken it if those opposed are suddenly lopped with a new national identity they didn’t ask for.

There are many reasons why a city, state, or country changes its name, but the most common is rectifying incorrect spellings and pronunciations leftover from previous rulers. “Geography doesn’t simply exist,” says Thomas Ehrlich Reifer, an associate professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. “It’s always this intersection of humans interacting with the environment, and therefore names are a part of people’s sense of identity.”

There are many examples of this around the world: The people of Leningrad voted in 1991 to restore the city’s original name, St Petersburg, in a bid to do away with traces of Lenin and Stalin’s reigns. Burma became Myanmar in 1989 because its citizens thought the older name had an “ethnic-supremacist tinge” to it. Constantinople, once the capital city of the Roman and Byzantine empires, was called Istanbul after the sitting government in 1923 requested foreigners adopt the traditional Turkish name in their local languages.

India has a particularly rich history with its cities and states changing names: Bangalore to Bengaluru, Calcutta to Kolkata, Madras to Chennai, Gurgaon to Gurugram, Pondicherry to Puducherry, the list goes on. Many of these changes were made to do away with the anglicized names left behind by the British after they gave India its independence in 1947. After years of deprecation under the British rule, cities and states started purging their colonial shells for a more unified national identity. Most people—barring some English-speaking upper echelons of society and foreigners—are “gaining in confidence” with their own separate selfhood.

The most recent name change debate is currently occurring in India’s east—but it’s happening for totally different reasons. On Aug. 26, a resolution was passed to drop the term ‘West’ from the Indian state of West Bengal, simply calling it Bengal. Practically, the rechristening makes perfect sense: If you look at a map, the state is actually on the east side of the country. After the British partitioned off East and West Bengal in 1947, East Bengal was originally dubbed East Pakistan before it renamed itself Bangladesh after the 1971 Liberation War. So there’s really no reason to signpost the region’s geographic location according to dated boundaries. Politically, the term is a reminder of the lines drawn by the British during the partition, and some believe it holds the state back from creating its own identity free from colonial remnants.

But this decision wasn’t solely driven by geography or anti-colonial sentiment: Part of it’s actually about the alphabet.

At a country-wide meeting of the Inter-state Council earlier this year, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee waited six hours for her turn to speak: Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, all the way down to West Bengal. (English is still the official language of India and is used in all government settings.) Fed up with always speaking last because of an alphabetical quirk, she wants to move up in the agenda at national meetings. After all, after six hours of diatribe, politicians are often tired and irksome by the time West Bengal has the chance to air its concerns. “Renaming the state would protect the interests of the people and the state,” said state minister Partha Chatterjee. If the name change is ratified by the government, ‘Bengal’ will begin to speak fourth out of the 29 states in India (and Uttarakhand would be last).

India’s national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has called West Bengal’s bluff, saying that the reasoning behind their name change is petty and unnecessary. Some local Bengalis disagree and see the change as a return to the original pre-partition nomenclature: For example, renowned author Sirshendu Mukherjee and actor and poet Soumitra Chatterjee think the current name is irrelevant, as East Bengal no longer exists. But dissenting voices have also piped up. These include singer Anindya Chattopadhyay, who called for a decision by referendum, and famed novelist Tilottama Majumdar, who believes the state’s name should remain as a reminder of the 1947 partition.

The name ‘West Bengal’ was coined by the British in 1905 well before the partition, and the division was hardened along religious lines in 1947. The Indian region has remained called West Bengal ever since—a heritage that will be wiped clean if “West” is dropped from the state name. By ridding itself of its prefix, scholar Garga Chatterjee believes the state is attempting to create a manufactured, self-contained identity. He argues that West Bengal is the only continuous political unit the people know—”We, in West Bengal, need the West to avoid losing a sense of our grandmother’s world, losing parts of ourselves, losing our idea of us as a people,” he writes.

Whether or not the remains of British rule should be scrubbed from the collective Indian memory is a talking point for many. The ongoing rivalry related to the divided opinion is fueled by the rise of Hindu nationalism, a movement with origins in the 19th century that “wants to keep the legacy of partition alive,” Reifer says. 

“I see the movement to change names in India as an attempt to hone ‘Indian authenticity,’” adds New School cultural psychologist Namrata Rahul Goyal. “India is a land rich in history—we have been ruled by the British, Mughals, Chalukya dynasty, and others. So what does it mean to be truly Indian? If we change a name given to us by the British, shouldn’t we change all the names given to us by kingdoms that weren’t truly Indian? How far back can we go and to define what makes something more authentically Indian over another?”

How to collectively define the citizens of West Bengal—nonetheless the people of the whole nation of India—in a single name is near impossible. To be “Indian” is to speak one of 22 languages, believe in one of six main religions, to eat a multitude of different cuisines, and wear countless different national dresses. A single name for a city, state or country will never encompass the patriotic pride of such a diverse people—especially one chosen to place a people at the top of an alphabetical roll call.

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