A case of ‘You say Dilli, I say Delhi’

Rebranding Indian cities, streets and landmarks with ‘authentic’ Hindi names is parochial and chauvinistic, says Bombayite Sadhvi Sharma.

Sadhvi Sharma

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In 1995 ‘Bombay’ was expunged from all official usage in India, as the city of dreams was renamed ‘Mumbai’, a supposedly more authentic name. The right-wing Hindu nationalist party, Shiv Sena, had just won the elections in the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is capital, and its leadership argued that ‘Bombay’ was a corrupted English version of ‘Mumbai’, an unwanted legacy of British colonial rule.

At the time, many commentators complained about the provincialisation of this dynamic, cosmopolitan and global city and today most Bombayites still refer to their city by its supposedly colonial name. Yet the name-changing spree that the official renaming of the home of Bollywood unleashed has continued. The latest target is the capital, New Delhi.

Last week, the Indian Union sports minister MS Gill made a random remark at a seminar in Delhi, suggesting that the Indian capital be officially renamed ‘Dilli’, the Hindi name for the allegedly anglicised and ahistoric ‘Delhi’. While the remark was described by the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, as ‘innocent’ and ‘innocuous’ (1), it reflects a preoccupation amongst India’s political classes with attaching ‘local’ or ‘authentic’ labels to public spaces. Such moves are far from popular and they represent a petty, parochial form of politics.

Post-independence, there was a flurry of name-changing activities in India. In the process of nation-building, states were reorganised, streets were re-named and new state capitals were declared. In the 1960s, Indian regions and states were carved along linguistic lines. For instance, the local language in Maharashtra is Marathi; Gujurati is widely spoken in Gujurat; and Tamil Nadu is largely made up of Tamils. There is some logic to these demarcations, as these languages are spoken by a considerable number of people in their respective states. However, in imposing name changes to cities, streets, museums and landmarks, and in forcing businesses and shops to display names in local languages, Indian politicians have displayed a great deal of regional chauvinism – and this tendency has increased in recent years.

State authorities have had great success in reverting to ‘original’, that is pre-colonial, names of cities. With Mumbai as a precedent, Madras turned into Chennai, Bangalore gave way to Bengaluru, Calcutta bowed out to Kolkata, Trivandrum was re-christened as the mouthful Thiruvananthapuram, Pondicherry became Puducherry, Cochin is now Kochi, Mysore is Mysuru, Calicut is Kozhikode, Poona is Pune. The list goes on.

Authorities say they are determined to ‘wipe out British legacy’. But 60 years after independence, this is a meretricious argument. Streets, crossings and buildings with distinctive names like Hughes Road, Cadel Road or Flora Fountain in Bombay are more than just British hand-me-downs. Us Bombayites have very much made these streets and structures our own, sometimes in uniquely Indian ways. For instance, I could never get a taxi driver to take me to Hughes Road when I was at college in Bombay. It was only when I pronounced it as the more recognisable ‘Hujes Road’ that he would happily let me jump in the car.

The iconic Victoria Terminus in Bombay, now renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, is known for its impressive architecture. That the British built it does not take away from its magnificence. Streets with colonial names are not merely reminiscent of British legacy but are witnesses to the life that followed. As Pratik Ghosh, a journalist from Calcutta, tells me: ‘To me, Park Street [in Calcutta] will always be Park Street, complete with my memories of it. I refuse to call it Mother Teresa Sarani.’ What about Calcutta giving way to Kolkata? Gosh says: ‘The two were never contradictory. When speaking in Bengali, people have always used “Kolkata”. Switch to English, and you will find yourself saying “Calcutta”.’ The same goes for Bombay and Delhi.

Bombay’s Victoria Terminus has been renamed
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Why, then, is it a political imperative for Bombay to become Mumbai, or Delhi to be renamed Dilli? The struggle between British colonial legacy and national pride has no radical merit today. Instead, this is all rather symbolic of just how disconnected the authorities are from the general public. The people of Bombay never took to the streets demanding the city be renamed Mumbai. These nationalist campaigns are empty, rhetorical, self-serving displays of chauvinism. Politicians’ demand that Indians use ‘original’ names for their cities and landmarks have, over the past two decades, taken on an air of militancy, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous.

Shiv Sena, the regional party claiming to represent the interests of the local Marathi population, first demanded the Bombay-Mumbai name change in the 1980s. As soon as the party came to power in the state, it went ahead and changed the name. Ever since, Shiv Sena and its breakaway party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), have put the Bombay-Mumbai divide at the centre of their competitive politics.

Shiv Sena has demanded that the Bombay Stock Exchange, the Bombay High Court, the Bombay Scottish School and the private company, Bombay Dyeing, be rebranded – all in a bid to ‘promote local language’ (2). The MNS have demanded that Bollywood refer to the city as Mumbai in their productions. Not wanting to be left out of the name-changing one-upmanship, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party made it mandatory for businesses in the state to have signboards in Marathi (3).

Traffic jam in Delhi.

So what do locals think of such brandishing of linguistic identity? Reshma Ludbe, a 32-year-old social worker, thinks ‘these are cheap political stunts with no relevance to peoples’ lives’. Her family has lived in Bombay for over 100 years. They speak the local language, Marathi, but are equally comfortable with Mumbai and Bombay, though more habituated to the latter. She says: ‘In a multicultural, multilingual city like Bombay, we find our own ways to negotiate language in our daily lives.’

Prabhas Jha, a Delhi-based sales and marketing professional, sees the name-changing policies as a colossal waste of public funds. ‘These issues are plain silly, and do not alter an individual’s life. Why can’t the government focus on larger issues of growth and infrastructure instead of spending time and money on such pointless exercises?’ For the record, Jha, too, switches regularly between ‘Delhi’ and ‘Dilli’.

Given that many of our cities and streets have been officially re-labelled, locals do tend to switch between the old and new names, but few are convinced by the idea that we must preserve some mythical past or ‘local identities’.

The justification for renaming Bombay was that a fishing village which used to be located where the city is now was named after a goddess called Mumba Devi. Yet as media commentator, Vir Sanghvi, said: ‘This is a historically dodgy claim. And even if it is true, so what? We don’t live in that fishing village. We live in one of the world’s great cities.’ (3)

Cities and everything within them – the landmarks, streets, businesses, and the languages spoken there – acquire meaning through peoples’ interactions with them and with each other. Yes, the state plays a role in maintaining and building cities, in improving infrastructure and public services – but this should not be done in the name of preserving some mythical identity. Instead, such efforts should support the people’s own vision of their cities.

Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.

(Photos by Nathalie Rothschild.)

Previously on spiked

Sadhvi Sharma reported from Bombay on the dumbed-down nature of the elections. She also reported on how Bombay bounced back after the terror attacks. Brendan O’Neill saw nihilism in the attacks on Bombay. Alka Sehgal attacked the anti-Tata campaigners. Josie Appleton discussed India’s revolt against the political class in 2004. Or read more at spiked issue: India.

(1) Delhi or Dilli: Gill triggers debate, Times of India, 19 June 2009

(2) Mumbai squad strikes at BSE, the Calcutta Telegraph, 13 May 2008

(3) Now, Congress govt takes up ‘Marathi cause’, Indian Express, 25 April 2008

(4) Thakre and Thackeray, Hindustan Times, 17 May 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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