The Politics of Name Changes in India Essay

The Politics of Name Changes in India Essay

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The Politics of Name Changes in India

Ever since independence in 1947, many locations in India have changed their names. Much of this resulted from the reorganization of the states on linguistic lines (as opposed to British colonial divisions). However, in the last six years, many major towns and cities have been renamed in ways that affect foreigners more. Among this flood of changes, three stand out. These are the former cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, which, together with Delhi, are considered the "mega cities" of India.1 They are the four most populous cities in India, and all but Madras are among the 15 most populous cities in the world.2 As a result, they are important commercial and transit hubs, and are well known outside India. Yet nearly six years later, most non-Indians still have no idea that they are now named Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. Given the difficulties involved in these changes, one expects compelling justifications for the changes. In each case, these changes have officially been justified on anti-colonialist grounds. However, I will argue that these changes are instead tools for channeling regionalist sentiment in the conflict between the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the centrist Indian National Congress (INC), and various regional parties. Opponents of the INC proposed all these names, but those proposed by the BJP and its nationalist allies have been more divisive.

The case of Mumbai was the first major change to happen, and is thus the best known. In 1995, the ruling party in the government of the state of Maharashtra (of which Bombay was capital) announced that Bombay's name would be changed to its Marathi name, Mumbai.3 The casual observer would assume that the name "B...

... middle of paper ...

...ttp:// - a BBC article about the Kolkata name change
* - a travel site with a history of Mumbai. (It connects Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, to Adolf Hitler!)
* - a list of most languages in India spoken by over a million people
* - a site with information about Chennai
* - a tourist site with little or no graphics, demonstrating usage of both old and new names for cities
* - a site about women's spirituality in India List of Indian cities that have recently undergone (or may undergo) a name change. (Population figures are from

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