Bombay: the former name of India’s financial capital; an anglicised version of the Portuguese colonial name Bom Bahia, or ‘good bay’. Over twenty years have passed since the name faded from official documents to be replaced by a name that is more local in etymology: Mumbai, but the politics of these names continue till today. For most locals who live here (us included) Bombay invokes a more familiar, even more peaceful emotion. But perhaps that is only because of the history that goes with the almost forced conversion.
When Bombay became Mumbai
In 1995, the Shiv Sena party won the Maharashtra state elections, gaining control over the state assembly. Soon after coming to power, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party announced that the city would been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city’s patron deity.
This move didn’t come as a big surprise to residents of the city, as the party had been campaigning for this change for years, arguing that Bombay was only a corrupted, English version of Mumbai, and using it meant allowing the legacy of colonial rule to live on. Bal Thackeray even installed a marble plaque with the new name at the Gateway of India. Still, out of fear that the city would lose its identity internationally, the government resisted making the change. However, forfeiting has never been one of the party’s strong suits. The Maharashtrian identity had to be strengthened and the leaders of the party made it a point to keep pushing their agenda. In fact, whispers to try to do away with the term Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood) travelled through the city, because apparently it would keep the name Bombay alive.
When the name was finally altered in 1995, the move angered many people. While the Shiv Sena came down with a heavy hand, forcing every organisation with Bombay in its name to make the changes, many stood their ground—we still have Bombay Gymkhana, Bombay Dyeing, and Bombay Scottish School, after all. Twenty-one years later, Mumbai has grown on many, but the sentiment that is Bombay continues to live in the hearts of its citizens. It’s like that popular photograph that circulates on Facebook every now and then says: Mumbai is a place, Bombay is the emotion.
Why ‘The Independent’ is taking a stand now
Recently, the British newspaper The Independent announced that the publication would revert to using Bombay rather than Mumbai when referring to the city. The editor, Amol Rajan, is of Indian-origin—born in Kolkata and raised in London.
“The whole point of Bombay is of an open, cosmopolitan port city, the gateway of India that’s open to the world,” said Rajan, who thinks that this move is a strong statement against the close-minded view of the Hindu nationalists.“If you call it what Hindu nationalists want you to call it, you essentially do their work for them,” he said during an interview with the BBC radio.
“As journalists, as someone who edits The Independent, it’s incredibly important to be specific about our terminology. 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,” he added.
He also said that post-colonial India had the ‘open, secular, pluralist and tolerant’ tradition of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Independence leader Mahatma Gandhi along with a ‘slightly nastier strain of Hindu nationalism’.
Of course, the politics of names is not a phenomenon that’s true to this city alone. In 1996, Madras took up the name Chennai in a move to promote Tamil culture, and over the years, Calcutta became Kolkata, Orissa became Odisha, and Bangalore became Bengaluru. In fact, the telegraph still writes ‘Calcutta’ in big bold letters across its masthead, staying away from the Bengali version of the name. While moving away from marks of colonialism is essential for a post-independence India, it’s also essential not to move from one regimental power to the next.
As Rajan concludes, it is important to ‘venerate the tradition of India which shows the best of India—an open metropolis’. And what better way to do it than accept the city for what it is really is.
Words: Krupa Joseph