Quintessentially Paschimbanga?

Posted on September 9, 2011 in Politics

By Waled Aadnan:

A move delayed since 1974, a time when the government of SS Ray initiated procedures to rename the state of West Bengal. This was followed up in 1999, but it took a historic change of government in 2011 to finally retire a name rendered redundant decades ago by political changes.

Since 1947, West Bengal has been west of nothing in particular. Its sister, the East had by then changed her suffix from Bengal to Pakistan. In the process of a bloody Partition orchestrated through stoking the fire of religious identity politics, East and West had ceased to be mere geographical contours sketched on the map by colonial rulers. What emerged from the ghosts of the Partition was a cultural and religious divide between the Ghotis of West Bengal and the Bangals of the East, between Hindus and Muslims. Overnight, it did not matter if you shared a common heritage, a generally common language, a love for fish or Rabindrasangeet. As seen with any other instance of violence in the modern world, one particular identity of an individual or a group took precedence over all others — in this case, the identities being religious and geographic.

The widely famous tolerance of the Bengali incorporated millions of East Bengal immigrants in the West, most of them although not all, in erstwhile Calcutta. Yet, the antagonism that seeped into the Bengali psyche would best be summed up by a recent matrimonial in a leading newspaper which specifically mentioned, “East Bengali girls need not apply.” It did not help that with East Bengal giving precedence to its religious identity over its linguistic one to become East Pakistan, the migrants continued to live in a state called West Bengal that continuously reminded them of their borrowed geographic and cultural identity.

1971 came along, and although Islam had presided over the awkward marriage of East and West Pakistan, yet considerations of language and culture prompted a struggle that culminated in the birth of a new nation: Bangladesh. Yet again, West Bengal was reminded of the obsolescence of its name, now nothing more than a Siamese twin separated and left alone. Since then, governments (there haven’t been too many of those!) have played with the idea of rechristening the state, a demand brought up regularly in the intellectual circles of the state. These demands were soon made administratively relevant in order to give the state’s representatives an alphabetical advantage in national gatherings.

However, on 19th August 2011, when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that West Bengal would be known as Paschimbanga, pending legislation in the state Assembly and the Parliament, the proposal was met with shock and dismay. To look at it from the perspective of the government, it was possibly a move to achieve the alphabetical advantage without causing large-scale administrative costs, since Paschimbanga is already the nomenclature used when written in Bengali. However, the middle class probably expected something more imaginative, a name that did away with the historical redundancy rather than uphold it as a reminder of the upheavals the region has undergone, beginning way back in 1905 with the Partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon. That however, was not to happen. What will happen instead is a silly parade of change of official notice boards, letterheads, and all that comes with them, only to hear incorrect pronunciations of the new name and crackpot jokes.

The intention of the Government is hard to gauge from this move that is proving to be highly unpopular among at least the youth and the middle class. If the by-now-official reason for the change — the alphabetical advantage — was to be achieved, other proposals such as Bangabhoomi, Bangladesh, or simply Banga or Bengal would have worked far better. In fact, Paschimbanga leaves the state just seven places higher in the list of states than it was as West Bengal. Banga, in particular, would have held great historical importance as the name referred to by the bard Tagore in Jana Gana Mana and also by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka to refer to the undivided expanse of sub-Himalayan Gangetic plain. Instead, with Paschimbanga, although the state loses the colonial hangover associated with the word Bengal, it holds on to its disturbed past, continuing to distinguish between Paschim and Purbo.

The move by the new CM ends up being nothing more than the kind of farce that has left Kolkata a city whose name cannot be pronounced correctly by vast majority of the Indian masses. The practice of popular politics that has seen many states and cities wasting precious resources of the public exchequer undergoing a cosmetic change in name, at times to wipe out a colonial past, at times simply to cater to indigenous votebanks, has simply been replicated. It can just be wondered that given such a populist move, couldn’t policymakers come up with a better name that served all purposes?