New old name

Print edition : September 23, 2011

Writers' Building, the State secretariat. - SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

West Bengal sheds the colonial legacy in its name by becoming Pashchimbanga, but not everyone is happy.

THE proposed change of name of the State of West Bengal to Pashchimbanga has roused mixed emotions. The new name was accepted unanimously at an all-party meeting on August 19, following the submission of the proposal of the two-member committee set up for the specific purpose of changing the name. The two members of the committee were State Parliamentary Affairs Minister Partha Chatterjee of the Trinamool Congress and Leader of the Opposition Surya Kanta Mishra of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The main rationale behind the name change was that we all wanted to drop the colonial legacy attached to the name West Bengal. All other States have dropped any such colonial appendage and it was important for us to do so too, Mishra told Frontline.

The first choice of the Left Front was Bangla, which was reportedly not liked by the Congress. Our second choice was Pashchimbanga, which we proposed mainly to facilitate a unanimous decision, said Mishra. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, while maintaining that her party, the Trinamool Congress, did not have any particular favourite, said her own personal choice was Bangabhumi. But she was quick to accept Pashchimbanga as the consensus choice.


Ironically, in 1999, when there was a move to change the State's name during the chief ministership of the late Jyoti Basu, it was the Left that had suggested the name Pashchimbanga. The Congress rejected it in favour of Bangla. However, when an all-party delegation from the State went to meet the then Union Home Minister, L.K.Advani, the matter was not met with much enthusiasm. The proposal was not directly turned down, it was suggested that the name Bangla was too similar to Bangladesh, which might lead to future confusions, Mishra told Frontline.


The announcement of the new name was accompanied by a collective groan of disappointment from across the State. From intellectuals and celebrities to students and professionals, many have been vocal about their dissatisfaction. The main objection is that it is no change at all, as Pashchimbanga in translation means West Bengal and has always been in use in the vernacular. I do not find this change of name satisfactory. Pashchimbanga and West Bengal amount to being the same thing. There has been no real name change. I personally would have preferred the name Banga or Bangabhumi as the Chief Minister herself said she would have liked, the legendary Bengali thespian Soumitro Chatterjee told Frontline. The renowned film director Mrinal Sen was of a similar opinion. The word Pashchim should not be there. I believe it should be Bangla or Bangabhumi, he told Frontline.

Neither were people convinced by the justifications provided by the government for its decision. One of the reasons cited was that the State would be going a few notches up the alphabetical order (from W' to P'), which would improve its prospects vis-a-vis other States during Central meetings and conferences. If going up the alphabetical order was a criterion, then why not simply change the name to Bangla? Besides, the name does not make sense as there is no Purbo' [East] Bengal any more. It is also a completely Bengali name that many of the non-Bengali speaking people of the State might find difficult to pronounce, said Pratik Mazumdar, a final year B.Com student of St Xaviers' College, Kolkata.

Almost the same voice of dissent could be heard from within the Congress ranks. Om Prakash Mishra, general secretary of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress, found the whole exercise unnecessary and superfluous. This will not bring in the intended benefit as a name change of a State can hardly be justified on the grounds of either administrative convenience or supposed support due to a change in the order of precedence in the alphabetical arrangement of the States in the Indian Union. This purpose would rather be served then by renaming our State as either Bengal or Banga, he told Frontline.


The eminent historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya also feels that this change is no change at all. I see no reason why West Bengal should still preserve its fragmented identity like this. There was once an East Punjab for a very brief period after Partition, but that name was soon dropped and it became simply Punjab. There was also an East Pakistan province which later became a sovereign nation, Bangladesh. Such things should not affect the identity of the people of a region, he told Frontline. Bhattacharya believes that the most applicable name would have been Banga. The name is not only present in the national anthem Dravida Utkala Banga but also has its origins in ancient texts and in Sanskrit. The term West Bengal was coined by the British during the partition of the region, he said.

The origin of the name of Bengal is shrouded in mystery. In History of Bengal (volume one), edited by R.C. Majumdar, the historian H.C. Raychaudhuri wrote that there was no mention of the land now known as Bengal in Vedic hymns. However, the Puranas and the epics, which came later, refer to various parts of the region as Vanga, Gauda, Pundra and Samatat. In the epics, there is unambiguous mention of the Vangas the people of Vanga. In the Ramayana, they are mentioned among a number of peoples with political relations with the kings of Ayodhya; and in the Mahabharata, Bheema, after defeating the lord of the Pundras (as people of north Bengal were referred to), is said to have attacked next the king of the Vangas.

From the seventh century onwards, the Buddhist Pala dynasty consolidated its hold over the region, which became a major centre of Mahayana Buddhism. Around this time, Gauda (in the central part of West Bengal) became the power centre of the region. In the subsequent consolidation and unification of the region that took place under the Pala and Sena dynasties, references to Vanga as a political unit can be found in various inscriptions dating back to the latter half of the eighth century. In fact, the titles Vangapati and the Gaudesvara for the ruler of the region became interchangeable. The name Vangaladesha can be traced back to the 11th century in epigraphic and literary records.

The Sena dynasty fell to the cavalry of Ikhtiyar-ud-din Bhaktiyar Khilji, who, it is said, conquered the region with just 17 soldiers on horseback. Thus began the Muslim rule in the region, culminating in the Mughal conquest in the 16th century. Abu'l-Fazl (1551-1602), the author of Akbarnamah, threw some light on the origin of the name of Bengal when he wrote: The original name of Bengal was Bang. Its former rulers raised mounds measuring 10 yards in height and 20 in breadth throughout the province which were called al'. From this suffix, the name Bengal' took its rise and currency.


The term West Bengal first came into being in 1905 when Lord Curzon, the then Governor General, decided to partition Bengal into two halves on administrative grounds, though many people believed that the move was meant to stamp out any republican sentiment that was on the rise. East Bengal was created in October 1905, and along with Assam, this new province was placed under a Lieutenant Governor; West Bengal, along with Bihar and Orissa, was placed in charge of another Lieutenant Governor. This unleashed a massive political agitation, which forced the colonial rulers to review their decision. Finally, the two parts of Bengal were merged into one province under a Governor in 1911. Bengal was once again partitioned in 1947 when one half became East Pakistan, and the other once again became West Bengal, this time a State of the Union of India.


In the face of mounting criticism, the Chief Minister stood her ground. On August 23, she defended the move in the Assembly, saying that the choice of Pashchimbanga (which she admitted was already in vogue even in administrative use) was a politically unanimous one and was final. The upshot of the whole exercise, which reportedly took just 10 minutes, was simply to drop the English version of Pashchimbanga. In the past we have had endless arguments around the choice of a name, but till now there was no change and the name West Bengal remained. This time we were all determined to change it, said Mishra.

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