The government in West Bengal just decided that it is time to change the name of the state. During the sixty-four years of India’s independence, West Bengal has been known as Paschimbanga in Bangla (পশ্চিমবঙ্গ, phonetically Poschimbongo), the native language of most inhabitants. By decree it is soon going to be changed to Paschim Banga or Paschimbanga (and there is still confusion on details) in other languages as well.
Why even consider doing away with West Bengal?
In 1905, the first Partition of Bengal decreed by Lord Curzon created a new province known as “Eastern Bengal and Assam” carved out of a greater Bengal (which contained areas which later became the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa). The colonial government claimed that the large state had become ungovernable. Nevertheless, the Partition ignited the swadeshi movement (arguably more so in the Hindu predominant western province of Bengal). Reunification of the two Bangla-speaking parts occurred in 1912. The province was again partitioned in 1947 with the eastern region becoming East Pakistan, and the western part becoming the state of West Bengal in India. The state expanded to include the district of Purulia in 1956, but the name remained unchanged. Since Independence it has been known as West Bengal in English, Paschim Bangal in Hindi, and Paschimbanga in Bangla, all roughly meaning the western land of Bongo, Banga, or Vanga (depending on your taste for Sanskritisation). In 1971, East Pakistan became an independent nation, Bangladesh.
When the first call for discarding the name “West Bengal” arose decades ago, the idea was to simply do away with the “West” or “Paschim” qualifier. The point made was that since West Bengal was no longer politically associated with East Bengal, which was a sovereign nation, “West” was simply a relic of a pre-Partition province. I agree with this assertion. I think that if two political entities known as “Punjab” can exist right next to one another – one in India and the other Pakistan without requiring an East or West qualifier then why should the Indian state resulting from the Partition of Bengal retain a vestigial “West” or “Paschim”?
The second “concern” which has only recently become a priority is that the alphabetically West Bengal is last among the list of Indian states. As one Bangla newspaper noted, by the time representatives from West Bengal speak in government institutions in New Delhi, representatives from other states have already spoken. Apparently the esteemed representatives from other states either leave or don’t pay any attention to what is said by the delegation from the last alphabetical state. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the people we elect and this is the exalted level of discourse.
In any case, it is clear from the change to Paschimbanga that the government did not take into any serious consideration the substantive cultural argument to lose “West” or “Paschim”. The gains toward the trivial purpose of moving up in a government agenda are negligible. Instead of being in the fourth position as Banga or Bengal it has only gained marginally in the roll-call and moved to number twenty-one.
That leaves us with the possibility that what the government really wanted to do was to make the name of the state uniform in various languages. After all, it was Paschimbanga in Bangla, West Bengal in English, and Paschim Bangal in Hindi. Wouldn’t making it Paschimbanga standardize the name?
In theory this argument is plausible. Bengalis will continue to pronounce the state Poschimbongo and presumably write Paschimbanga and Paschim Banga, though only one of these three variants will be the official name of the state. Some people just won’t care at all.
I have experienced all of this before. I grew up in a district in West Bengal which was known as Midnapore. Later it became Midnapur. When the district was divided in the last decade, it officially became Paschim Medinipur. Currently, it is called Paschim Medinipur, West Midnapore, Paschim Midnapur, and all other variants depending on preferences. Administrative decrees come with the flourish of a pen. Habits die hard.
However, there are serious concerns in changing the name to Paschim Banga without a thorough consideration of the alternatives. Changing the name of state without any underlying perceivable change in dynamics should not occur in haste. More unnecessary work for administrative babus does not an efficient government make. There are administrative processes that have to be updated, maps that need to be changed, websites that will need to be created, and textbooks that will have to be tossed out. On a cultural level, those of us who grew accustomed to “West Bengal” will slip up sometimes and say it by force of habit. On a broader level the change will create a time-stamp that will make the culture, literature, and art which we know dated.
Still, if a change reflects the current identity of the inhabitants of the geographic region then it is wholly justified. Based on cultural identity and aspirations of the inhabitants of the state, Banga or Bengal would have been a defensible change. Paschimbanga is culturally a non-change and nothing more than a cosmetic alteration that unfortunately carries the same work-burden of a serious consideration.
On a broader level, West Bengal in English and Paschimbanga in Bangla had been used side by side for sixty-four years. If West Bengal was unacceptable, what was the pressing need for changing it to Paschimbanga only now? And if as suspected there was no clearly articulated need, why go through the trouble and more importantly force others to go through it too?
What does it matter that representatives from seven alphabetically-challenged states will now be forced by protocol to listen to the prattle emanating from Paschimbanga?
A long time ago it was said, ““What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” I think we can safely say that what Bengal might have thought yesterday, Paschimbanga isn’t about to imagine tomorrow.