Why I don’t support changing West Bengal to Paschim Banga

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.

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34 thoughts on “Why I don’t support changing West Bengal to Paschim Banga

  1. Informative post. Isn’t the name change because Mamata wants to set a precedent (her own precedent)? The whole thing is jingoism more than anything else, so I wonder if an elaborate analysis of the implications is merely more preparatory or conciliatory than explanatory.

    • Thanks for commenting. I think the timing (just after a popular mandate) indicates that she is in a hurry to create her legacy.

      In terms of burden, there is one silver lining. Since the name of the state is already Paschimbanga in Bangla, nothing really needs to transition in that language. But then if everything was fine, as I mention, what was the need to change after 64 years?

      Mamata does want to put her mark on the state.

  2. I am as miffed as you are. Paschimbanga? For God’s sake who are these politicos kidding? If the intention was of moving the name up the alphabetical order why not just Banga or Bangla or Bengal or whatever. This is just unacceptable….nobody outside our state will be able to pronounce its damned name now.

    • Agree with you, Samadrita. It will likely be pronounced as Paschimbanga (rhyming with Tiranga). Apparently this was only suggestion that was acceptable to all parties. It is being universally panned in the papers (as it should be).

  3. Politicians in this land get away with murder; habitual name-changing is not even covered in the civil or penal codes! [ki je hay sasti ullekh nasti penal coder kono patate;)].
    WB missed the bus in 1947. In 1971 they let the neighbours steal the operating part of our rightful handle; I still refer to this land as Bangla or West Bengal (never Banga except in the national anthem, rarely Paschimbanga and that too mostly in formal Bangla writing) and very few, here and abroad, had ever taken me to be a Bangladesi, though, by ancestry, I am. I don’t think that a shared handle, one ‘with’ an the other ‘without’ a suffix, would confuse many or incite sacrilegious unionist instincts anew.
    But, paschim of what, the Bay? When did a native last call this eastern state of India ‘Banga’ (or Bongo, if you are percussively inclined)?
    Don’t cry over spilt milk, bhalomanusher po, let the parivartan lead us to extinction – without fuss!

    • Well spoken. “Bangla” ties us to the land – “Gram Bangla” Jibanananda’s “Bangla-r mukh” etc. I think it was briefly on the table this time around as well, but taken off after Bangladesh lobbied against it.

      Poschimbongo is officious. Poschimbangla is for “Poschimbanglar manush”

      To loosen the tongue, Bangabhumi was suggested too.

  4. Agree with you Anirban. Changing the name for the sake of changing the name is meaningless. The ‘West/ Poshchim’ prefix is what we had to get rid of, and we precisely done the opposite! The alphabetical order issue is so ridiculous; I would refrain from even commenting on it. Wish the decision makers displayed more sense.

  5. Please read “The ‘West/ Poshchim’ prefix is what we had to get rid of, and we did precisely the opposite!”

    • The only person I know who supported the move commented that taking out the “West/Paschim” would be denying the historical place of Partition. What nonsense!

      • I would that history conscious person to start a movement to change the name of Punjab to East Punjab by the same logic!

  6. We are bengalis, bangalis, for crying out load, this will be mighty confusing when people around the world start calling us Paschimbangeese. I’m refusing to call it Paschimbanga, I’m calling it Oastbangl.

    btw, this is not a good sign of Mamata, it means she has the Napoleon complex som many of our leaders have. Will we change name of the state everytime some one wins an election?

  7. I don’t really care too much about government officials changing the official name of this city and that state. My biggest pet peeve is with the people who insist _others_ on using that name in day-to-day life — like in Bombay. It’s almost impossible to refer to this city as Bombay while traveling in a local train on bus and not meet angry gazes (and sometimes patronizing, threatening lectures from strangers.)

  8. Pingback: India: Yet Another Name Change · Global Voices

  9. Completely agree. There is no point of simply translating the current name into Bengali. Now, if it was Banga or some variant, it could make sense …. what have we really gained in this?

    BTW does this mean that all license plates (of course this applies to other official stuff that was written in English and Hindi) will have to be changed from WB**** to something else? What will that something else be?

  10. I think it’s got more to do with our politicians continuing to develop feelings of regionism within their states to try and win votes. By discarding “Western” names, they’re trying to show that they’re in touch with the regional instincts of the people. The more I see things like these, the more I feel our cultural diversity, on which we tom-tom ourselves to the world, will be our downfall. States will bifurcate and trifurcate and compete against each other until nothing works in harmony with anything else.

    This probably sounds horrifying, but maybe apathy is the cure–being indifferent to the changing names and the significance of our history…will it be what enables us to move forward?

  11. The Bengali short vowel ‘a’ has three sounds: (1) as ‘au’ in ‘audio – say , usually applied to vowels attached to the first consonant of a word in some (but not all) cases, examples: måth মঠ; (2) midway between ‘au’ and ‘o’ – say as in ‘Kòlkata’ কলকাতা; and (3) silent, usually if it is applied to the final consonant of a word (uncompounded) in some cases, when the last consonant is not compounded with another consonant – as in Bharata ভরত (but ‘duranta’ is দুরন্ত). What it lacks is the Hindi short ‘a’ sound as in Shąchin শচীন.
    The long ‘a’ has two: (1) the orthodox as in Bhārata ভারত; and (2) the diphthong as in ‘hāň’ হাঁ (this value is also shared by the lone vowel ‘e’ , as in ‘henglā’ হেংলা, and the diphthong ‘ya’ ই + আ or য় + আ as in ‘hyanglā’ হ্যাংলা.
    People in the Hindi-belt are not familiar with the and the values which are exclusive to Bengal and are patently of Austro-Asiatic (Santhal, Kol, Bhil, munda, Ho) origin. You can’t jolly well write Kòlkātā and must settle for Kolkata. (Tongues used to Hindi- belt vowels make a mess of it – not for the vowel difference alone; the double-t of Kalkatta lingers still in their psyche. Hindi vowels are so different that two newspaper banner that I had seen some years ago stuck to my mind for ever: বীনস বীলিয়ামস বিমবলডন বিজয়ী and আসট্রেলিয়া-নে টোউস জিতকে বেটিং লিয়া.)
    Think what havoc ‘Pashchimbanga’ would wrought with and , and the versus confusions. The National Anthem too must change to Dravida-Utkala-Poshchimo-Bongo – three syllables too many for Tagore’s metre and musical rendition!
    It has already made ABP, the self-appointed guardian of Bengali spellings and usage (and, perhaps, others), churn out designer spellings. সাচিন is already in. I’ve recently seen a large professionally done hoarding “ভাই বনের হোটেল, কোলকাতা ৭০০১০৪”. Some State Government ads have also begun writing কোলকাতা instead of কলকাতা. I dread the day when the State Bank of India would reject my cheques on the ground that my real name, by Mamata-approved spelling, was ‘Oniruddho Shen’ , and I had been hacking somebody else’s account for five decades!
    [The nonstandard vowel-diacriticals are mine and used here for convenience only.]

  12. Please ignore and erase the preceding comment which somehow got transmitted before editing. The fresh version is here.

    The Bengali short vowel ‘a’ has three sounds: (1) as ‘au’ in ‘audio – say ‘å’, usually applied to vowels attached to the first consonant of a word in some (but not all) cases, example: måth মঠ; (2) midway between ‘au’ and ‘o’ – say ‘ò’ as in ‘Kòlkata’ কলকাতা; and (3) silent, usually if it is applied to the final consonant of a word (uncompounded) in some cases, when the last consonant is not compounded with another consonant – as in Bharata ভরত (but ‘duranta’ is দুরন্ত). What it lacks is the Hindi short ‘a’ sound as in Shąchin শচীন.
    The long ‘ā’ has two: (1) the orthodox ā as in Bhārata ভারত; and (2) the ‘æ’ diphthong as in ‘hāň’ হাঁ (this value is also shared by the lone vowel ‘e’ , as in ‘henglā’ হেংলা, and the diphthong ‘ya’ ই + আ or য় + আ as in ‘hyanglā’ হ্যাংলা.
    People in the Hindi-belt are not familiar with the å and the ò values which are exclusive to Bengal and are patently of Austro-Asiatic (Santhal, Kol, Bhil, Munda, Ho) origin. You can’t jolly well write Kòlkātā and must settle for Kolkata. (Tongues used to Hindi- belt vowels make a mess of it – not for the vowel difference alone; the double-t of Kalkatta lingers still in their psyche. Hindi vowels are so different that two newspaper banner that I had seen some years ago stuck to my mind for ever: বীনস বীলিয়ামস বিমবলডন বিজয়ী and আসট্রেলিয়া-নে টোউস জিতকে বেটিং লিয়া.)
    Think what havoc ‘Pashchimbanga’ would wrought with å versus ò and, and b versus v confusions on Hindi tongues! The National Anthem too must change to Dravida-Utkala-Poshchimo-Bongo – three syllables too many for Tagore’s metre and musical rendition!
    It has already made ABP, the self-appointed guardian of Bengali spellings and usage (and, perhaps countless others in their individual rights), churn out designer spellings. সাচিন is already in. I’ve recently seen a large professionally done hoarding “ভাই বনের হোটেল, কোলকাতা ৭০০১০৪”. Some State Government ads have also begun writing কোলকাতা instead of কলকাতা. I dread the day when the State Bank of India would reject my cheques on the ground that my real name, by Mamata-approved spelling, was ‘Oniruddho Shen’ ওনিরুদ্ধো শ্যেন, and I had been hacking somebody else’s account for five decades!
    [The nonstandard vowel-diacriticals are mine and used here for convenience only.]

  13. I am happy, now that name will be changed to Poschim Bongo, we will get a corruption free state, road without pot holes, law & order and above all a state with regular bandhs and podojatras.

  14. I am happy, now that name will be changed to Poschim Bongo, we will get a corruption free state, road without pot holes, law & order and above all a state without regular bandhs and podojatras.

  15. I’m an American with roots in Bengal, having read the original post and related comments, I have to say, I don’t get why you all are in a hissy fit over a name change. Get over it! If you’re all proud Bangalis then I’d suspect you’d want to exert your identity, no? Or are you all eager to become annexed from an identity perspective as well? Am I missing something? Put your lungis back on bros.

  16. I’m a stay-at-home but well-travelled Bong, and not a very proud one these days. I still prefer pyjamas to dhotis and dhotis to lungis, and unwilling to change my attire preference.
    I’ll be damned if I know what ‘hissy’ means! Is a ‘hissy fit’ what a Bong babe-in-arm throws twice or thrice a night?
    Yes, you’re certainly missing a great deal. You’re missing the big joke. The biggest one is Didi herself; followed closely by her spoons and ladles who sing Rabindra sangeets at every drop of Didi’s hat. A lesser joke is a bunch of jokers putting a different dead man’s name on every metro station and the state itself to make it ever so much more difficult to identify familiar stops, as well as to teach all out-of-state people some fitting tongue-twisters.

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