Originally Published 2016-02-15 09:22:45 Published on Feb 15, 2016
In a name's name, an ideological, silly war

Announcing the newspaper’s decision to revert to use of the name “Bombay” and banish “Mumbai” from its pages, the young editor of The Independent, the British daily, presented this as a battle against bigotry and orthodoxy. “The whole point of Bombay,” the editor is quoted as saying, “is of an open, cosmopolitan port city, the gateway of India that’s open to the world. If you call it what Hindu nationalists want you to call it, you essentially do their work for them.”

While the argument that India’s western metropolis could well be called Mumbai and Bombay interchangeably — and that both names, epochs and sensibilities represent realities that are a part of the Indian existence that contemporary India must embrace — is absolutely valid, The Independent editor’s logic is puzzling and difficult to defend.

The contention that cities and places can have both native names that make sense to a local people as well as international names that have a broader circulation is an old and well-reasoned one. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, made the point that he preferred calling the Chinese capital city “Peking” because that was the international name — or the familiar name to his generation in the English-speaking world — while “Beijing” was the “Chinese” name.

Variations of that duality can be found elsewhere. The name of the city we call “Paris” is pronounced “Paree” by the French. The city I was born and spent the 25 years of my life in will forever be “Calcutta” for me, because that is how I am familiar and intimate with it. To my children, born in this century, well after the city was renamed and with no personal association with the capital of West Bengal, “Kolkata” is easy enough to use. As such, like multiple identities, cities and places can have multiple monikers.

Yet, none of this is applicable in the case of The Independent. The paper is not commemorating the layered and parallel identities of the biggest city on India’s western coast. It is rejecting all identities other than the one it deems legitimate and perceives is represented by the name “Bombay”. It is seeking to de-legitimise the identity represented by “Mumbai” — exaggeratedly believing, of course, that it has the capacity and power to effect such a de-legitimisation — and exiling that identity as irrelevant if not non-existent.

This is not some pedantic editor being occupied by a style guide and using names and words familiar to his readership. This is an editor waging an ideological war, and a silly one at that. It is a fair bet that The Independent will quietly go back to using “Mumbai” sooner or later.

Does a paper have a right to a world view? Does it have a right to editorially promote values and principles it holds dear? Of course it does. Nevertheless, a first-principles approach to journalism and media would suggest that a newspaper deals with facts, with the world as it is, and then interprets those facts, nudging its readers towards the world as its editors believe the world should be. That is a fine distinction, calling for subtlety — rather than for a sledgehammer.

“Mumbai” is the official name of the city in question. It was a name arrived at by following the course of the law and due process, as facilitated by democratically-elected Governments. Strictly speaking, it is not a “Hindu nationalist” issue. It is, if anything, a “Marathi nationalist” or “Maharashtra nationalist” issue. True, in the politics of the Shiv Sena those two streams have periodically intersected, but that does not make the re-naming a “Hindu” cause. Again, those differences should have been obvious to an editor who claims awareness of the subject.

To argue that name changes in India have been propelled by solely “Hindu nationalism”, rather than by a whole menagerie of nativist impulses, rooted in region and religion, culture and tradition, language and history, is to be simplistic and not engage adequately with an extremely complex phenomenon. PerhapsThe Independent editor does not have sufficient grasp or maturity to appreciate that. The renaming of Madras (now Chennai) and Calcutta, or Calicut (Kozhikode) and the “United Provinces of Agra and Oudh” (Uttar Pradesh) had nothing to do with “Hindu nationalism”.

If a newspaper does not want to deal with reality, it always has the option of creating its alternative reality. While that would be the course expected of a college sheet, perhaps a satirical one, The Independent is within its rights to adopt such an approach. Having said that, it would be required to be consistent. Surely the change from “Bombay” to “Mumbai” is not the only example the newspaper has in mind when it comes to describing the dangerous tendency of contaminating an “open, cosmopolitan” city by thrusting a proper noun that, if widely used, would amount to doing the “work” of religious nationalists “for them”?

Take an example. Lyallpur was named after an outstanding civil servant of the British Raj. The city was a centre of industry and agricultural commerce. It was the “open, cosmopolitan” home of not just Christians, whether European or Indian, but also Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Today, it is called Faisalabad, named for a Saudi king who believed in pan-Islamism and located in a country (Pakistan) founded in the name of Muslim nationalism. Is “Faisalabad” morally inferior to “Lyallpur”? Who should decide? A newspaper in London?

On another note, how does one compare Istanbul and Constantinople, both great cities of their times, and representative of different political and cultural (even civilisational) constructs? Should The Independent and its determined editor sit with an atlas and a history book and meticulously go continent by continent, country by country, city by city, deciding which names to retain and which names to reject as per a subjective benchmark of political correctness and acceptability?

With an intriguing mix of contemporary and commonplace names as well as quaint quixotic names, this would make The Independent a quirky newspaper. It would also make it that much harder to take its editorial positions seriously.

This commentary originally appeared in The Pioneer.

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