Renaming West Bengal
Many attempts to change the name of West Bengal have met political and legal hurdles
In August 1947, of the 11 provinces of British India, seven — Assam, Bombay, Bihar Central Provinces & Berar, Orissa, Madras, and United Provinces — remained in India. Sindh and North-West Frontier Province went to Pakistan. Panjab, as it was called then, was divided into East and West Panjab. While the name of East Panjab was changed to Punjab to make a clear distinction between this state and the neighbouring union of princely states, which was called PEPSU — Patiala and East Punjab States Union, there was no imminent necessity in renaming West Bengal to Bengal. The efforts to change it have not been successful so far.
Moreover, for the record, Bengal retained its name in its first partition in 1905. George Curzon, the viceroy and governor-general of India at the time, created another state of Eastern Bengal and Assam with its winter capital in Dacca (today’s Dhaka) and summer capital in Shillong. After a major nationalist upsurge, the partition was annulled by the proclamation of King George in the Delhi Durbar of 1911.
Let’s place this issue in perspective. In the immediate aftermath of Partition, the nomenclature of the state did not merit immediate consideration. Other issues like rehabilitation of refugees, food shortages, damming of rivers to prevent recurrent floods and establishment of new townships and heavy industry were the topmost priority. In fact, for a brief interval in 1954, the then chief ministers of West Bengal and Bihar, BC Roy and Sri Krishna Sinha, also toyed with the idea of merging the two states to create one state with abundant natural resources and access to the Kolkata port. The next two decades were directed to the annihilation of the Naxalite uprising. Post-Emergency, when the CPM-led 14-member Left Front coalition assumed office, the priority was Operation Barga— or land to the tiller.
It was only in 1999 that the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front government first proposed a change of name. But opinions were divided on whether it should be named ‘Paschim Bangla’, or ‘Bangla’. The state government’s demand was never followed up with any seriousness. When the Trinamool Congress (TMC) came to power in 2011, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee insisted that the name be changed to “Paschim Banga” or “Paschim Bango”.
One argument proffered by Banerjee was that due to its alphabetical name starting with W, the state was often the third last to be called for discussions or presentations in meetings convened by the Centre. From health, education, and industrial development, this applied to various topics — affecting the state’s ability to put forth its view.
However, the speciousness of this argument was apparent because the two states just above West Bengal—Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh never really raised this issue.
Speaking to Outlook magazine, the then Congress leader (now in TMC) Professor Om Prakash Mishra said, “This is an exercise in relative futility. The argument that because the name comes at the bottom of the list, the funds get distributed defies logic because there are allocations for states. However, since the house has passed the proposal, having debated the issue, it cannot be negated.”
In the first decade of its formation in 2000, Uttarakhand recorded the fastest economic growth in the country on account of the successful implementation of the Concessional Industrial package (CIP). Given its sheer size, UP has always received the highest allocation of most government programmes. In any case, Banerjee’s suggested name Paschim Bango would not have been high up in the alphabetical order. It would certainly have been ahead of Punjab. However, what if Punjab were to change its name to Panjab or revert to the ancient descriptor that freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai preferred — Panchnaad.?
In any case, the 2011 resolution did not find favour with the Centre. Five years later, another resolution was passed proposing that the new name be “Bongo” or “Bangla”. The assembly resolved that the state would be called “Bengal” in English, “Bangla” in Bengali and “Bangal” in Hindi. To counter this, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised a “Bangla Bachao Signature Campaign” asking for only one name – that of Bangla and cutting out its English and Hindi variants. The Centre apparently concurred with this view and asked the state to suggest a single name.
However, in July 2018, the assembly unanimously passed a resolution to change the name to “Bangla” and lobbed the ball back in the Centre’s court.
After a state assembly has passed a resolution regarding the change of name, or spelling, the matter is referred to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The ministry then proceeds as per provisions laid down in its 1953 guidelines.
The MHA seeks the views and comments from all stakeholders – Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Railways, Ministry of Law and Justice, Intelligence Bureau, Department of Posts, Survey of India and Registrar General of India. In effect, it asks for a ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) from these ministries, departments and agencies. If the proposal is accepted, the resolution is introduced as a bill in Parliament, it becomes a law and the name of the state is changed thereafter.
The West Bengal assembly’s resolution was unacceptable to MEA due to the similarity between “Bangla” and “Bangladesh”. One is therefore not sure if the MEA would still object if the proposal is for Paschim Bangla which will meet the demand ‘half-way’. Or what the position would have been when East Bengal was part of East Pakistan till 1971.
Be that as it may, after the proposal was rejected, Banerjee wrote to Modi: “The name of a state should invoke a strong sense of identity among its people and this identity can be formed if the state’s name carries the signature of its history and authentic culture.”
It was the first time that a unanimous resolution of a state assembly for a change of name wasn’t accepted by the Centre. In the last two decades, Orissa’s name was changed to Odisha (2011) and Uttaranchal’s to Uttarakhand (2007).
It may be noted that compared to changes to a state’s name, the procedure for districts is very simple. After a resolution has been passed by a simple majority in the state assembly, a notification is issued in the state gazette, and the district magistrate notifies all the 80-odd departments in the district, the educational institutions, post office as well as the state and central Election Commission about the change. In the last decade, Gurgaon became Gurugram (2016) and in 2018 Allahabad became Prayagraj.
In 2018, the capital of Chhattisgarh, New Raipur was named Atal Nagar in honour of late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Hoshangabad became Narmada Puram in 2021. Not to be left behind, Maharashtra changed the name of Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar, and of Osmanabad to Sadashiv Nagar earlier this year.
As 2024 approaches, one can expect many more changes in nomenclature to meet ‘aspirations’ as well as to ‘fulfil expectations’ and seek votes on issues that are emotive as well as provocative.
Everything is fair in love, war and elections.
(Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration)