Bombay mix-ups: the politics of placename changes

A few days ago, before hitting the headlines with the news that his newspaper would stop printing next month and become an online-only publication, the London Independent‘s editor Amol Rajan announced that henceforth the paper would stop calling India’s most populous city, Mumbai, and revert to using its previous name of Bombay.

Explaining the move to Dan Damon on the BBC World Service, Rajan said that he wanted to use the name Bombay as a symbol of the city having been a ‘melting pot of different cultures’ for most of its history. It is this tradition, Rajan has said, which he considers as being harmed by the Hindu nationalist drive to rename the city in the 1990s – an ideology shared by the governing BJP and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi:

In choosing Bombay over Mumbai, what I’m trying to do is to say that India’s better tradition is one that’s open to the world, and what’s at stake with Bombay as a city is the whole idea of a cosmopolitan port city that is the gateway to and of India, and I think that if you choose the word Mumbai instead of Bombay you collude with the nationalists in closing Bombay off from the world, and I think that that’s a very bad thing to do.

In the same interview, Rajan half-jokingly added that he hoped that his familial connections with the city ‘might protect me a little bit.’ The Independent‘s editor was himself born on India’s second most populous city of Kolkata – although it was still known as Calcutta at the time, in 1983. On India’s west coast, the name Mumbai was officially adopted for the city in 1995 by the far-right party Shiv Sena, which had been in power in the municipal council at the time. The name derives from the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, and inhabitants had been using Mumbai for many years previously – although people in the city tend to use Mumbai and Bombay interchangeably in conversation. The name Bombay, meanwhile, is thought to derive from Bom Bahia, the Portuguese words for Good Bay.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station, Mumbai (or is it Bombay?)

The Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station, Mumbai (or is it Bombay?)

Even before the rise of Hindu nationalism, there had already been moves towards changing placenames in India, to make them sound less like attempts by English speakers to pronounce the names. Thus, Bangalore became Bengaluru, Calicut became Kozhikode, and Bulsar became Valsad.

Thus far, reaction in India to the Independent‘s Mumbai/Bombay decision has not been overly hostile – although it has been critical. One critic tweeted:

Might be better if @amolrajan took a strong line against actual Hindu extremism rather than just the name of city

…while another commented:

“We shall henceforth refer to Mumbai as Bombay” – says The Independent, a newspaper printed in Londonium in Britannia.

Rajan’s idea that calling Mumbai by a name decided for it by ultra-nationalists effectively helps to do their work for them has essentially been the same argument for calling Aung San Suu Kyi’s country, Burma. Since 1989 the military dictatorship in charge of the place has insisted that the country’s proper name is Myanmar, and broadcasters and journalists are increasingly using that name instead of Burma. Whether they will continue to do so could well depend on how the junta copes with the ongoing fallout from Suu Kyi’s NLD’s stunning victory in last autumn’s parliamentary elections. However, this argument doesn’t always win through: nationalism was also behind the 1972 announcement by the government in Colombo that their nation of Ceylon would henceforth be known as Sri Lanka, and even in the dark days of former president Rajapaksa’s bloody crushing of the LTTE in 2009 nobody thought of calling the country anything other than Sri Lanka. Similarly, an ever-confident People’s Republic of China has successfully got the rest of the world to adapt to changes in placenames in that country: thus, virtually every writer and commentator freely refers to Beijing, Guangzhou and Nanjing, rather than Peking, Canton, and Nanking. For the same reason, for all the valid criticism of the excesses of the Turkish state, nobody thinks to call the cities of Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul by their previous names of Angora, Smyrna, and Constantinople.

It is not just in developing countries that drives to change placenames can take place. In Australia, for example, people are increasingly referring to the enormous sandstone monolith near Alice Springs by its Aboriginal name of Uluru, instead of the more colonial-sounding term Ayers Rock. Similarly, more people are referring to Australia’s nearest neighbour as Aotearoa New Zealand – giving reference to that country’s Maori name (which in English means “Land of the Long White Cloud”).

Then again, placenames are forms of symbols, and when they are changed it can have an impact on the symbolism. The Derry/Londonderry naming dispute is a classic case in point, and I know it has been given a fair airing on Slugger on several occasions already, but it is worth looking at again. Put simply, Unionists prefer the term Londonderry and nationalists Derry, both because of the symbolism of the British connection implied in the “London” part of the name. The local authority’s name was altered to Derry City Council in 1984, but the dispute is continuing, and the chances are that the name Londonderry will continue to be used by Unionists even if the Queen can be persuaded to change the city’s royal charter.

A view of Derry (or is it Londonderry?)

A view of Derry (or is it Londonderry?)

Ultimately, when placenames are changed for whatever reason, the evidence from India, China, Sri Lanka, Turkey and beyond is that most people get used to the new name without too much difficulty. It does not always turn out that way, however, but it’s a fairly safe bet that all of Derry’s names are more likely to survive than that of Bombay.

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  • Sir Rantsalot

    Interesting post. Just to add, all the Indian expats I know here in the middle east call it Bombay. Most are Muslim or Christian, but some also Hindu.

  • Ernekid

    Interesting. I wasn’t sure whether it was correct to call it Mumbai or Bombay. It’s interesting how names of places evolve. I suppose there must have been a point in Ireland’s history where people stopped using the traditional Gaelic place names commonly and adopted the anglicised versions of the place names.

    As for Derry/Londonderry, I say that a good compromise would be rebrand the area inside the city’s historic walls as the ‘Walled city of Londonderry’ and just call the rest of the city Derry. I don’t think I’ve met anyone actually from the city refer to their hometown as Londonderry it’s almost always referred to in common parlance as Derry.

  • technopolitics

    I’ve been to Mumbai / Bombay several times a year for the past ten years. Formally they refer to it as Mumbai. Amongst themselves, casually, and informally, they still call it Bombay. I call it Bombay, usually.

    Couple if other points – It’s really the only major city where’s there’s been any real effort. Bengaluru and Kolkata never stuck. And why the phonetic proximity anyway?

  • Neil

    Interesting. I work with a company there that provides outsourcing fairly regularly, and they always say Mumbai or Bangalore depending on which city they’re in.

  • Greenflag 2

    On a lighter note whenever I meet people from Hyderabad I’m tempted to ask them is there also a Hyderagood ? Whenever I succumb to the temptation and this is only after I get to know them – It usually takes a while for the ‘corny ‘ word play to elicit a smile or wry grin .

    There has as yet been no attempt to rename Buckingham St, or Dorset St, or Suffolk St in Dublin to more Irish sounding names nor do I expect will there be and Wellington’s monument still pricks out in the Phaynix Park just as it did in the day when Churchill ran up and down the steps and around the monument under the watchful gaze of his nanny . Somethings and names are best left as they are or as people prefer to call them . In time things and names change for all kinds of reasons some good some not so good .

  • congal claen

    Hi Erne,
    Derry is definitely the common parlance for the city. Even the Apprentice Boys refer to themselves as the Apprentice Boys of Derry. The problem over the city has arisen because nationalism also wants the official title to be Derry. Reasons offered have been to end confusion with the county name, etc.
    However, no such campaign has been started by the residents of Carrick to have the official name of the town changed from Carrickfergus. So, I suspect the reasons offered are fairly disingenuous and baser desires are paramount.

  • ted hagan

    If you’re a posh unionist you say Londondrey.

  • ted hagan

    I certainly haven’t heard many people disguise the fact they want London out of the title and for it to revert to Derry or, better still, Doire.

  • Reader

    I can believe that you speak for many people when you explain the preference for “Derry”. But do you really speak for lots of people when you prefer “Doire” over “Derry”?

  • ted hagan

    Well yes, you’re right, the ‘Doire’ is personal

  • ted hagan

    My small gripe is people who, without a word of Spanish, talk of ‘Barthalona’ whereas they would never say ‘Paree’ or ‘Roma’

  • Jack Stone

    Why would you want to remove a monument to a heroic general from the city he was born in? Why would you remove the monument? because he was born to the Protestant, Anglo-Irish Earl of Mornington on Merrion Street in Dublin?

  • Saint Etienne

    Fascinating that the Imperial image of Bombay has come full circle to once again be associated with India’s connections to the wider world.

    Although you’ve missed an opportunity to include probably the modern European state most active in renaming/removing – the Republic of Ireland.

  • Ciarán Dúnbarrach

    From my archive

    What is a place-name?

    That question seems a very simple one at first glance but a place-name is more than a mere label used to distinguish one place from another in an administrative function, they also serve an important cultural purpose and are a part of the identity of an individual and a community ….

    https://antoorishkor.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/place-names-politics-and-conflict/

  • Reader

    gendjinn: That it’s the London based Independent is really no surprise.
    I don’t think that the staff of the Independent feel any individual or collective responsibility for any of the stuff you are complaining about. Nor is the Independent an arm of the state.

  • Kev Hughes

    ‘Nor is the Independent an arm of the state.’

    Nor did he say it was, or are you reading something that is not there?

  • Kev Hughes

    ‘Fascinating that the Imperial image of Bombay has come full circle to once again be associated with India’s connections to the wider world.’

    Of course, this is in the mind of a journo for the Independent. I doubt the name will dissuade someone from investing in a market of 1 billion people.

    “Warren Buffett” – ‘I had considered investing millions into India with over 1 billion people here and market potential that remains largely untapped but as soon as you changed the name of the city of Bombay back to a Hindi version I just reconsidered’…

  • congal claen

    Hi Ted,
    Agreed. It’s why they want it removed that is important though.

  • Reader

    You said “State”, then “Government”. This is nothing to do with either. This is the editorial policy of a newspaper.
    Let me guess. To you; Brits are a monolith – all are responsible for the actions of any of them.
    In contrast, the Irish are individuals, each responsible for their own actions alone – unless they can blame the Brits somehow.

  • Greenflag 2

    I did’nt say or state I wanted the monument to be removed . Try and comprehend whats written before replying .

  • Jack Stone

    You compared to a foreign monuments and street names. Do you think Arthur Wellesley was a foreigner? Is he not Irish enough? You placed Wellington alongside Buckingham. I am just curious what your intent was by it.

  • Tochais Siorai

    I think you’ll find that Irish place name changes (the relatively few that did occur were usually just reverting to the original) were miniscule compared to the likes of Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus etc etc.

  • Saint Etienne

    On the contrary, there doesn’t seem to be a town in the 26 counties which doesn’t have a Pearce Road or similar. Of course whole counties came in for change too. And you can’t say Padraig’s English surname was an indigenous name for a road without a fair dose of ‘revival inspired’ revisionism.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Ah you’re going all micro down to street names. However, the vast bulk of street names weren’t changed (take a walk around the capital), even ones that were named after some right nasty pieces of work. Whatever one might think about Pearse, his loyalties at least lay with this country unlike most of them.

    Re. towns and counties (only two and they reverted back to the original names of the territories), the great pity was that more didn’t go back to their original forms rather than sticking with the clumsy anglicisations that the British Army Ordinance Survey foisted upon the country.

  • Saint Etienne

    I doubt Pearse was a partitionist. In any case how could he be loyal to a political construct that he never seen?

    You’re revising again. The Irish counties were an English invention in the first instance, and the only ones renamed had regal titles. Which is it’s own form of revisionism.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Re your first point, you know fine well what I meant by country (if we’re being pedantic, there’s no such place as ‘Republic of Ireland’ but I knew what you meant).

    Re your second point, No I’m not. Irish counties were, as you say, an English invention but they were based for the most part on Gaelic or sometimes Old English / Norman territories and were either anglicisations of ancient Gaelic names or in the south east Scandinavian ones. A bit like the Christians reinventing the mid winter pagan festival as Christmas. The two counties renamed, as you say had royal titles, and the renaming was based on local identity and moreover had the overwhelming support of the local people. That wasn’t always the case, a few towns changed and then reverted back to their more English forms e.g. Navan and Edgeworthstown.

  • Greenflag 2

    As of a few minutes ago the Irish Finance Minister just referred to FF ‘s economic policy plan as being like the Black Hole of Calcutta . I wonder what his intent was ? For the sake of your curiousity and remember the effect that had on said cat’s life expectancy and body mass index -I happened to walk past the Monument a couple of weeks back and I heard some people sitting on the steps speaking a language I could’nt ‘place ‘ .So I asked them what language it was . Slovenian was the reply . I tried to remember the capital of that small former Yugoslav province but I could not . Instead I asked did they know who the monument above them commemorated . They did’nt . So I mentioned the Peninsular War – never heard of -and then Waterloo – Yes they’d heard of Abba 🙁

    Ah well Slovenians eh -gotta forgive them eh . As I left I remembered Ljubljana . Yes they said we are from there .

    As to Wellington being Irish – Indeed he was and a awful oul bollix most of the time but a great military man . As Prime Minister he and his brother helped promote Catholic Emancipation which was already 30 years too late .

  • Gingray

    Sorry, is it Pearce or Pearse 🙂

    Quite funny on a blog about mix ups, you keep mixing up his name. Good effort!

  • Hugh Davison

    Just because he was born in a stable, didn’t make him a horse

  • Jack Stone

    Was that before or after he was the elected Member of Parliament for Trim in the Irish Parliament at the age of 26?

  • Jollyraj

    “When a state has ben directly responsible for the death of millions of citizens of another country…”

    Eh?

  • Jollyraj

    Or a donkey, for that matter.

  • Jollyraj

    Do you feel the Irish should also apologize for war crimes?

  • Tochais Siorai

    One death is a tragedy, millions a statistic.

  • Jollyraj

    One cliché is tedious, a whole interconnecting network of ultimately meaningless but catchy clichés is the arrogant, arrested adolescent, self-justifying mindset of the Irish Republican.