‘Bombay’ vs Mumbai and the not so ‘Independent’ view

Published: February 15, 2016


PHOTO: AP The city was known for its cosmopolitan attitude and the opportunities it offered for economic and personal liberty. PHOTO: REUTERS

The British newspaper, The Independent, sparked a major controversy recently when its editor announced that they would henceforth refer to India’s financial capital Mumbai as Bombay, the city’s erstwhile colonial moniker.

At first glance, the move appears to be a declining and increasingly inconsequential colonial power’s feeble attempt to reassert, or at least relive, its imperial glory. Of course as you scratch the surface, an entirely different dynamic is revealed.

To fully understand this dynamic, it’s worth first exploring the city’s journey from Bombay to Mumbai, which has been almost as remarkable as its evolution from a sleepy fishing village to a vibrant metropolis. Numerous books, songs, and films have featured this larger-than-life city, capturing its many moods and hues. No matter what the name, it occupies a central space in the country’s economy, culture, and psyche.

Bombay was a creation of the British, unlike many other Indian cities that had been settled and were thriving much before the arrival of the Europeans. As a result, along with Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai), it had a distinctly British character, quite different from India’s other big cities. The architecture, social infrastructure, transportation, and ethos, all bore a colonial imprint, which eclipsed the underlying Indian identity that also existed in large parts of these ‘new’ cities.

Being a port and a trading hub, it attracted people not just from all over India, but from across the world. The city was known for its cosmopolitan attitude and the opportunities it offered for economic and personal liberty, which in a way became the defining features of ‘Bombay’.

Post-independence India saw itself gradually distancing itself from British influence. It was a slow process and did not gather steam right away. As the reality of political power and independence began to sink in, the Indian identity began to assert itself. Though some customs and practices from the ‘Raj’ continue to this day, most of its legacy has been gradually dismantled. This process played out not just in India, but all across the newly decolonised countries of Asia and Africa.

A lot of this transition was a natural consequence of the optimism and sense of political empowerment that proliferated during those times. Free of foreign domination after many centuries, it was natural for people to seek pride in their own icons and identities, and push them out of the shadow of Western culture.

In addition, for leaders and politicians, who through corruption, exploitation, and poor governance, presided over the steady erosion of hope and opportunity across the decolonised world, asserting the native identity became the preferred way to gloss over their own failures and find support amongst the masses. A convenient way to play this game was to rename cities and roads. India saw a spurt of “renamings” during this period. The new names were often rather forced and not always aesthetic or necessary, but politics and vested interests have a way of hijacking normal and healthy evolutionary processes.

Many in India opposed this. They believed that the British played a part in the country’s history and it would be pointless to try to erase these traces of their influence. Many people had grown fond of these names and liked the charm and the legacy they evoked. As a matter of fact, there are many streets across Indian cities that are still known by their colonial era names, despite having been renamed years ago.

Through all this, Britain kept a graceful distance and has been accepting of them. They may not have been happy about it, but there was little institutional interference, probably an acknowledgement of a vastly diminished ability to influence. If India decided that Bombay was going to be called Mumbai, then so be it. The British establishment was ready to adopt the new nomenclature.

The Independent’s decision to revert to using Bombay was therefore surprising. However, their decision had nothing to do with British colonialism or an attempt to glorify its legacy. It was driven by its India born editor’s stand on the political issues prevailing in the country of his birth. This is a remarkable development. An individual has attempted to reverse a sequence of events that the British government did not interfere with!

Mr Amol Rajan is setting a wrong and dangerous precedent with his activism. He may believe that ‘Hindu nationalists’ or a ‘closed minded view’ is behind the name change, and in his personal capacity, he may call a city whatever he feels like. However, he cannot make it the stated policy of the publication he leads. Such revisionism can spiral out of control in not time, with unpleasant consequences.

He is obviously very heavily vested in the intense political debate in India. Since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power in 2014, the voices critical of any assertion of Hindu or Indian identity have grown shriller. This was clearly seen in the ‘award wapsi campaign and the ‘intolerance’ debate that raged not too long ago. Though comfortably settled abroad, Mr Rajan is willing to stir the pot back home. He has taken sides and is ready to throw everything he has in support of his ‘side’.

It is also interesting to note that Mr Rajan has chosen to remain silent about Calcutta, his city of birth, which was renamed Kolkata. In the interest of consistency and fairness, he should have also decreed that his newspaper revert to ‘Calcutta’ when referring to the city. The ‘Hindu right wing’ has virtually no presence there, so the so-called ‘secular’ left wing that has held sway in that region is equally culpable of wantonly renaming cities. Then why single out Mumbai and the ‘Hindu nationalists’?

Furthermore, Kolkata has lost a lot of its cosmopolitan character and open-mindedness, so his anguish might be better directed towards fostering change there. Mr Rajan is clearly not unbiased and is furthering his agenda, misusing his influence as an editor.

The Government of India would do well to let the owners and management of The Independent know that it is not amused by this turn of events.

All said and done, it is indeed ironic that the contemporary ideological conflict in a former colony is now manifesting itself in the media establishment of the coloniser. India has come a long way in the last 70 years since independence!

By which name do you refer to this city?

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Amit Nangia

Amit Nangia

The author is a learning and development professional with a background in finance and human resources that informs his commentaries on geopolitical and socioeconomic trends. He tweets as @amitnangia06 (twitter.com/amitnangia06)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • mimi sur

    Mumbai..Amachi Mumbai. Named after Goddess Mumba devi. I am from Odisha, not Orissa, India renamed from “Udra Desh” . Britain or UK can’t digest it. Tomorrow or day after tomorrow, they will come to India for help .Recommend

  • Headstrong

    “Through all this, Britain kept a graceful distance and has been accepting of them” What a joke! What was Britain expected to do – raise a diplomatic protest? Enforce economic sanctions? Declare war? Throw India out of the Commonwealth? Britain kept a ‘graceful’ distance because it cannot interfere.
    This whole issue is silly. Why should the ” Government of India do well to let the owners and management of The Independent know that it is not amused by this turn of events”. Who cares what the Independent wants to do? It is ‘Independent’ and can name Mumbai Bombay, London, New York, Timbuktu or whatever it wishes to do. Why give some non-entities the attention they crave?
    For the record, I grew up in Bombay. I too felt ill at ease at the renaming, but in the long run how does it matter? The Government should focus on improving basic amenities in the city, regardless of what it is called. The Independent can go take a hopRecommend

  • Oxy Moron

    Dear Author,

    I had to stop myself from imagining you are telepathic while reading this article, so eerily it echos what came to my mind when I read about this latest episode of Mr. Rajan’s metamorphosis into a latter day Nirad Chaudhury (right down to his deafening silence on the Calcutta / Kolkata renaming by Communists)

    I have only one cavil – while the Britishers may have developed Mumbai a lot, they certainly didn’t establish it, as you seem to sugget. The seven island bay (that they landfilled to make one island) has been not just inhabited but thriving since before Christ. Carvings and statues recovered from Parel, Sion, Vasai (Mumbai’s suburbs) and restored to the local CST Museum eloquently testify to the very advanced civilizational epoch Mumbai was capital to till around the mid-700s, as does the name Heptanesia (Seven Islands) the Greeks and Romans used to refer Mumbai as.

    Mumbai has been known by various names throughout history, and the reversion from Bombay to Mumbai, although rammed through unpleasantly partly due to political expediency, does correct matters on two counts: It is phonetically and linguistically closest to what it should naturally be called, and it represents the majority preference of its population.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Does what HE want, really matter ?……give this attention and he will most likely get what he wants.Recommend

  • Chopra TP

    British Bigots being Bigots. And the Left wing Newspapers are leading the way of the Neo-Racism. From NewYork times Racist Cartoons (Twice) to Washington Post & Guardian’s constant drumbeat of India Bashing not over policy but racist biasis that they have of India. Interesting how the mental of Bigotry has shifted to the Left as they lose power around the world.
    India should refuse the Visa to anyone connected with the newspaper on the Grounds that its a Dangerous Neo-Colonial Propaganda piece that despite its ironic Name want to Glorify the horrors of Slavery & Colonialism.Recommend

  • Vectra

    Independent it is free to print Mumbai as Ham burger also.Just do it, ahh but who cares.Btw what if Londen is called Laden.Any problem in that??Recommend

  • Milind A

    I suspect that the anti-Modi cabal that has spread
    everywhere is trying to provoke & raise a storm and prevent the
    current Govt from functioning effectively.. .This Rajan guy is probably
    cut from the same cloth.. Hence him deriding ‘Hindutvawadis’ (without provocation) and ignoring the leftists from Kolkatta…Recommend

  • Gratgy

    Who gives a flying flock anyway? Amol Rajan of the Independent wants his 15 mins of fame.Recommend

  • Gullu, Guddu and Gomnath.

    Wow! Should India start a Nazi party now? Then it can regress back to the glory days. Make Mein Kampf mandatory reading in schools. Hindutva’s saffron
    brigades should be expanded to divisions. Delhi Division. Bombay Division.
    Madras Division. Each division having at least 15,000 RSS or Shiv Sena
    recruits. Well,..maybe BJP/RSS/Shiv Sena can combine and become the
    Brown Shorts of India. [The RSS do wear brown shorts, and have a Nazi like
    salute] similar to Brown Shirts of Germany.
    Start rounding up, Christians, Dalits, Muslims, liberals, and any other
    minorities. Or simply build a wall around their neighborhoods. since they
    live in ghettos, much cheaper this way.Recommend

  • A Former Pilot.

    Orissa is Udra Desh? Bombay is Mumba Devi? My goodness, had no idea !
    Learned something new today.
    Mimi, those are tongue twisting names. You can get tongue tied when
    you are coming in for a landing. [Just kidding.]
    The World is used to Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Nagpur, Kanpur, Shimla,
    for last 400 years. Why change these beautiful names? They roll off the
    tongue so easily. [international pilots have a hard time with these name
    changes, though all onboard computers are current, always.]
    However, it’s the country’s prerogative. And yours.Recommend

  • Pukhnatwaney

    They just want to sell you a lot of things. Shoes, clothes, machinery,
    cars, planes, weapons, tanks, guns, ammunition, make-up, toothpaste,
    books, you name it. Because there are 1.5 billion Indians, all potential
    No, they will not come to India for help.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    How about London?Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Indian left (Secularist and Marxists) did not protest 4 Million deaths in Bangal famine of 1943. They never uttered a word. This famine was artificially created because BriShit confiscated grains from traders and peasants.for their war effort. Oh natives of the world wake-up otherwise you will be again colonized enslaved.Recommend

  • Lotus

    Mr Editor the Independent,New York was also named and known as New Amesterdam for quite some times.Pls check your history books for many such naming instances.So take your scoop and start writing New Amesterdam.If nothing you will give a big headache to the flying navigators of air planes at least.Wonder,what brilliance came into you and accepted by the Independent’s board of management?Recommend

  • Enkay

    Mr Amol Rajan : Seemingly you were sleeping when China renamed Hundreds of its Towns & Cities with the Original Chinese Names. Even Pakistan has changed the names of Cities like Montgomery and Llyalpur! Possible Mr. Rajan is doing so to please his new Masters – They don’t care one way or the other”Recommend