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Saturday, 14 March 2015

The SUNDAY TIMES OF INDIA piece

Don’t call me by any other name


Local' is often assumed to be a flat, homogenous terrain. But, one has to only look at the unease and indifference to the renaming of 12 Karnataka cities/towns to comprehend the vibrant diversity of the local. In Karnataka, often presented as a cultural monolith, the local alters its character roughly every 30km with a change in dialect and the alteration of spices.

The proposal to change the names of cities/towns in the state came up nearly a decade ago from a handful of intellectuals, without provocation or a sustained cultural campaign. Expectedly, with the absence of any real development plans for these cities, the state government instantly fell in love with the grand symbolism of renaming them, and enjoyed the nice chauvinistic tailwind that propelled it for a while. The apparent rationale for the change had to do with the official names of these cities still retaining a colonial mustiness. For instance, the capital city was known as Bengaluru among the Kannadaspeakers and Bangalore was an English corruption of the sahibs whose tongue didn't roll. Similar was the case with Mangalore, Bellary, Chikmagalur, Mysore, Hospet, Hubli, Shimoga and Tumkur. They have now become Mangaluru, Ballari, Chikkamagaluru, Hosapete, Hubballi, Shivamogga and Tumakuru, respectively.

However, with three renames there is a reasonable shift. Belgaum, which apparently had a Marathi twang, has become Belagavi. This is about Karnataka's border politics with Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samithi (MES) has promptly condemned the name change. The two cities, Gulbarga and Bijapur, in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region with a rich Islamic and Sufi cultural inheritance have been somewhat alienated from their Urdu and Farsi/Persian pasts. These two cities were built by the Bahamani Sultans, Adil Shahis, Mughals and in the recent past, the Nizam of Hyderabad. They have now become Kalburgi and Vijayapura. Besides a familiar Kannada ring to their names, their Hindu emphasis cannot be missed.

Sample some of the statements of protest. A federation of organizations fighting for retaining 'Gulbarga' said in a press statement: "There is an effort to breach Hindu-Muslim amity and unity in the region. The name 'Gulbarga' is not from the English language and nobody has questioned people who call the city 'Kalburgi' as to why they call it so. Locals who want to call the city 'Gulbarga' should be allowed to do so, and those referring to the city as 'Kalburgi' should also be encouraged. The government should not interfere in this matter. "

Refer to this memorandum submitted by a federation of 'progressive organizations' to the district collector in Bijapur. It says that any tinkering with the name of the city would first of all affect its heritage character (the city hosts the Gol Gumbaz among other famed installations of Islamic architecture). It further argues that nowhere in history is the city referred to as 'Vijayapura'. "During the Adil Shahi period there was an effort to rename the city as 'Navarasapura', 'Vidyapura' but they failed to give it currency among the people, therefore the British retained the name 'Bijapura'," it explains. Expressing anguish that the name change is about erasing history, the note records that Ptolemy, the Egyptian astronomer and geographer in 2nd century BC, had "placed the word 'Bijapura' on the world map and therefore such illustrious historical references should not be disturbed for the politics of the present."

While in the case of Gulbarga and Bijapur there is flurry of activity against the name, 'Mangaluru' has drawn a reasonably explicable indifference to name change. Mangalore is a cultural melting pot with incredible linguistic diversity. The official language may be Kannada here, but Tulu has an equal heritage and a dominant demographic, besides Konkani, Byary, Malayalam and English. Strangely, none of these local linguistic communities refer to their city as 'Mangalore' or 'Mangaluru'. For Tuluvas the city is 'Kudla', for Konkanis it is 'Kodiyal', for a Byary it is 'Mykala' and for a Malayali it is 'Mangalapura' and only in the Kannada colloquial is it 'Mangaluru' — and that is by no measure the most popular name. So, people are indifferent to the name change.

When a name change exercise is not driven by popular demand, it becomes rather difficult to build a cogent cultural argument as to what may have led to it. Although some try to point to the weak self-esteem of Kannada subnationalism in comparison with the four dominant linguistic cultures (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi) it is surrounded by, that is not entirely convincing.

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