The name West Bengal, which Mamata Banerjee is seeking to alter, is a creation of 1947 Partition. The attempt to change the state’s name was first mooted by Chief Minister Sidhhartha Shankar Ray in 1972, post the creation of Bangladesh. India celebrated its 1971 triumph with many grand shows, one of them being the Asia 72 exhibition in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. The West Bengal pavilion had the legend “Bangabhoomi” in both English and in Bangla script in place of West Bengal. Indira Gandhi apparently was none too enthusiastic about this change of name and thus Ray’s bid ended in a whimper. Now Mamata Banerjee has proposed that like “India that is Bharat” the state be known as Bengal in English and Bangla or Banga in vernacular.
On Partition, the part of the erstwhile Bengal province which remained in the dominion of India was named West Bengal. Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari was sworn in as Governor and Prafulla Chandra Ray as the Premier (as the Chief Minister was then referred) of the new state. The dominion of Pakistan got the non-contiguous province of East Bengal— the name that was changed to East Pakistan in 1956 and Bangladesh emerged from the struggle of its people in 1971.
Bengal was a huge province engulfing present day Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam, apart from Bengal regions when Queen Victoria became the Empress of India in 1877 and Calcutta (now Kolkata) was proclaimed as the national capital. Seeds of separatism and divide and rule were sown by the British in this province. The 1857 war of independence germinated in a Bengal cantonment, created and named by the British as Barrackpore (25 km north of Kolkata). The cause of the uprising was the use of Dumdum bullet (manufactured in a factory in Kolkata’s suburbs). Seeds of nationalist movement among the educated middle-class of Bengal, which was recipient of modern Western education, made the British decide to sow seeds of Hindu-Muslim disunity. In 1905, Lord Curzon devised the strategy of institutionalising this divide by partitioning Bengal Province on communal lines. Bihar (which engulfed Orissa) and areas now comprising West Bengal, became Bengal, which had Hindu domination. Muslim majority areas (present Bangladesh and undivided Assam) were created into a new province, East Bengal, with the capital at Dacca (now Dhaka).
Muslims of East Bengal were in favour of the partition. The Hindu-dominated educated class, especially in Calcutta, rose up in protest. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a song “Banglar maaati, Banglar jol…punya houk hey Bhogoban (May the earth and water of Bengal be blessed, O Lord)” and on Raksha Bandhan day mobilised a procession to the most prominent mosque in Calcutta to tie rakhi to the Muslim brethren with an appeal for unity and retaining the plurality of Bengal. Poets D.L. Roy, Rajanikanta and Atul Prasad chipped in with their patriotic lyrics that electrified the atmosphere. The ire of Banga-bhanga Andolan made the British relent. “Amar sonar Bangla”, which is now national anthem of Bangladesh, was also written during this movement. The partition was undone in 1912. A non-violent movement made an imperial power bend, five years prior to the bloody Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
The British decided that Calcutta was not a convenient seat of power and shifted the capital to Delhi. Bihar (engulfing Orissa) was separated from Bengal province, with its capital in Patna. Assam became a separate entity with headquarters in Shillong. (The British administrator of Assam in 1905, Sir Henry John Stedman Cotton, who had become a Liberal MP in 1912, had opposed Curzon’s schemes and played a role in reunifying the Bengal province. Cotton College in Guwahati, the alma mater of the crème de la crème of today’s Northeast, stands as a tribute to this statesman.)
Nitish Sengupta (who served as Chief Secretary in West Bengal and was elected to the Lok Sabha post retirement) notes in his book Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib that Emperor Akbar’s Navratna, Abu’l Fazl has recorded in Akbarnama that the area now referred to as Bengal was called Bung. The area provided 50% of Mughal India’s GDP and was referred to as “Paradise of the Nation”.
In recent years, West Bengal has charted a course away from the national mainstream: 34 years of Left rule followed by the present Trinamool regime. Interestingly, even in history, Banga had been charting its own course. Its ruler in Mahabharata times had sided with Jarasandha against Krishna (the bout, which Krishna won, took place near present day Rajgir). Alexander the Great ceased his advance into India faced with the strong army of the region, which the Greeks referred to as Gangaridai. The region has also been referred to as Vanga and Vangabhoomi in various texts. A prince of Vanga, Vijaya Simha, conquered Lanka in the sixth century BC and gave the island name of Sinhala. Banga people were ancient seafarers, even today the area in Cuttack (Odisha)where the Mahanadi merges into the Bay of Bengal is called Bali-jatra-podia: the place from where ships left for Bali and such distant shores.
Calcutta was renamed Kolkata on the first day of this millennium following a decision of the Left Front regime. The Assembly resolution of July 1999 which facilitated the name change had also proposed renaming Paschimbanga as Bangla. Mamata Banerjee revived the renaming bid in July 2011, but it was not pursued. Now a resolution is expected to be moved in West Bengal Assembly in August-end. If Madhya Bharat can be Madhya Pradesh; Madras be Tamil Nadu, Mysore be Karnataka; Orissa be Odisha and as recently as 2007 the new state of Uttaranchal be renamed Uttarakhand, perhaps we should welcome what Netaji Subhas Bose’s niece-in-law, Krishna Bose, has described as “Bengal that is Bangla”.