Last month, the judges of the Calcutta High Court in Kolkata rejected the Union cabinet decision to the change the name of the first high court in South Asia to Kolkata High Court. The Union cabinet had decided to change the names of Bombay and Madras High Court too, to Mumbai and Chennai High Courts. The Union cabinet decision was made on 5th July. Thereafter, on 11th July, judges of the “Calcutta” High Court unanimously opposed the name change idea. Nevertheless, the Union government went ahead and moved the bill in the Lok Sabha – the the High Courts (Alteration of Names) Bill. For Kolkata, it proposed that the ‘High Court of Judicature at Calcutta’ is renamed to ‘High Court of Judicature at Kolkata’. Symbolism aside, names have meanings. So do name changes and the names to which they are changed.
As far as names of such entities go, the naming and more crucially, renaming, represents some kind of a project. Calcutta was a colonial project, a project whose extended beneficiaries also include me and my ancestors. The processe due to which this bit of land became “Calcutta” helped us and we helped ourselves through the opportunities it provided. Unfortunately, Calcutta also, was designed a thoroughly exclusionary project for the vast masses of Bengal. The greatest city on this great delta spanning the Bengals, was built by those who have always called this megalopolis as Kolkata but they largely built it for the benefit of those who called it Calcutta. And then there were the janus-faced Anglo-Bengali elites (like my family) who called in Kolkata when with their own folk and called it Calcutta when among Anglicized. That is something that is not as odd as it seems. As Ashis Nandy often states, all cosmopolitan geographies have multiple names. Calcutta, Kolkata and Kalkatta might be geographically similar, but they reflect differently poised parts of the city and, indeed, different cities within the city. Indeed, they represent different takes on the city – not necessarily in contest, but not necessarily frictionless either. And this brings us to the crucial issue when discussing name changes for anything – whose is it, who is it for? Kolkata decided that it the city by sheer sense of numbers (for in a democracy, numbers should matter), Kolkata much, much better represented the urban imaginary of a far greater number of its own people of the city than Calcutta ever did or even wanted to.
Who was the Calcutta High Court for when it was created? It was by the elites, for the elites, of the elites and their interests. The situation is only marginally better now. And if iy is a good idea to aspire to a society where the situation has to get better than it is, more representative than they are now, its best that names of institutions and their ways of functioning also reflect that.
Self-serving elite groups tend to have interests which are, well, self-serving. Thus, defending its decision about rejecting the name change of Calcutta High Court to Kolkata High Court, one RK Khanna, president of the Incorporated Law Society of Calcutta (ILSC) said, “This (Calcutta) is the first high court in India, there is a sentiment attached. Also, worldwide, in shipping, banking and other commercial businesses, it is only known as Calcutta High Court. Changing it would mean changing to Kolkata worldwide.” Yes, there is sentiment. But whose sentiment is this? Is this the sentiment of Calcutta or the sentiment of Kolkata? Which is more widely shared? Why is it that brown once-colonized people cant name themselves and have to continue to be presented “worldwide” in the same package in which Whites packed them during their colonial rule? This “sentiment” always opposes proposals that deliberations in the High Court at Kolkata be done in Bangla, the language of the vast majority of the people falling under that High Court’s jurisdiction. Or for that matter how Tamil is not allowed in the High Court at Chennai. And how, Hindi is allowed in the Allahabad High Court because Hindi and English are the language of the first class citizens of the Indian Union while others are second class who dont deserve first class treatment or full rights or full participation in their legal affairs.
Unfortunately, Calcutta-not-Kolkata cliques still control much of Calcutta’s economy and through sympathetic expatriate alliances of the rootless, have a disproportionately loud voice.The basis of that lies in the marginalisation of the rooted majority. Celebrating Calcutta over Kolkata is celebrating distributive injustice. When the commonly used name isn’t the ‘internationally’ used name, it tells us more about elite-minority clout than anything else.