Why the railway signs in Bombay changed from Gujarati to Marathi, and why it’s now Mumbai

General

Have you wondered whether the city is “Bombay” or “Mumbai”? Here’s the violent, xenophobic history behind the change.

I was rewatching a Bollywood movie shot in Bombay in the 80s. In this scene, the two protagonists are at the train station waiting to go home. Notice the sign behind them. It says “Marine Lines”, which is the name of the station. Above it is the same name written in Marathi/Hindi (can’t tell which because they share the exact same script). Below that is the same name written in Gujarati. The non-English versions aren’t translations – they literally are the English phrases “Marine” and “Lines” spelt in a different script. If you have ever been to London, you will notice the similarity of the design to the ones used on the London Tube stations. This is because it was the British that introduced trains to India and borrowed the platform designs and signage directly from London.

Growing up in Bombay, you ended up speaking at least 3 languages, if not more. And you were exposed to a huge subset of the 26 languages and 1000+ dialects spoken across India. Bombay used to be a state. And Bombay city was its capital (Like NY & NYC). It used to be the center of the British Empire in India. It had been a marshy no-land with scattered fishing villages which the British inherited from the Portuguese via a dowry. Over the years they slyly converted this possession into an advantage and basically expanded and took over the Portuguese held regions around (Bandra and further south). They introduced commerce and in came the merchants and businessmen and workers from all over the country and Bombay became a metropolis.

After India became independent in 1947, for 13 years Bombay state existed as a large state which only in 1960 was split into the two current states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. This railway sign in the picture reflects this history of Bombay as a city that was built by the British and had people from both Gujarat and Maharashtra.

When Bombay state was being split, there was a lot of debate on which state should Bombay city now belong to? (Imagine NY being split into two states, how would one decide where NYC would go?). Bombay was unlike anything else in these states. It was very cosmopolitan, had people from all over the world that called it home. It didn’t share much identity with either of those states. A lot of people argued it should become a Union Territory (e.g. like DC). Eventually, given that it is geographically surrounded by Maharashtra, it was decided it would become part of it. In fact, now Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra state.

It was all good for some time. When this movie was shot, you can see evidence that Bombay’s history was intact in the 80s. Things changed in the 90s. There was a political party, the Shiv Sena, that mainly claimed to represent the people of Maharashtra. They started using xenophobia, violence and strong-arming to become important. They created a narrative that people from Gujarat, people from North India and the Muslims had taken over Bombay. They started claiming that Maharashtra and the people born in Maharashtra had the first right to Bombay and if you were Muslim or Gujarati or North Indian, you were second class citizens. They argued against “immigration” into Bombay. I put that word in quotes because India, like all other countries guarantees free movement of its citizens within its boundaries. What they were asking for was unconstitutional.

They stayed a fringe para-militant political party without much power. But the more they wielded their power, the more they physically attacked people, forced shut downs, vandalized business the more they seemed to become popular. They seemed to have touched on some pulse which made enough people of Maharashtra start supporting them. Maharashtra has a very strong culture, a long history and a lot of richness in art and literature. People from Maharashtra are among the kindest, good hearted people one can know. It was shocking when the Shiv Sena, for the first time ever, got control of Maharashtra and Bombay.

Then began the ‘saffronisation’ of Bombay. They decided to re-write history and claim that Bombay always was part of Maharashtra and the former Maratha empires. It wasn’t. Maratha empires were centered around Poona and other major cities like Vasai, Bharuch etc. Bombay was a marsh land with some fishing villages that had been ignored by everyone until the British came along. But it didn’t matter. They renamed it to “Mumbai”, the Marathi word for it. Along with this, they renamed a lot of historical buildings after Maratha rulers. We ended up with the airport and the train station having the exact same new name. They rewrote all signs across the city. Businesses could no longer use English scripts on their signs unless they also used Marathi script.

I was 13 when this happened. It was shocking to everyone. How can a democracy empower an extreme right-wing party with a history of violence? How can democracy stand by as history is being erased and re-written? How can democracy stand by when everything you stand for is slowly being dismantled? The name change is a clearly quantifiable, measurable impact of the Shiv Sena. But think about all the unmeasurable things that changed as a result of this. It changed the city. It changed everyone’s sense of identity. People protested, of course. I remember that we were able to block the proposal that would have changed all the city buses from the color red to the color saffron. There were many such battles. Some were won by the people. But most were lost.

This is why liberals in India still refer to the city as Bombay. It can feel very confusing to foreigners who want to do the right thing. My advice is, don’t worry. Just call it Mumbai and no one will mind. But don’t be surprised if many Indians still call it Bombay. “Bombay” stands for the cosmopolitan, global city that was taken over and stripped of its identity by a regional political party. To this day, if a celebrity uses the word “Bombay”, or if it’s used in say a movie, the Shiv Sena threatens, vandalizes or punishes them. Saying the word “Bombay” is also an act of defiance, of resistance to the violent, xenophobic narrative that doesn’t represent Bombay or its people.

See how that same train station signed changed in the 90s. Now, the largest size text is in Marathi. The text above is in Hindi (they look identical because the script is identical). The English text is now at the bottom. And there is no Gujarati anymore.

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Mumbai or Bombay? Doesn’t matter. You’re probably saying it wrong anyway

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I was born and grew up in Bombay and I moved to the US a little less than 4 years ago. I have noticed many people here unsure about the correct name for the city. If you are not from India, and are reading this, then you have probably also had that question sometime in your mind: What’s the correct name, is it Mumbai, or is it Bombay?

First of all, if you have asked the question above, then pat yourself on the back because not everyone even knows those are two names for the same city. Secondly, don’t blame yourself for not being quite sure what’s the right thing to say because the answer to the question is not so straight forward. It may require a quick dive into the history of the country to understand the context behind it.

Bombay city in Bombay State

You might know that India was ruled by the British for 150 years until they finally left in 1947. But that sentence is misleading because India as a country was formed *after* the British left! Before and during the British occupation, there wasn’t as much a country of India as it was a combination of provinces and kingdoms neighboring each other within a geographical area demarcated by water on three sides and the Himalayas on the fourth. There had been periods in its history when most of the regions had come under a common ruler, but for all practical purposes, it was always a fragmented region of loosely connected autonomous territories with different languages and customs.

When the British left, the newly formed government of India faced the task of integrating the 600+ princely states into the idea of a single nation. Using a combination of force and negotiation, this largely succeeded, but not all regions could be integrated completely as there were many forces along regional, linguistic and religious lines that saw the borders and sovereignty of regions in different lights (The most famous one was the Kingdom of Kashmir)

One such region was the state of Bombay. Yes, it used to be the name of a state, with Bombay city as it’s capital (like New York, NY). Though the state covered a very large region that included Gujarati speaking people, the burgeoning city of Bombay was situated within a dominantly Marathi speaking population. In the years after India’s independence, there was an increase in sentiment within the Marathi speaking population to claim it’s own identity around a region that included the city of Bombay.

Bombay city in Maharashtra State

To cut a long story short, after many ups and downs, finally in the year 1960, Bombay state was split into two states: Maharashtra and Gujarat. Bombay city, the former capital of Bombay state, was now the state capital of the newly formed Maharashtra state.

Present political map showing Gujarat and Maharashtra state

And thus began the tension between a cosmopolitan, pluralist,  trading city being integrated into a new state formed under linguistic lines. Though the two new states were clearly defined along linguistic lines, it was hard to draw any lines within Bombay city which housed people from all over the country and from all religions and languages. There were tensions among the entitlement felt by Marathi speakers whose state this now was, and that felt by the other local residents of the city who didn’t understand why anything should change for them in the city they have always called home.

The world referred to the city as Bombay, the Marathi speakers always referred to it with the colloquial name Mumbai, while Hindi speakers from North India referred to it as Bumbai.

As is usually the case in any separatist or self-determination movement, there were political groups on different sides of the movement driven by a divided population. The dominant party in post-independence India was the Congress which had Gandhi and Nehru in its fold. But in the decades leading to the 90s, there was a surge in regional parties that addressed the sentiments of the local populations. The Shiv Sena, with a mainly xenophobic agenda against non-Marathi migrants to the city of Bombay started gaining prominence among the Marathi speaking population. Their name literally means Army of Shiv(aji) and they were known to use violence and force in pushing their ideology. The Marathi population itself was divided in its support for the party. Some could relate to the idea of respect for Marathi culture, but they didn’t find themselves aligned with the use of force and violence. Others were not comfortable with migrants of other communities raking in wealth and power and gaining prominence while they were unable to adapt to the change in this fast growing city. They sympathized with a political party which wielded power on their behalf and painted a picture of a glorious Marathi state and a glorious Marathi city of Mumbai where Marathis get preferential treatment in every sphere. During the infamous communal riots in Bombay in 1992, the chief of the Shiv Sena commandeered his footsmen to kill Muslims in the city and sent a clear message that his party was there to look after the Marathi population and to drive out “foreigners” and “intruders”.

Mumbai city in Mahrashtra State

On the rise of such a sentiment, coupled with many other political factors, in the year 1995, the Shiv Sena won the State elections and came into power. The first item on their agenda was to officially rename the city from Bombay to Mumbai, a symbolic gesture to claim the city for the Marathi population. There was some rhetoric added on to justify the change – the British left India 50 years ago, why should we still use the name they gave us?  But the message was clear:  Bombay belongs to the Marathi population and migrants from South India, North India and non-Hindu religions are unwelcome. This was also followed by a mass renaming of public places to honor, Chattrapati Shivaji a historic Marathi king. Victoria Terminus was renamed to Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. Sahar Airport was renamed to Chattrapati Shivaji Airport. The Prince of Wales museum was renamed to Chttrapati Shivai Museum. All business were required to display their names in English characters and in Marathi. Non-complying business were raided and vandalized.

The city was divided in its reaction. Some felt that the city had lost a huge part of it’s heritage, while some found it to be the culmination of decades of the pro-Marathi self-determination movement. There were oppositions and public protests. There were some small victories – the people were able to stop the Shiv Sena from repainting the city transport buses to match the color of their political flag. But the name stayed on.

So is it Bombay or Mumbai?

Most liberal Indians still prefer calling it Bombay. They are not opposed to the new name, but they don’t like the pro-violence, xenophobic political parties and the agendas behind the name change. However, it’s used interchangeable – it’s almost a factor of the the language you are speaking in which decides what name you use. Personally, if I speak in Hindi, I will always certainly use the word Bombay. If I am speaking in Marathi, Gujarati or Kutchi I will always use the word Mumbai. But when I am speaking in English, I end up using Bombay. And this is in part because it just flows naturally and also because of the incorrect way Mumbai is pronounced by most speakers of English:

Bombay is pronounced as Bomb-(b)ay which almost everyone gets right

In Hindi, it is pronounced as Bumbu(t)-ee, most non-Indians wouldn’t know this pronunciation exists

In Marathi, it is pronounced as Moombu(t)-ee

However, most English speakers pronounce it as “Moombye“. This is not how the Shiv Sena wants you to say it.

The region of Maharashtra has a great cultural history and has produced some of the best thinkers, saints and philosophers and has highly evolved poetry, prose and the arts. True Maharashtrians are rightfully proud of their heritage while being forward looking and in favor of peaceful evolution of society. They are not stuck on the spelling used to label their city nor are they threatened by an increasingly flattening world. So, you can say what you want, the only people you will offend are the Shiv Sena and it’s hard-line followers who don’t like you anyway. Others, the Bombayites or the Mumbaikars, are more accepting of people from other places, other religions (and other accents) and wouldn’t mind one bit whatever you say.

To put this in a larger context, here are the important dates in the history of the city:

1534 – Bombay islands were captured by the Portuguese.
1661 – The islands were gifted in the dowry to Charles II of England.
1668 – Charles II gave the islands to the East Indian Company on lease.
1708 – Bombay became the H.Q. of the East India Company.
1862 – The islands were merged to shape one stretch.
1869 – Suez Canal was opened and Bombay developed as an international port.
1947 – Bombay was declared the capital of Bombay state.
1960 – Bombay was made the capital of Maharashtra.
1995 – The name was changed to Mumbai