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.
Here’s an older post that explains the timeline and history of how these things came to be