Ezra Klein and Tim Fernholz are having some fun kicking around Christopher Hitchens argument that we should defiantly refer to the city currently known as Mumbai as Bombay. See also Isaac Chotiner. When you’re siding with Hitchens against Klein you should probably be careful, but I think, at a minimum, the issue is a bit more complex than Hitchen’s critics suggest (a common feature of controversies cultural and religious issues in India). Klein, relying on Wikipedia, notes that Mumbai has a long history of the name in the local language of Marathi, and Bombay is the colonial name of the city. Klein makes the mistake, I think, of focusing on the history of the names, but not the specific historical context of the name change itself. Why and how it was done might be important in our evaluation. Chotiner sums up two positions succinctly:
And if a democratically elected government wants to institute a name change, then it seems like the rest of us should “go along” with the decision. On the other hand, it does seem wrong–and even perverse–to accept something that was done in large measure to make Muslims (and non-native Hindus) feel unwelcome.
Procedurally, the Mumbai name change is a lot less problematic than, say, Burma to Myanmar (as Kevin Drum notes). But we shouldn’t only evaluate on procedure.
In his excellent book The Multiculturalism of Fear (amazon, PDF of the first chapter) Jacob Levy defends a theory of multiculturalism that draws on Judith Shklar’s notion of a “Liberalism of Fear” to supplement the much more common liberalism of rights. Shklar’s theory is in many ways pessimistic, as is directs us to focus on government’s dangerous capacity to serve as a conduit for cruelty. The renaming of Bombay to Mumbai may express a democratic majority’s will, and it may not in itself violate anyone’s rights, but what we know about the connection between cruelty, disrepect, and violence, especially in the context of a country with such a history of religious violence, should give us pause. Levy:
[T]he Hindu nationalist government of Bombay has changed the name of that city to Mumbai, a change which is commonly understood to reassert the city’s identity as Hindu and Maharashtri at the expense of its recent history as cosmopolitan and pluralistic. ‘Mumbai’ is arguably a more accurate rendition of the city’s precolonial name than is ‘Bombay,’ and the change is publicly defended as a rejection of colonialism. Although it is an assertion of Hindu dominance, it is not as overtly religious a name as Providence, Rhode Island; Corpus Christi, Texas; or Los Angeles or San Francisco, California. If there is something wrong in the name change, it cannot simply be that it violates the separationist requirements of a liberal secular constitution….The name Mumbai is an ongoing taunt in a society in which violence along religious lines has been all too common. The multiculturalism of fear refuses to say to Bombay’s non-Hindus that they should be content because, after all, none of their property has been taken, none of their liberties infringed. The government intended to humiliate them, and the multiculturalism of fear is willing to say that they have been wronged thereby. (Multiculturalism of Fear, pp. 28-29)
That Hitchens is a neo-imperialist who hates religion with a blinding rage cannot be doubted by the sane. Nevertheless, he’s stumbled onto a legitimate concern here. I currently take no position on what we in the west should refer to Mumbai/Bombay as, but the question is a fair bit more tricky. Using the power of government to humiliate and make unwelcome an often persecuted minority isn’t something to be sanguine about simply because the symbolic act has a strong basis in History.