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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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July 17, 2020

Madras is Renamed Chennai

On 17 July, 1996, the Chief Minister of the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, announced that the state capital, Madras, would henceforth be known as Chennai. The move was the culmination of decades of assertions of Tamil cultural independence, and was the latest front in the cultural and linguistic conflicts that continue to define Indian politics today.

The problems of the North-South divide in India reached far back before Indian Independence in 1947. Nomadic Indo-Aryan peoples moved into what is now South Asia over a long period, thousands of years before the present. The South of India remained almost exclusively inhabited by the Dravidian peoples. Indo-Aryan languages were the forerunners of Hindi, Sanskrit, and most North Indian languages; Dravidian languages, on the other hand, morphed into Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and their associated dialects. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, when India had gained a measure of self-rule and it became increasingly clear that Indian independence was nigh, the question came up of which languages an independent Indian government would promote and use.

The leading Indian political party, the Indian National Congress, had long seen Hindi as a national project, a means to unite the disparate peoples of India. In 1918, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi founded the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, an organization to increase Hindi literacy in South India. Congress leaders, including future Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, supported the policy. The Congress forced the issue in 1937, when its candidate, C. Rajagopalachari, was elected Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency in South India. Rajagopalachari immediately issued an order forcing the teaching of Hindi in schools through the Presidency. The move proved wildly unpopular at nearly every level of society. The Tamil-speaking political class of the region saw the order as a heavy-handed attempt to curb the political and cultural independence of the Tamil people. On the other hand, the issue developed a caste dimension when caste activists including the writer and social activist E.V. Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar framed the order as an imposition of upper-caste Brahmin languages, Sanskrit and Hindi, upon the Tamil lower castes. The issue dragged on for three years, with Tamil noncompliance and mass arrests by the government, before the problem was rendered moot by the Second World War; the British colonial government took back direct control of the Indian states and repealed the order.

Still, there had been no real resolution of the dispute, which meant tensions were still simmering when the Indian Constituent Assembly met to draft independent India’s constitution. The Congress itself was split; prominent South Indian members, including Sundra Sastri Satyamurti, T.T. Krishnamachari, and future President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, were bitterly opposed to the adoption of Hindi. Debate dragged on, until a compromise was suggested, and eventually incorporated as Part XVII of the Indian Constitution. A number of ‘official languages’ were defined in place of a ‘national language’, English would remain the language of government, and it was agreed to set up a language commission and revisit the issue.

With this quasi-victory for the anti-Hindi faction, the language issue in Tamil Nadu rapidly became a larger sociocultural symbol. A number of former anti-Hindi activists from the initial agitation were among those who founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a Tamil political party dedicated to maintaining the region’s cultural and political autonomy. Their next target was naming. Writer, activist, and future Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi led a protest in 1953 against the renaming of the town of Kallakudi to Dalmiapuram, claiming it was yet another North Indian cultural imposition; the small incident became a regional flashpoint that bought the fledgling DMK wide support. Over the next decade or so, the DMK rose in strength on a platform of regional, ethnic politics and Tamil pride. In 1967, the DMK easily defeated the incumbent Congress government (aided by Rajagopalachari, who had by then reversed his pro-Hindi stance), marking one of the first times the Congress lost power in a large state, and beginning a wave of regional party governments across India’s states that irreversibly changed the country’s politics. In 1969, a long-held wish was granted when Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai renamed the state from Madras to Tamil Nadu, the Land of the Tamils, highlighting the state’s cultural independence and strong Tamil identity. On 17 July 1996, after long debate, the capital city of Madras was renamed Chennai, the name it bears today. As with many Indian renamings, the history of both the past and present names is somewhat obscure. The name ‘Chennai’ is believed to have originated from the historic South Indian chieftain Damarla Chennapa, though there is also some evidence that the village that grew into Madras was originally called Chennapattinam. Some variants of the name ‘Madras’ are also attested to in local sources predating British naming of the city. Regardless, ‘Madras’ carried associations with both the British colonial state and North Indian political hegemony; it had to go.

The DMK’s policies of harnessing linguistic and naming issues would be copied by other regional parties. For instance Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena changed the name of state capital Bombay to Mumbai in 1995, drawing on old local names for the region; around the same time, the iconic Victoria Terminus railway station was renamed after Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji. Nor has renaming been limited to regional political parties; the renaming of the city of Allahabad to Prayagraj in 2018 was widely seen as an act of Sanskritization by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the most powerful national party, which also renamed the Uttar Pradesh district of Faizabad to Ayodhya (after the nation in the revered Sanskrit epic, Ramayana) and removed the name of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb from a prominent road in the capital city of New Delhi.

Names and languages are seen to have immense power in Indian politics. Debates over names and languages have always been symptomatic of developments in regional identity and national cultural politics; they have been instrumental in the growth of regional and ethnocultural political parties, and have become some of the most visible fronts in the ongoing culture war over India’s past and future.

Sahaj Sankaran

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