The government’s decision to alter the English name of Chittagong district to Chattogram has come as a shock to many Bangladeshis, particularly those rooted in our Anglophone heritage, as well as to many engaged in international business.
It is still unclear if the change applies to the city of Chittagong itself.
The term Chattogram carries a distinctively rural connotation, as the last four letters of the spelling translate to the Bengali term for a village. Chittagong is not a village. It is a metropolis with a population of more than 2 million.
It is a leading industrial centre in one of the most populous countries in the world. It has its own stock exchange. Its harbour, which hosts one of the busiest international gateways on the Bay of Bengal, has been reputed throughout the world. For example, the global shipping company Hanjin has a container ship named “Chittagong” that is registered in Panama.
Why, then, is there a sudden decision to potentially alter the spelling of the country’s second largest city?
There has not been a widespread public demand for such a move. Why, then, is the government willing to spend tax-payer money for such a trivial move? Instead of changing the name of the city, the government should have invested in improving the infrastructure and ease of doing business in Chittagong, in order to have the port city compete with its global counterparts.
Chittagong was nicknamed as the country’s commercial capital by a former prime minister in 1992. In the decades since, there has been no worthwhile effort to transform the city’s infrastructure, such as building a deepwater port or public transportation through trams and subways.
The small international airport is connected to only a handful of cities in the region. Of course, such a failure is due to Bangladesh’s insular economic policies. Leading Bangladeshi companies, many of which are based or were founded in Chittagong, still face many barriers to trade and outside investment. The flag carrier Biman has a fleet of only a dozen aircraft, and its international destinations have declined.
If Chittagong were a free port, it could have served a hinterland extending across Northeast India and the Himalayan states. It could have been a gateway to the western regions of China, such as Yunnan.
Indeed, if Bangladesh permitted all of its seaports to be free ports, the country could have emerged as a regional economic hub. Chittagong could be the pivot of a more liberal market economy in Bangladesh.
Instead, we have seen the centralization of the national economy around Dhaka, a city with its fair share of environmental complexities. Hence, being a low-income and densely populated country, is it sustainable for Bangladesh to centralize around a megacity of more than 15 million people?
Voyagers from the Portuguese Empire and the Republic of Venice called the city Porto Grande. The Portuguese historian João De Barros wrote in 1552 that Chittagong was ‘the most famous and wealthy city of the Kingdom of Bengal’
Is it simply not more prudent to devolve the national economy to regional centres? For example, a mercantile exchange in Chittagong would be well placed to determine the prices of imported products.The Asian University for Women in Chittagong is a successful example of the potential of the port city, if global capital and resources are invested in it. The headquarters of BIMSTEC should have been located in Chittagong rather than Dhaka, as the port city boasts of a coastline on the Bay of Bengal.
Chittagong also deserves more consulates aside from the existing Indian and Russian missions, and the government of Bangladesh should allow the city to become a second diplomatic hub after Dhaka.
Coming back to the issue of the name, it is also important to raise an interesting aspect of the city’s history. Chittagong was officially named as Islamabad under the Mughal Empire. When the British conquered the region, they recorded the old town’s name beside the Karnaphuli River as Islamabad. It carried the name Islamabad much before the modern Pakistani capital came into existence. On March 26, 1948, the first governor general remarked while addressing people in port city: “Chittagong will rank as one of the finest ports in the world … Chittagong is destined to be great, and you, as her citizens, are destined to share her greatness and prosperity … Chittagong is destined to be the eastern mighty queen and gateway … yours is a beautiful garden land with sea, rivers, and hills and magnificent scenery all-round. It remains now for man in Chittagong to play his part fully and raise Chittagong to the zenith for which it is destined.”
In the 1960s, the capital of Pakistan was shifted from the port city of Karachi to a newly-built planned city in the northern part of West Pakistan. It was named Islamabad.
Another historical name tied with Chittagong is “Bengala.” When the Portuguese dominated the port in the 16th century, as they did in Bombay and Malacca, they used the term Porto Grande De Bengala.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, voyagers from the Portuguese Empire and the Republic of Venice called the city Porto Grande. The early modern Portuguese historian João De Barros wrote in 1552 that Chittagong was “the most famous and wealthy city of the Kingdom of Bengal.”
The Bangladeshi government should have weighed many of the above factors into consideration before announcing its abrupt decision. The country has a rich Anglophone heritage spanning four centuries. English is widely used as a co-official and second language in the country.
The English names of districts, cities, and roads should be preserved while Bengali spellings can be used in a Bengali setting. Linguists believe it is corrupt to use alien pronunciations when speaking a language fluently. Romanized and Anglicized names of Bangladeshi places only enhance country’s heritage.
Umran Chowdhury is a student of the Sorbonne-Assas International Law School.