Tamil Nadu govt fusses about names of places even as covid cases rise

Hashtags like ‘#KOYAMPUTHTHOOR’ took the social media by storm on Thursday after a play of words began in the theatre of Tamil politics on how cities and suburbs should be named and spelled.

In Tamil Nadu, which is battling the biggest surge of coronavirus cases in south India, a massive name-changing process has begun for 1,018 places, based on recommendations by a panel of Tamil language experts, according to an order issued by the Tamil Nadu government on 1 April, and made public only on Wednesday.

The change was to mandate new spellings of the names of some places in English so they read exactly as they are spoken in Tamil, said the government.

As a result, Coimbatore district changes to Koyampuththoor—hence the hashtag—Vellore district becomes Veeloor, and Chennai’s iconic suburb Mylapore is Mayilaappoor.

Changing the names of cities is a regular practice for Indian political parties as part of their political messaging. Even as clumsy spellings and an overload of vowels suggested in Tamil Nadu’s exercise are unusual, the focus on Tamil ethos has been a bedrock of political messaging for the two major Dravidian parties that have ruled Tamil Nadu for past 52 years—the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The move has raised eyebrows. The proposed spellings have spawned memes and been ridiculed on the Internet. Some ask how altering the limits of language benefits people suffering amid the covid-19 crisis, or the government for that matter. “Imagine all the #Aadhaar cards that would need correction! What a nightmare move,” tweeted Kalyan Raman, an author.

“I don’t know what good it serves,” said C. Sivakumar, a native of Coimbatore and president of the district’s micro and cottage entrepreneurs’ association. “We are not getting even small investments from the banks or the government to restart our units. There is the risk of rising infections if we go out. How my city is called is the last thing on my mind.”

“This is like diverting attention from inability to handle covid-19, and trying to focus on an emotive issue,” said Sandeep Shastri, pro-Vice Chancellor at Jain University in Bengaluru.

“Now you will insist on your collectors, your officers all changing name-boards, whereas they should be fighting covid on a war foot in their respective districts” he said as the state recorded a massive 1,927 positive cases just on Wednesday— one of the biggest single-day surges in India— taking the total tally of active cases to 36,841.

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