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 Monday, 13 January, 2003, 18:11 GMT
Sign language decree in Calcutta
Public tramway, Dalhousie Square, Calcutta
Others will now have to use Bengali, as this tram does

The authorities in Calcutta have ruled that Bengali must be the main language used in signs in the city.

Until now the vast majority of signs have been in English or Hindi.

Traders, mostly belonging to non-Bengali communities, say the order will create problems

Observers see the move as an attempt to emphasise the city's Bengali roots.

But close to 40% of Calcutta's residents do not speak Bengali, the regional language, as their mother tongue.

The move marks a significant change in emphasis for a city which has had an international outlook since its days as the capital of the British Indian empire.

Until now, shopkeepers and business establishments in Calcutta could write out their signboards in any language they pleased.

Generally, they would use the language which most residents of a particular locality spoke in.

Hopes

But now that will change.

Calcutta street scene
Sign of the past?
On Monday, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation issued an order making it mandatory for all business establishments and shops to have signboards, hoardings and public notices written out in Bengali.

The main message must be in Bengali, but signs can use other languages to make things clearer, the ruling says.

Bengali language activists, who have been demanding the change, are happy with the corporation's decision.

They see it as fulfilling the linguistic aspirations of the Bengalis.

Fears

But Calcutta's non-Bengali population is apprehensive.

Traders, mostly belonging to non-Bengali communities, say the order will create problems because many in the city cannot read or speak Bengali.

Many others see it as a political attempt to pander to regional sentiments.

But supporters of the move say neighbouring states like Orissa and Assam have long made it obligatory to use the local language for signboards and hoardings.

They argue that there is no reason why the situation in West Bengal should be any different.

Despite its cosmopolitan ethos, Calcutta may now have to change with the times.

See also:

05 Aug 02 | South Asia
17 Jun 02 | South Asia
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15 Aug 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
24 Jul 02 | Country profiles
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