The ongoing debate over renaming India as ‘Bharat’ reflects the deep conflict of identity, culture, history and politics. this linguistic change with its deep historical roots, has resurfaced in contemporary India, sparking intense discussions and polarised opinions
By Mohan Kanda
- India and Bharat have both evoked the same emotions among patriots for decades. These labels of pride have now been weaponized for political ends
- BJP has already renamed cities and places that were linked to the Mughal and colonial periods. this year, the Mughal Gardens renamed Amrit Udyan
- This move has also faced opposition from those who believe it goes against India’s goal of becoming the world’s third-largest economy by 2027
- The name of a country, or religion, is more than just a linguistic label; it embodies the core of its character, culture and history
INVITATIONS to a dinner, recently hosted by President Draupadi Murmu, for the Heads of State attending the ongoing G20 summit, bore the term ‘President of Bharat’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also described as the leader of ‘Bharat’ when he made the opening remarks at the beginning of the summit. Thus, fresh life was infused into the issue of nomenclature, and historical connotation, of public offices in the country.
India and Bharat have both evoked the same emotions among patriots for decades, but these labels of pride have now been weaponized for narrow political ends.
In that context, it is noteworthy that the government of India has called for a 5 days special session of Parliament, from September 18. That no agenda has, however, been announced has led to speculation that the renaming of the country may take place during that session.
The BJP has already renamed cities and places that were linked to the Mughal and colonial periods. This year, for instance, the Mughal Gardens, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi was renamed Amrit Udyan.
The very first article of the Constitution of India begins with the words “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union”. Across the country, the names of several places, buildings and roads have also undergone a similar change. Mount Road in the then Madras has now become Anna Salai and Kingsway in Hyderabad is now called Rashtrapati Road. The official residences of the Governors of States, earlier known as Government Houses, are now called Raj Bhavans.
The name India is derived from the word Indus, which is the name of a river that flows through the northwestern part of the subcontinent. The ancient Greeks called the people living beyond the Indus as Indoi, which means “the people of Indus”. Later, the Persians and the Arabs also used the term ‘Hind’ or ‘Hindustan’ to refer to the land of Indus
On September 8, 2023, the renowned Rajpath, which extends from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate, underwent a name change and is now known as ‘Kartavya Path’ or the ‘Path of Duty.’ Likewise, Connaught Place, the glittering and glitzy showpiece of New Delhi, was renamed Rajiv Chowk in 1995.
This year also witnessed the renaming of some other iconic landmarks, such as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Society, now known as the Prime Ministers Museum and Library Society, and rechristened the Bandra-Versova Sea Link into the Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Sea Link. Similarly, what used to be known as the Santa Cruz Airport is now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. And the 58th Constitutional Amendment Act gave parity to both Bharat and India.
The name of a country, or religion, is more than just a linguistic label; it embodies the core of its character, culture, and history. It is in keeping with that spirit that many such changes have taken place recently, particularly within the country. The name Bombay, for example, has been changed to Mumbai. What used to be Madras is now called Chennai, with the name of the State also having been changed, quite some time ago, from Madras to Tamil Nadu. Likewise, Kolkata is the new name of the erstwhile Calcutta.
ORIGINS OF ‘INDIA’ AND ‘BHARAT’
The name India is derived from the word Indus, which is the name of a river that flows through the northwestern part of the subcontinent. The ancient Greeks called the people living beyond the Indus as Indoi, which means “the people of Indus”. Later, the Persians and the Arabs also used the term Hind or Hindustan to refer to the land of Indus. The Europeans adopted the name India from these sources, and it became the official name of the country after British colonial rule.
Bharat, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit term, found in ancient scriptures, and refers to an ambiguous territory, Bharatavarsha, which stretched beyond today’s borders of India and may have extended to include what is today Indonesia. It has deep historical and cultural roots. It can be traced back to Puranic literature and the epic Mahabharata.
The Vishnu Purana, for example, describes “Bharata” as the land between the southern sea and the northern snowy Himalayan Mountain. It signifies a religious and socio-cultural entity, more than a mere political or geographical one. Bharata is also the name of the legendary ancient King, considered the ancestor of the Rig Vedic tribes of Bharatas, symbolising the progenitor of all subcontinent’s people.
The term “Hindustan” has historical significance and was popular in Punjab. The first Guru of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, mentioned “Hindustan” in Gurbani. Around the world, however, India is the most commonly used name.
THE DEBATE OVER ‘BHARAT’
Many people have opposed the use of the term ‘Bharat’. For instance, Mehbooba Mufti, President of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, feels that it “shows pettiness and intolerance”. Echoing a similar statement, Shashi Tharoor, the Congress (I) leader, “what had happened suddenly that the government had to change the name of the country!” He shared his view on social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), ‘While there is no constitutional objection to calling India “Bharat”, which is one of the country’s two official names, I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with “India”, which has incalculable brand value built up over centuries. We should continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name redolent of history, a name that is recognised around the world.’ Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal and the Supremo of the All India Trinamool Congress has said, ‘The word Bharat is also mentioned in the Constitution. We have no objection to it but the word India should not be deleted. Why do we need to make the change? Our passports mention the words the Republic of India. People call the nation by various other names such as Hindustan and Bharatvarsh’.
For Roop Rekha Verma, Professor of Philosophy and former Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, the intended move is a reflection of the intolerance of the ruling party at the centre.
Critics also see, in the move, an attempt to erase from Indian history memories of the Mughals, who were Muslims and ruled the subcontinent for almost 300 years.
Some, in support of the move, such as, for example, Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag, opine that the change will instil pride in Indians and is long overdue. A similar sentiment has also been expressed by the Chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat. Others in support of it feel that the name Bharat is an acknowledgement of the country’s rich cultural legacy, diversity, historical significance, and spiritual structure.
It highlights the continuation of a legacy that has influenced India’s identity for centuries and underlines its dedication to protecting and honouring its rich culture by embracing the name Bharat. It is evidence of the strong and ageless nature of a country that thrives today while maintaining its rich history as the only surviving Bronze Age civilization.
That the proposed change will pose certain challenges is quite clear. There is, for instance, the financial aspect.
THE COST OF RENAMING
According to a formula used by legal circles, that as much as Rs. 14,000 crore could be the cost of the move. A similar figure has also been arrived at by adopting another method, earlier used by South African Darren Oliver when Swaziland was renamed to Eswatini. The amount required roughly equals what the government of India spends, every month, on its food security programme.
Other challenges are of legal nature. For example, the title of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, recently introduced in Parliament by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on August 11, 2023, was in Hindi. The intention of the Bill, apparently, is to fulfil one of the five pledges, or ‘Panch Pran’, taken by Prime Minister Modi on the last Independence Day. Whatever purpose the proposed move may serve, from the ideological aspect, experts feel that it is likely to present many complications. Such as, for instance, whether the system will be able to find Hindi substitutes for the Greek/ Latin phrases, which have become common parlance for legal practitioners and judicial officers across the country. These phrases include res judicata, corpus delicti, in limine, ceteris paribus, and mutatis mutandis, among others.
Bharat, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit term, found in ancient scriptures, and refers to an ambiguous territory, Bharatavarsha, which stretched beyond today’s borders of India and may have extended to include what is today Indonesia. It has deep historical and cultural roots
What is more, renaming is a cumbersome process. It will require the renaming of government and corporate institutions. One view is that the switch to Bharat may require an amendment with a 2/3rd majority of not only the both houses of Parliament but also of all the state assemblies. Another view, however, is that simple notifications, issued on a case-by-case basis, will do.
The Congress (I) party is leading the new opposition 26-party Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, I.N.D.I.A. that was recently formed. Those opposed to the renaming feel that the development has made the potential name change an issue. It is also being perceived, by its antagonists, as a means to create political polarisation between the elite-non-elite, urban-rural and south-north states.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Supreme Court has, twice earlier, rejected pleas to rename ‘India’ to ‘Bharat’, once in 2016 and then in 2020, reaffirming that “Bharat” and “India” both find mention in the Constitution. Also, in 2015, the government of India, opposed the idea, stating that the issue had been extensively deliberated upon during the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly.
During the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly, Hari Vishnu Kamath cited the example of the Irish Constitution, which changed the name of the country upon achieving independence, as a precedent for using “Bharat.” Dr B R Ambedkar, however, was apprehensive of such debates on the name of the country. He was focused more on the development path the country should take to march ahead.
The move has also not found favour, with others, who feel that they feel India today is looking to become the third-largest economy in the world by 2027. It will, they feel, be against the non-theocratic and inclusive state that India symbolises.
REFLECTING IDENTITY AND CULTURE
Many other countries have also changed their names. Many African and Asian nations, for example, did so, after being freed from colonial rule. For example-Swaziland changed its name to Eswatini. Also, Burma turned into Myanmar in recent times. Japan, for example, is internally referred to as Nippon, Greece as the Hellenic Republic, and China as Zhonghua.
Renaming is a cumbersome process. It will require the renaming of government and corporate institutions. One view is that the switch to Bharat may require an amendment with a 2/3rd majority of not only the both houses of Parliament but also of all the state assemblies. Another view, however, is that simple notifications, issued on a case-by-case basis, will do
In fact, a top UN official said the World Body considers requests from countries to change their names as and when it receives them. Farhan Haq, the Deputy Spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cited the example of Turkey changing its name to Turkiye and the United Nations agreeing to the formal request.
The majority view, however, appears to be, that the change of India’s name, to Bharat, reflects that India’s soft power is not just a showpiece, but a subtle, but strong, way, of letting people know, that Indians are taking back control of their country in every way, including its original name. They argue that India emphasises the need to preserve its cultural history by using the term “Bharat” as it inspires the next generation to discover and value the traditions and historical knowledge that have shaped the country and fosters pride in the citizens of our country.
That the naming of things is an expression of individuality, identity and uniqueness is indisputable. Names, after all, convey, and create, meaning, revealing something about who we are, where we come from and where we are headed. They can constitute an important link to our ancestors.
Every name, whether of a person and institution, or even a pet, carries with it a unique story. A manifestation of identity, culture and history, names are much more than words. They are the threads that weave together the fabric of our lives.
It is worth noting that the Supreme Court has, twice earlier, rejected pleas to rename ‘India’ to ‘Bharat’, once in 2016 and then in 2020, reaffirming that “Bharat” and “India” both find mention in the Constitution. Also, in 2015, the government of India, opposed the idea, stating that the issue had been extensively deliberated upon during the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly
That, precisely, was the spirit underlining the words the Kerala High Court used in a judgement recently, going on to add that the name of a person, thing or place is, in fact, ‘everything’. Not quite, I am afraid, the sentiment expressed by the immortal William Shakespeare when, in his play, “Romeo and Juliet”, Juliette tells Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Shakespeare, through his character, Juliet, was telling the world that, in the ultimate analysis, the naming of things is largely irrelevant.
A LIGHT-HEARTED DIGRESSION, AT THIS STAGE, IS RELEVANT TO CONTEXT
The naming of newborn babies is subject to different customs, in different cultures, around the world. In the eastern, north-eastern, western and northern parts of India, people generally carry the name of the family, or community, known as the surname. Not in Tamil Nadu, where the father’s name comes after the name of the individual. In the Telugu-speaking states, however, it is the surname, again, which precedes the given name of the individual and is usually condensed into an initial. There is, in addition, a tradition, among the Telugu-speaking people of those two states, of almost invariably naming newborn children after their grandparents. This practice, in the case of a cousin of mine, once led to a very amusing situation. He, and his father, had gone to one of the offices of the Registrar of Stamps and Registration, in Hyderabad, to get a document registered. My uncle‘s name was Warudu and my cousin’s Suryanarayana. Suryanarayana, in accordance with the tradition just mentioned, was also the name of my uncle’s father. When the Registrar asked my uncle, “Your name”?, the reply was, “Warudu”. The next question was, “Father’s name”?. And the reply was “Suryanarayana”. The same questions, when put to my cousin, elicited the response, “Suryanarayana” and “Warudu”. Exasperated, the Registrar threw up his hands, and said, “Please go out, decide who the father is, and who the son, and then come back to me”!