OPN India
As India gets ready for the G20 Summit, State-issued invitations with 'Bharat' have raised speculation of name transition Image Credit: Gulf News

Decolonisation is in fashion these days. For a change, we are not trying to undo the Mughal past but the colonial one. How refreshing.

Sadly, we are limiting ourselves to nomenclature.

How must one deal with parts of one’s history one doesn’t like? As a rule, denying history is a zero-sum game. You can’t deny the Mughal era happened. Those who want to deny that will have to live with the Taj Mahal as a global tourist attraction, to begin with. Similarly, we cannot wish away that the colonial era happened.

To say that we should stop using the term ‘India’ because it has colonial roots is like saying we should stop using the English language and maybe stop running trains, at least on the lines built by the British. Those colonial bridges and buildings? Surely they should be demolished and rebuilt?

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Stop drinking tea

If we start changing names there will be no end to it. Like the English language, the word India has taken deep roots in Indian society and culture. Every Indian identifies with it. If we start cancelling everything with foreign roots, we will have to stop drinking tea, and eating potatoes and chilli.

Can Indians live without tea, potatoes and chilli? In the same way, Indians can’t live without “India”. Too late. We have a 76-year-long history of internalising the word India as a free, independent, diverse, multilingual nation.

The word ‘India’ is as foreign as the word ‘Hindu’. Both were coined by outsiders. Both are etymologically said to refer to the river Indus, or Sindhu, now mostly in Pakistan. What can be so bad about being named after a river, especially one that today Indians have a mythical, emotional attachment to?

Many Indias, many Bharats

India already has two official names, India and Bharat. It speaks of our tolerance and spirit of accommodation that we can live happily with two names. It speaks of the idea of India, of inclusivity and diversity, as opposed to exclusivity and intolerance.

If we had only one name — India — there could even be an argument about changing it. But we already have both names. It is a tribute to our ability to live with multiple identities, even if they are sometimes in conflict.

We become Indian in English and Bhartiya in Hindi and in common parlance we often use the Persian word Hindustani as well. The more the merrier.

The founding fathers debated the nomenclature for four days in the Constituent Assembly, and they decided to accommodate both views. Those who argued for India felt the name had a global weight, a sense of history, a legacy that they wanted to inherit.

President Droupadi Murmu's invite to G20 foreign leaders and Chief Ministers for a dinner on September 9

Fulfilling Jinnah’s wishes

India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, revealed in an interview to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre that Jinnah was “furious” when he heard India had decided to continue calling itself India. He thought we would call ourselves Hindustan, land of the Hindus, marking the success of a Partition on religious lines.

It now appeared that Pakistan separated from India, rather than India’s division into two. Even today, Pakistani news makes it a point to refer to India as Bharat.

It is not surprising that those who want to drop the word “India” also believe India should be a religious state like Pakistan. Some in India’s right-wing want to make Jinnah’s wishes come true. LK Advani, who praised Jinnah and attacked the Indian National Congress, would likely approve.

All about INDIA

It is not lost on anyone that this sudden objection to the word India is because 28 opposition parties have formed a joint alliance called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, which abbreviates to INDIA. The BJP has been rather unhappy about this acronym. Someone has even filed a petition in court.

Since India has two official names, the government is free to use them interchangeably. Our passports have both names — India in English and Bharat in Hindi, in the Devnagiri script. But to deviate from custom and start saying ‘Republic of Bharat’ in English is to make a point.

This point is unlikely to be politically beneficial for the BJP. It could hurt the party’s drive to expand outside the Hindi heartland. Already, the draft bill to replace the Indian Penal Code with “Bhartiya Nyaya Sanhita” invited some criticism from Tamil Nadu, where people fear Hindi imposition.

The argument given to replace basic criminal laws is also the colonial one, as if the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Code of Procedure have never been amended by independent India.

As an English playwright once asked, what’s in a name?