Indian schoolchildren sit in formation forming Hindi script that reads 'Bharat' (India) during the country's 71st Independence Day celebrations, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule, at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on August 15, 2017. A controversy erupted recently, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party claiming that Bharat was the indigenous, therefore preferred, name. Image Credit: AFP

The war over how India should be named erupted earlier this month when the country’s president, Droupadi Murmu, invited the G20 delegates to dinner. In the official invitation, she was called “President of Bharat” instead of the usual “President of India.” A controversy ensued, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claiming that Bharat was the indigenous, therefore preferred, name. India, on the other hand, was a colonial imposition, an exonym.

The Opposition accused the government of planning, even conspiring, to change the name of the republic for political purposes. It was BJP’s ploy to upend their multiparty alliance, with its telling acronym I.N.D.I.A (with no full stop at the end). But to disambiguate this unseemly, even unnecessary, quarrel, we have to look no further than the Constitution of India: “India, that is, Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” Therefore, to the question which of the two names, India or Bharat, is valid, the simple and most direct response would be both.

But no tussle over a country’s nomenclature is that simple, is it? Because deeper questions of identity are involved. For instance, let’s reverse the colonial gaze: what if the United Kingdom were to be renamed vilayet — because millions of sub-continentals call it that? Would anyone agree to the change? No. Then why should Bharat retain the colonially imposed name India? But what we call the United Kingdom today is known by more than one name. Britain, for instance, is used almost interchangeably. Even England, though the Welsh, Scots, and the Irish might resent it. Moreover, the UK wasn’t conquered or ruled by Indians; therefore the analogy, arguably, is inappropriate.

Why India wasn’t a colonial invention

But, again, India was not merely a colonial invention or imposition. It is as old as the Greeks, who called the subcontinent Indike. India was its Latin version. Both names came from the river Indus, or Sindhu, in Sanskrit. Ancient Chinese travellers called the country Indu or Indo, which is still the East Asian name for the country. Therefore, names such as Sindhu, Hindu, Indu, or India are not new or recent but thousands of years old. In fact, the other common name for the country, Hindustan, is derived from the same etymology, though it became standard during the period of Muslim rule in India. Even so, it referred to the northern part of the land, while the large peninsula South of the Vindhyas was called Deccan from the Sanskrit Dakshin, which means South.

Bharat, we used to think, was a name derived from the famous king Bharat, the son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta. His story is told in the Mahabharat and later immortalised by Kalidasa in his great poetic play, Abhijnana Shakuntalam. But there were Bharatas much before this particular king. Else, why would India’s great epic be called Mahabharat — or the great Bharat? Its kernel story has been traced back to the Dasharajnya or the War of Ten Kings. This is a very old story, first found in the Rg Veda (Rig Veda), one of the oldest texts known to humankind. It appears in the 7th mandala and goes back about 3,500 years as far as its composition is considered. Which suggests that the events recorded in it must have been even older. In addition, the Bharatas as fire priests are referred to several times in the same text, the Rg Veda. Therefore, the name Bharat or Bharatvarsha is very, very old indeed and has survived all these thousands of years.

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India or Bharat? Dr B.R. Ambedkar (in poster, above), credited as the creator of India's constitution, resolved the issue by arguing that a civilisational debate over the name was unnecessary because “the name Bharat was not opposed by members.”

It is not as if the framers of India’s Constitution did not know this. Article 1 of the Constitution, including the very commas in the phrase “India, that is, Bharat,” was debated extensively in the Constituent Assembly. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, credited as its creator, postponed presenting the name for almost a year. On September 17, 1949, he offered his final version of the Article, which comprised both Bharat and India.

Several members opposed “India” even then, saying that it was a colonial vestige. Hargovind Pant went to the extent of asserting, “We must know that this name was given to our country by foreigners who, having heard of the riches of this land, were tempted towards it and had robbed us of our freedom in order to acquire the wealth of our country. If we, even then, cling to the word ‘India’, it would only show that we are not ashamed of having this insulting word which has been imposed on us by alien rulers.”

Another member of the Constituent Assembly, Seth Govind Das, suggested, “We should have put the words’ Bharat known as India also in foreign countries.’” Another member, Hari Vishnu Kamath, cited the example of Ireland, arguing that India was merely the translation in English of Bharat. Kamath said, “The Constitution of the Irish Free State reads: ‘The name of the State is Eire, or, in the English language, Ireland.’” This, as I have shown earlier, is not, strictly speaking, true. Instead, both names, Bharat and India, go back to ancient times, without the latter being a translation of the former. Ambedkar resolved the issue by arguing that a civilisational debate over the name was unnecessary because “the name Bharat was not opposed by members.”

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To revert to the present, the BJP will have to change the Constitution if it wants people to stop using “India.” This does not appear to be their intention. In which case, they are free to prefer “Bharat,” even making a political scoring point of it. But those who continue to use India cannot be faulted for doing so, let alone be dubbed “anti-nationals.” Because if using India is anti-national, then the Constitution itself, which is the very basis of the republic and the highest authority of the land, would be rendered “anti-national.”

“What’s in a name?” the Bard famously asked, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” But those familiar with the play Romeo and Juliet, in which these lines occur, would answer, “Everything.” Because the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers starts in their opposing clans, the Montagues and Capulets, respectively. Their very names thus go against them.

Luckily for us, Bharat and India legally refer to the same entity and, many would agree, smell as sweet. It is up to us which name we use.