Un-naming India: Unsettling the Firmly Established Identity

Dr. Ashish Kumar

20 Sep 2023 12:04 PM GMT

  • Un-naming India: Unsettling the Firmly Established Identity

    Sudden Emergence of a Needless Controversy Lately an unwarranted contestation concerning the name ‘India’ has been whipped up out of nothing. A deliberate effort appears to be underway to create a political binary between India and Bharat. Expectedly, the social atmospherics are now abuzz with conflicting, polarizing views characterized by acute ignorance and distortions. As a...

    Sudden Emergence of a Needless Controversy

    Lately an unwarranted contestation concerning the name ‘India’ has been whipped up out of nothing. A deliberate effort appears to be underway to create a political binary between India and Bharat. Expectedly, the social atmospherics are now abuzz with conflicting, polarizing views characterized by acute ignorance and distortions. As a large mass of the public on either side of the political divide reacts bitterly on this emotive issue, insinuations driving their reaction may turn out to be carefully installed by the ruling power, precisely to dig and calculate the electoral possibilities of polemics surrounding semantics of India-Bharat. Little wonder the hornet’s nest that the name-game has stirred across India will also be exploited as a mask to conceal the raging public issues of our times. As things stand, the socio-legal ramifications of this needless controversy stare in our face, and if not handled with required political prudence, it might well irreparably hollow out the constitutional edifice on which our collective national identities were meticulously etched and settled by the founding framers of the Constitution of India after prolonged struggle for independence. In order to avoid falling into this trap laid out deviously by the political Machiavellians of the day, every Indian or Bhartiya or Hindustani must seek answer to this fundamental question in this regard: “Is there even a need for fixing something which is not broken, rather, that which has been already firmly settled long back after extensive intellectual exercise by the Constituent Assembly between 9th December 1946 to 26th November 1949, spanning almost three years?

    India, that is, Bharat – A Profoundly Ingrained Identity

    The geography of the country, with what it all legally and territorially subsumes, is constitutive of ‘India, that is, Bharat’, as plainly commanded in Article 1 of the Constitution. What it essentially means is that both terms are interchangeable, with ‘India’ being the equivalent official English term for Hindi ‘Bharat’ and vice versa. In this sense there is no dichotomy between the two as both exist in perfect harmony with one another, being deeply built into and ingrained in the social and individual psyche, popular culture and collective identity of the people inhabiting this country for aeons. Given such assimilation, the thick roots of ‘India, that is, Bharat’ have reached to the farthest and deepest extent of the socio-cultural terrains of the country, giving collective nationalistic identity, patriotic passion, and celebratory reason to the people of this country.

    It is not a matter of disagreement, that while India and Bharat are two different names with unique, ancient genesis, they both embody a profound sense of singularity, coherence, and oneness, unequivocally conveying the identity of the country as a unified, multifaceted and diverse nation. The antiquity of the usage of both Bharat and India is firmly established in the classical texts and literature from the past. The official term Bharat can be traced back to the ancient and popular Hindu epic Mahabharata, of which a leading protagonist, namely, King Bharata, inspired the naming of his kingdom as Bharata, Bharat Varsha, Bharat Khanda, Bharat Bhoomi etc. - referencing to a vast kingdom spanning the great northern plains of Indian sub-continent. There were other well-known endonyms for this vast geographical entity as reflected in names such as Aryavarta (abode of the Aryans) and Jambudvipa (denoting one of the seven continents surrounded by large oceans; also used by Ashoka to represent his vast Mauryan Empire).

    It is vital to objectively understand the origin of the exonym ‘India’ - a term that has become solidly ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist and popular imaginations for centuries - dating back to ancient times. This being said, there is no real historical basis to argue that India is an anglicized name introduced by the British. Instead, it is widely understood to have originated from a sacred Sanskrit term Sindhu, which denotes the name of the major river system of the north-west region of the sub-continent. River Sindhu played a significant role in the development of one of mankind’s earliest human civilizations, called the Indus Valley Civilization, which dated between c. 2600 and 1900 B.C.E. (NCERT Class XII Textbook 2023).

    The Persian used to call Sindhu as Hindu due to the phonetic variation in the sound of ‘S’ as ‘H’. They historically referred to both the people and the land beyond the river Sindhu as Hindu. The Arab called them Hind. As the name travelled further westward, the Greek adapted it as Indu, due to the absence of any ‘H’ sound in their language. They also referred them as Indos as attested in the well-known book ‘The Histories’, authored by celebrated Greek Historian Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. In this context, Megasthenes’ magnum-opus ‘Indica' (written between 3rd to 4th century B.C.) offered quintessential portrayal of the diverse people and their immense geographical expanse in the (Indian) sub-continent. When the name entered the realm of Roman empire, they called them Indus. That is how the name ‘India’ eventually evolved and became part of the universal glossary. Amid this factual matrix, a golden information stands tall and obvious, and that is the strong lexical connection between the sacred Sanskrit word Sindhu and India, making it extremely realistic that name India ultimately owes its origin to the root word Sindhu.

    Based on the facts referred above, it is reiterated that the name India did not originate from the British but has a credible historical genesis in the ancient civilization of India itself. So, any attempt to remove it from the Constitution of India will constitute grave assault on and insult to the civilizational identity of this great country and its people.

    The Words of the Constituent Assembly

    The constitutionally commanded ‘India, that is, Bharat’ is direct, simple, and powerful, effectively communicating to even those who are totally uninitiated in the Constitution of India. The Constituent Assembly (1946-1949) - widely recognized for shedding historical, customary moral insight over constitutional matters - had passionately debated the construction and placement of the words before settling for the present expression found in Article 1 (1).

    Majority of the members during the debate clearly supported the idea of using/retaining both names, India and Bharat. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, right from the beginning, endorsed the view that both names must be incorporated in Article 1(1), as they both represented the modern and ancient aspects of Indian civilization respectively. He strongly believed that the use of both names would help to bridge the cultural and linguistic differences between different regions of the country and promote national unity. Thus, it may be safely inferred that Constituent Assembly by recognizing ‘India as Bharat’ and ‘Bharat as India’, essentially declared the said expression as intrinsically related to the notion of unity in diversity.

    Thus Speaketh the Apex Judiciary?

    In 2016, the Supreme Court (SC) dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking the removal of the word ‘India’ from the Constitution. It was contended that the name ‘India’ was derived from the Greeks who addressed the country ‘Indu’ and that it did not show the true identity of the nation. It was argued further that the name ‘India was ’ closely connected to the British colonial regime and therefore, it should be taken out from Article 1(1). The SC while categorically rejecting such contentions held that the name ‘India’ was not associated with any particular religion, caste, creed or culture; rather it represented the entirety of the nation. The SC Bench led by the then Chief Justice, T.S. Thakur also noted that the name ‘India’ had been used for centuries as a descriptor for the country, underscoring its significance in both historical and geographical contexts. It is significant to note that this PIL was countered by the current Government, stating that the name-change was not warranted and that Constituent Assembly had conducted extensive deliberations on naming of the country prior to finalizing Article 1.

    In another similar PIL filed in 2020, argument was advanced for amending, and striking off the term ‘India’ from Article 1(1) and using either ‘Bharat’ or ‘Hindustan’ in the said Article. This was sought on the basis that calling the country by its English name symbolizes a colonial hangover and slave mentality. SC rightly rejected the argument and held that India is already called Bharat in the Constitution. While holding that no interreference from the Court was required, it directed the petition be converted into a representation and transmitted to appropriate Government Ministries, in particular the Ministry of Home Affairs. This latter direction of the Bench appears to have been ill-conceived. It should have plainly re-iterated the futility and absurdity of demands for name change without giving any direction of the above nature. It was rather constitutionally expected of the Bench led by the Chief Justice S.A. Bobde to come down harshly on the petitioner and impose exemplary penalties for misuse of PIL, especially when the SC itself in similar PIL in 2016 had rejected all these unmerited, groundless contentions.

    Cease the Identity Shake-Up

    The names ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ both seamlessly merge into one another to represent a civilisation that is a kaleidoscope of diverse cultures customs, and traditions, flowering over millennia, and marked by a rich tapestry of spiritual practices and mystic philosophies.

    Given the well-established historical antiquity of the two names, any attempt to remove the name ‘India’ would inevitably result in dangerous dilution of the country’s national and international identity.

    In fact, any such name-game will amount to subverting the basic structure and character of the constitution. In view of the vast majority of people believing staunchly in the ever-enduring notion of ‘India, that is, Bharat’, it must be told unmistakably, in both public and private spaces, that people of this country have a strong sense of customary right to be recognized, individually or collectively, as not only ‘Bhartiya’ but also ‘Indian’.

    Therefore, let this indefensible talk of identity shake-up cease at no further cost!

    Ashish Kumar is a Senior Assistant Professor in Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. Views expressed in this article are solely his own and are not a reflection of the institution he is affiliated with.

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