In recent months, the government has been sending signals that it may fully embrace ‘Bharat’ as the official name of the country—leaving ‘India’ behind. The latest is a proposal to change the name in school textbooks. Of course, this has made the Opposition and liberals unhappy—who see it as a Hindutva ploy. All of which raises the question: What’s our name, anyway? The answer is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘what’.
First came Meluha…
Exonym vs Endonym: Before we jump in, here’s the gist of this debate over what to name our nation. It is essentially an argument over exonyms—what others have called us—and endonyms—what we have called ourselves in the past. At the root of this conflict is a disagreement over who constitutes ‘we’.
Starting with Meluha: That’s the name given to the Indus Valley Civilisation in Mesopotamian texts—back in the third millennium BCE. Archaeologist Jane Macintosh writes:
Meluha, it is now generally agreed, was the name by which the Indus civilisation was known to the Mesopotamians: Meluha was the most distant of the trio of foreign lands, and the imports from Meluha mentioned in Sumerian and Akkadian texts, such as timbers, carnelian, and ivory, match the resources of the Harappan realms.
Today, the name is more likely to be found in fantasy fiction centred on the Indus Valley Civilisation—such as Amish Tripathi’s novel ‘The Immortals of Meluha’—or AI-generated art.
Up next: Jambudvipa, Ᾱryāvarta and Bharata varsha
The word Ᾱryāvarta (the land of the Ᾱryas) is first described in Manusmriti. It referred to a narrow topographical territory ruled by Brahmins. It was absorbed into the concept of Bhārata—first mentioned in the Purāṇas and other Sanskrit texts dating back to first century AD. Bhārata was located on Jambudvīpa or the ‘apple-tree island’:
Annular in its form, the island of Jambudvīpa is itself surrounded by six other similarly annular-shaped continents… Bhārata is said to be situated between the sea in the south and the ‘Abode of snow’ (himālaya) in the north (see for example Viṣṇupurāṇa). Its shape cannot be clearly determined for it varies from text to text. It is described as a half-moon, a triangle, a trapezoid, or a bended bow…
But, but, but: More than just territory, Bhārata is defined by its social order—not just ruled by the Brahmins but also defined by the Brahminical laws of the universe:
It is on its territory alone, not in the other regions of the world, that time is properly divided into cosmic ages (yuga), that humans who celebrate rites (karman) correctly can expect appropriate consequences: there and there only can they reap the fruits of acts (also karman) committed in previous births; there and there only can they strive to obtain the permanent release from transmigration (saṃsāra), which entails the cessation of karman. Such considerations are summarized in the well-known classical characterization of Bhārata as the ‘land of works’ (karmabhūmi), as for example in the Viṣṇupurāna.
Later texts would use the idea of Bhārata—to expand the concept of Ᾱryāvarta beyond just territory. Dividing the world between the pure Ᾱrya and the impure ‘Mleccha’, the texts argued that any territory conquered by an Aryan king—and brought into the Brahmanical order—also becomes part of Ᾱryāvarta:
If a ksatriya king of excellent conduct were to conquer the Mlecchas, establish the system of four varṇas (in the Mleccha country) and assign to Mlecchas a position similar to that of cāṇḍālas in Ᾱryāvarta, even that (Mleccha country) would be fit for the performance of sacrifice, since the earth itself is not impure, but becomes impure through contact (of impure persons or things).
Point to note: The original concept of Bhārata did not imply any unified political territory: “It is associated with a vision of human beings, of their condition and experience and of their interpersonal relationships within a given social structure. Outside its territory non-order prevails. Nowhere does it refer to a country in the modern sense.”
The Mughal reign over ‘Hindustan’
The word ‘Hindu’ is exogamous—as in, it was used by Persians to describe the land below the Sindhu river back in the seventh century BCE. And it birthed the name Hindustan:
Hindu was the Persianised version of the Sanskrit Sindhu, or the Indus river, and was used to identify the lower Indus basin. From the first century of the Christian era, the Persian suffix, ‘stan’ was applied to form the name ‘Hindustan’.
Although some claim ‘Hindu’ referred to the religion of its natives, historical texts did not reflect that understanding. Manan Ahmed Asif, for example, cites this Persian inscription from 1325 found in Madhya Pradesh:
In the reign of king Ghiyathuddin wa-Dunya
the foundation of this auspicious edifice was laid
May such a king live as long as this world lasts
Because in his reign, the rights of none are lost
In Hindustan all are grateful for his justice
In Turkistan all are fearful of his supremacy.
Inevitably, the name Hindustan became closely associated with the Mughal Empire—and was used to differentiate its territory from that held by Europeans:
The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French who visited, settled in, and conquered the subcontinent since the 16th century used Estado da Índia, Nederlands Voor-Indië, British India, or Établissements français dans l’Inde to denote their colonial holdings… In these renderings, it was explained that the Mughals, who claimed to be the kings of all the kings in southern peninsular Asia from the 16th century down to the 19th century, were called Shahanshah-i Hindustan (emperors of Hindustan).
Until the late 18th century, ‘Hindoostan’ or ‘Indostan’ was also used to more generally refer to native names for the subcontinent in European writings.
The British reign over India
India was the name first given to us by the Greeks—and it dates back to the fifth century BCE.
The Greeks who had acquired knowledge of ‘Hind’ from the Persians, transliterated it as ‘Indus’, and by the time the Macedonian ruler Alexander invaded India in the third century BCE, ‘India’ had come to be identified with the region beyond the Indus.
It was later embraced by the British who used it to describe the territory ruled by the empire. It reflected the colonial claim that the subcontinent was just a motley collection of kingdoms—until the British created a unified political entity called India. As historian Ian Barrow writes:
Part of the appeal of the term India may have been its Graeco-Roman associations, its long history of use in Europe, and its adoption by scientific and bureaucratic organisations such as the Survey of India. The adoption of India suggests how colonial nomenclature signalled changes in perspectives and helped to usher in an understanding of the subcontinent as a single, bounded and British political territory.
Constituent Assembly debate: ‘India that is Bharat’
A return to Bharat/ Hindustan: You can see why the nationalists had an ambivalent relationship with ‘India’. Freedom fighters instead returned to older, pre-colonial names in their slogans—be it ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ or ‘Jai Hind’—which is an abbreviation of Hindustan:
It was the idea behind the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, created by anti-colonial revolutionaries like Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh in 1928. It emerged in a slogan asserting independence as Jai Hindustan ki (Victory to Hindustan)—the rallying cry for Subhas Chandra Bose’s Free Hind Army in 1942. Later, when the Republic of India issued its first postage stamp on August 15, 1947, the day of independence, it depicted the tricolour flag, with Emperor Ashoka’s dharma chakra, and Bose’s anti-colonial slogan, shortened to Jai Hind.
Intriguing point to note: Hindustan was also the choice of Hindu ideologues like Veer Sarvarkar—who reinterpreted its meaning entirely:
Whereas Iqbal called the inhabitants of Hindustān by the old appellation Hindī, which signifies ‘Indian’ in the ethno-geographical sense, Savarkar called them Hindus, and reserved the term only for those Indians who considered Bharat both as their Holy land (puṇyabhūmi) and as their fatherland (patṛbhūmi), by which he meant the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs but not the Muslims and Christians.
In this version of history, Hindu was a purely Sanskrit term—not a word coined by Persians.
The Constituent Assembly debates: Jawaharlal Nehru embraced the many names of our country in ‘Discovery of India’: “Often, as I wandered from meeting to meeting, I spoke to my audience of this India of ours, of Hindustan and of Bharata, the old Sanskrit name derived from the mythical founder of the race.”
But such niceties didn’t solve the problem of what to call the newly independent state—when framing the Constitution. There were impassioned arguments in favour of discarding a colonial nomenclature—with some even lending their support to Ᾱryāvarta. In the end, our leaders settled for a compromise between the two leading candidates forged by—BR Ambedkar. This is why our Constitution reads: “India, that is, Bharat shall be a Union of States."
Interesting point to note: At the time of independence, Pakistan was no less unhappy with the plan to call ourselves India:
Pakistani leaders favoured that India should be named either Hindustan or Bharat. They argued that two ‘successor’ states had emerged from the dissolution of the British Indian empire: Pakistan and Hindustan or Bharat. India’s position was that it was the successor state to British India, in terms of international law, and that Pakistan had seceded from India. Hence, while India retained its international personality, including its membership of the United Nations (UN), Pakistan, as a new state created through secession, would have to take steps to acquire an international personality.
Back to the future: A return to Bhārata?
Hindustan has long lost its appeal for the Hindu rightwing——who now dismiss it as a name associated by Muslim invaders. As during the Constituent Assembly debates, the primary contest remains between India and Bharat.
The argument for Bharat: is also familiar—recalling older appeals to reject imperialist legacy of India:
Naresh Bansal, a BJP member of parliament, said the name “India” is a symbol of “colonial slavery” and “should be removed from the constitution. The British changed Bharat’s name to India,” Bansal said in a parliamentary session. “Our country has been known by the name ‘Bharat’ for thousands of years. … The name ‘India’ was given by the colonial Raj and is thus a symbol of slavery.”
But, but, but: The RSS discourse about Bharat also reflects its ancient roots in Brahmanical social order—and its superiority. Hence, chief Mohan Bhagwat declared in 2013:
Crimes against women happening in urban India are shameful. It is a dangerous trend. But such crimes won't happen in 'Bharat' or the rural areas of the country. You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes… Where 'Bharat' becomes 'India' with the influence of western culture, these type of incidents happen. The actual Indian values and culture should be established at every stratum of society where women are treated as 'mother'.
To which, women leaders like Brinda Karat pointedly said: “Mohan Bhagwat doesn't know either India or Bharat. The largest number of rapes occur in rural areas on Dalits, tribals and rural workers.”
Originally, perhaps the phrase was coined to denote the divide between the small, modern, urbanised, industrialised and economically progressive part of the country and the large, poor, inaccessible, primitive, tribal and economically backward part of the country. In recent times, many commentators and politicians have used this phrase mechanically to highlight socio-economic inequalities between large cities and the rest of India.
Of course, this dichotomy is no more accurate than the RSS stereotype. In the past decade, many residents of ‘Bharat’ have become immensely wealthy—and a highly desirable market for India Inc.
The bottomline: We give the last word to Samrat Choudhury in the Hindustan Times:
The trouble is that the ideas of modern nation-states and nationalism themselves are products of colonial rule. Ancient Bharat was a shifting territory linked by elements of a shared “high culture” whose social basis was the caste system…
The historical evils of colonialism are well known, and unquestionable – but it was the costly experience of colonialism that forced open closed minds… So, when we talk about decolonising our mind sets further now, what exactly are we aspiring to decolonize to? When Bharat triumphs over India, what will become of the modern ideas and values that came to us with British colonialism?
The best and most detailed resource on the history of our names is Catherine Clémentin-Ojha’s paper titled ‘India, that is Bharat…: One Country, Two Names’. Also a good historical read if you have a subscription, Adrija Roychowdhury in Indian Express. CNBCTV18 has an interesting critique of the corporate world’s notion of ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’. Manan Ahmed Asif in Lithub writes on the colonial erasing of Hindustan. For more on the recent political debate, read Al Jazeera and LA Times. The Wire has more on Nehru’s vision of India/Bharat—and the rightwing concept of Akhand Bharat (which seems to appropriate the territory of colonial India). Samrat Choudhury in Hindustan Times makes an eloquent case for retaining our post-colonial claim to India.