India vs Bharat: A synonym, binary choice or ideological fixation?

The debate about a change of name was manufactured and unnecessary.

WrittenBy:Jammi N Rao
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There were rumours and a furious debate as President Droupadi Murmu’s office sent out an invite for a G20 event – in the name of the President of Bharat. 

Bharat? Where is that? No one would have asked that question if the invitations were in Hindi and had said Bharat ke Rashtrapati, though that might have kicked up another controversy since the title Rashtrapati is not gender neutral.

Speculation was fuelled also by the unexpected announcement, not through a press release, but on Twitter by Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Pralhad Joshi, that the Parliament would be recalled for a special session on September 18. There was little or no information by way of an agenda or a statement of purpose except that the minister looked forward, “amid Amrit Kaal”, “to have fruitful discussions and debate in Parliament” during what would be a five-day session, “the 13th session of the 17th Lok Sabha and the 261st session of the Rajya Sabha”. 

Put the two together and rumour grew that one of the proposals to be discussed in the special session would be a change of name for the country. After all, if it truly is Amrit Kaal, or a golden era, then a change of name might be the clearest signal of new beginnings. 

But why go for Bharat? After all, that is hardly a new name for the land that it will describe. 

Aryavarta might more clearly establish the intentions of the regime and its ideological goals drawing as they do on ideas of race purity, ethno-religious-nationalism, and a world-conquering, space-colonising, future power that aims at nothing less than Vishwaguru status. Of course Aryavarta as a name for the land that is now India has a problem – the whole Aryan fetish is a north Indian obsession. Aryavarta would push the whole of south India into secession mode, and, for that reason at least, it is unlikely to take off. 

We could learn from our erstwhile colonial masters and rename our country as “Mahabharat”. It was in 1474 when the name Great Britain was first used in the contract of marriage between Cecily, daughter of King Edward IV of England and James, son of King James III of Scotland. Prefixing ‘Great’ to Britain led to many good things (good for the Brits, that is), including the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, the East India Company and ultimately, a great empire. 

But I fear it would be seen as a hangover of the colonial mindset, much derided by the ministers of the regime in New Delhi, to copy the British and adopt the name “Mahabharat”. Besides, Mahabharat is associated with a bloody and destructive fratricidal war that left no winners. So that idea is unlikely to fly. 

So if it’s not to be Aryavarta or Mahabharat, what about Akhand Bharat? Not only has that concept been floated once again by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat as his contribution to the debate, it has also featured on a wall mural in the new Parliament building, as tweeted by Pralhad Joshi. But the mere mention of Akhand Bharat raises hackles among our neighbours. Living together is all very well in principle, but living in Akhand Bharat under a regime operating out of Nagpur? No, thank you, say our near neighbours, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, though in not quite such polite language.

So, unless you have any fresh ideas for a name, we seem stuck with Bharat as the only candidate left in the field.

But hang on a moment. India was always Bharat. It says so in the Constitution. “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”. That is Article 1 (1) of the Constitution. It can’t get any more in your face. In the very first 10 words of the Constitution, just after the Preamble, it lays it out clear as daylight. 

Growing up travelling on railways, India and Bharat always appeared as synonyms. Every railway goods wagon, passenger bogie, and locomotive had the words ‘Indian Railways’ stencilled on its side in black paint; adjacent were the words Bharatiya Rail in the Devanagari script.

The Gazette of India that carries every important official government notification in English also comes in a Hindi version, where it is Bharat ka Rajpatra.

The Reserve Bank of India is known as Bharatiya Reserve Bank. The BBCI or Board of Control for Cricket in India is known to Hindi-speaking lovers of cricket as Bharatiya Cricket Control Board

A cheque drawn on the State Bank of India would be honoured by Bharatiya State Bank, not because it had a reciprocal arrangement as a correspondent bank, but quite simply because it was the same organisation. 

Everywhere you go in the land, India becomes Bharat and Indian becomes Bharatiya, just as Egypt becomes Misr, Greece becomes Yoonan, and Russia becomes Roos.

This brings me to the central point that India was always, and will always be, Bharat. The controversy and the ensuing debate about a change of name from what it was and is, to precisely what it is and will be, is as silly and pointless – as it is manufactured and unnecessary. 

We do not need self-proclaimed historian Sanjeev Sanyal to cite vedic references to justify the name Bharat for India. Most Indians neither heard about, nor cared for these elaborate Vedic references, they simply accepted Bharat for what it was, a synonym for India. 

We neither needed nor deserved a “debate” between Sanjeev Sanyal and  Devdutt Pattanaik that presented it as a binary choice. The vast majority of Indians could not care less about the arguments one way or the other; they quite sensibly saw it as a non-issue.

The vast majority of Bharatiya people were and remain quite comfortable using both India and Bharat interchangeably depending on the language and the context. It is doubly unfortunate that once again this needless controversy is seen in terms of a political tussle between Modi, BJP and the RSS on the one hand and Congress and the opposition on the other. 

Vir Sanghvi’s article in The Print rightly points out the irony that Rahul Gandhi thought it fit to go on a hugely successful Bharat Jodo Yatra, while it was Modi who had coined the Make in India slogan.

India, that is Bharat, has grown weary of the many instances in the last few years when the names of cities, buildings, and institutions were changed to reflect the ideological bent of the incumbent government and its regressive fixation with ancient Indic thinking. Most of those name-change controversies have been driven by a sense of perceived historical injustice – targeting either Mughal, British, or Nehruvian legacies. In all those cases the name change reflected the insecurities experienced by the government. A ruling dispensation that was comfortable in its own strengths and convictions would not have expended energy on substituting cosmetic nominal revisionism for real progress. 

The tragedy of the latest controversy about Bharat or India lies as much in the futility of it all as in the fact that it pits Bharatiya people against other Bharatiya people; or if you prefer, Indians against other Indians.

Foreigners (see here, here, and here) must be really bemused. Or should they be confused?  

The writer is an independent public health physician and epidemiologist, and a visiting professor of public health at Staffordshire University.

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article image‘Debate involves 2 living persons’: After backlash, India Today changes Pattanaik vs Sanyal show

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