The return of the past and redemption
Though there is no confirmation that ‘India’ is being officially changed to ‘Bharat’, invitations to the illustrious G-20 delegates came from the ‘Prime Minister of Bharat’ and ‘President of Bharat'.
India is having a Bharat moment. Last week, the venerable Mohan Bhagwat asked citizens to stop saying “India”—which he believes is an English word—and replace it with “Bharat”. An enthusiastic BJP MP followed by explaining that ‘India’ was a gaali (swear word). Though there is no confirmation that ‘India’ is being officially changed to ‘Bharat’, invitations to the illustrious G-20 delegates came from ‘the Prime Minister of Bharat’ and ‘the President of Bharat’. Is this the indication of a related surprise that awaits the special session of Parliament next week? After all, President Erdogan renamed Turkey as Türkiye last year. In 2016, the Czech Republic became Czechia. In 1972, Ceylon officially became Sri Lanka. Ideologues who revile the word ‘India’ as a colonial slur on our magnificent culture, however, may not know that the name is over 5,000 years old, when the British were just a collection of Neolithic islanders. The English language didn’t even exist. So much for language imperialism.
Ironically, it wasn’t Modi’s BJP that proposed the rechristening of India as Bharat. On April 9, 2004, Mulayalam Singh passed a resolution in the UP Assembly to amend the Constitution and change the country’s name to ‘Bharat’. Yes, India is an exonym, a foreign-origin word given by outsiders. Around 5,000 years ago, when pre-Roman barbarians who lived in the country now known as the United Kingdom squabbled in versions of Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and Pictish tongues, India had a sophisticated culture flourishing on the banks of the Sindhu River—the Indus Valley Civilisation. Its prosperous merchants traded with neighbouring pre-Islamic Afghanistan and Persia. Afghanistan was Hindu then.
Persia, now Iran, was Zoroastrian. ‘India’ is derived from ‘Sindhu’—since the Arabs and Persians couldn’t pronounce the syllable ‘s’, they substituted it with ‘h’ and the land of Sindhu became Hindu. Ancient Greek historian and diplomat Megasthenes wrote in 300 BC, “India then being four-sided in plan, the side which looks to the Orient and that to the South, the Great Sea compasseth; that towards the Arctic is divided by the mountain chain of Hemodus.” The word even appears in an inscription dated 528 BC at Persepolis in Iran, which was once the capital of Darius 1.
The Byzantines were familiar with India. Alexander knew about North India as a territory that reached up to the Ganges delta. Fa-Hien, the first Chinese traveller to visit India, described its geography as triangular; broad in the north and narrow in the south—proof of a cohesive India in the 4th century. Historians believe the word Bharat (Bharata in Sanskrit) appeared much later, around 2,000 years ago, making its debut in the Puranas and known as Bharatavarsha in the Mahabharata.
The gestalt demands fundamental changes when societies deviate sharply from their previous ethos. It is happening in India today. Perhaps the Constitution will be amended to reflect the times if Modi wrests a majority for the BJP in 2024. It would, however, be apt to change the Constitution’s preamble to ‘Bharat that is India’ to keep this ancient land’s past, present and future intact. ‘Saare jahaan se accha, Hindustan hamara’ is still the anthem of the soul of India or Bharat. Gentle reader, I leave the choice of the name to you.