Bharat or India? A floundering government relies on distraction and noise

While Article 1 of the Constitution mentions both ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’, the latter has acquired a political color in recent times

By Ashraf Engineer  Published on  8 Sep 2023 4:47 AM GMT
Bharat or India? A floundering government relies on distraction and noise

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Hyderabad: Let’s call out the shift to ‘Bharat’ from ‘India’ for what it is – a political gimmick in the run-up to a general election and the reaction of a government rattled by Opposition unity. The acronym the Opposition grouping chose – INDIA –was a branding masterstroke and so it had to be countered. As for the distraction, it was badly needed at a time when prices and unemployment are both soaring, women’s labor force participation is plummeting, Manipur is in the midst of an ethnic storm, caste conflict is on the rise, societal divisions are deepening, Centre-state relations are at rock-bottom… The list is seemingly endless.

The first indication that the government would start using ‘Bharat’ instead of ‘India’ came in the form of an invite for a dinner at the G20 Summit in New Delhi that referred to Droupadi Murmu as ‘President of Bharat’. It seemed to be the latest ‘nationalist’ push to shift attention away from the Centre’s lack of answers to the nation’s greatest challenges.

The timing is significant too. The invite was issued days after Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said that ‘Bharat’ shoulder place ‘India’.On the face of it, it’s a call to shed a colonial name – which it isn’t, but more on that later – but deeply hypocritical when looked at closer. The RSS has been accused of colluding with the British during the Raj and the national flag was not hoisted at its headquarters till 2002.

Revisionism as a political strategy

While Article 1 of the Constitution mentions both ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’, the latter has acquired a political color in recent times. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says ‘Bharat’ is accepted as an alternative to ‘India’ while others say it is used as a reminder of an exclusively Hindu past, thus leaving out minorities – especially Muslims.

The shift in nomenclature is in step with the BJP’s affinity for revisionism, which has spanned the renaming of roads and cities to the changing of school syllabi to exclude Mughal history. The impulse to erase colonial symbols and names is not exclusive to the BJP, of course. Various governments have done it but it seems to have taken on new vigor under Modi. The construction of a new Parliament building, too, can be seen in this context.

The BJP government at the Centre and in various states has changed Islamic names, such as Allahabad to Prayagraj – yet another way to assert Hindu supremacy.

While there was no official announcement of a change in the country’s name at the time of writing, what’s emerging strongly as a possible reason is the government’s unease at growing Opposition unity under the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, umbrella.

If India were to change its name officially, how would it be done under the law? There is ambivalence among the legal fraternity on whether a Constitutional amendment is needed.

While some lawyers believe that, since ‘Bharat’ is already in the Constitution, no amendment is required if it is used interchangeably with ‘India’. It is needed only if the government insists on the use of ‘Bharat’ exclusively.

Others say the country is officially the ‘Republic of India’ and even the G-20 Presidency is officially the ‘Indian Presidency’. Therefore, any change of name would require a Constitutional amendment through a Bill introduced in Parliament. This could be why we’re having a special session from September 18

Bharat, ek khoj

So, where does the name ‘Bharat’ come from?

It is Sanskrit, originating from the Puranas which describe ‘Bharata’ as the land between the “sea in the south and the abode of snow in the north”.

‘Bharata’ is also the name of a legendary ancient king, ancestor of the Rig Vedic tribe of the Bharatas and by extension the progenitor of all peoples of the subcontinent.

‘Hindustan’, too, is a popular term and it means ‘land of the Indus’ in Persian. It was commonly used during the Mughal era and is preferred by the Hindu right-wing. Unlike ‘Bharat, however, it is not recognized by the Constitution. ‘Hindustan’ is thought to come from ‘Hindu’, Persian for the Sanskrit ‘Sindhu’ (Indus). It began to be used after the Achaemenid Persian conquest of the Indus Valley in the 6th century BC as a reference to the lower Indus basin. Later, around the first century of the Christian era, ‘stan’ was used as a suffix to create ‘Hindustan’.

The Greeks, who came to know of ‘Hind’ from the Achaemenids, transliterated the name as ‘Indus’. By the time Alexander came to India in the 3rd century BC, ‘India’ was commonly used to refer to the region beyond the Indus.

From the late 18th century, British maps began to use ‘India’, edging out ‘Hindustan’. It is believed that the name was adopted to create an understanding of the subcontinent as a single, contiguous British territory.

Two chief justices, two approaches

Interestingly, two chief justices of India have in the past dealt with demands to change the country’s name to ‘Bharat’. Each had a starkly different reaction.

In March 2016, Chief Justice TS Thakur told activist Niranjan Bhatwal that no authority, state, or court could dictate what we can call our country.“If you want to call this country ‘Bharat’, go right ahead and call it ‘Bharat’. If somebody chooses to call this country ‘India’, let him call it ‘India’. We will not interfere,” Chief Justice Thakur had said.

Bhatwal had approached the court seeking clarity on Article 1, which said: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” He said history and the scriptures referred to the country as ‘Bharata’. Bhatwal said ‘India’ was a term coined by the British. The petition said the Constituent Assembly had debated many names and ‘India’ was chosen for the limited purpose of recognition by other countries.

A nearly identical petition came up before then Chief Justice of India SA Bobde in June 2020. The petitioner wanted ‘India’ to be struck off Article 1. Chief Justice Bobde pointed out: “’ Bharat’ and ‘India’ are both names given in the Constitution. India is already called ‘Bharat’ in the Constitution.” While he did not entertain the petition, he suggested that the petition be turned into a representation to the Centre, suggesting some sympathy for the demand.

Governing a country is about more than symbolic acts. It’s about concrete action that makes a real difference to people. It doesn’t matter whether that happens in ‘Bharat’ or ‘India’. But, in the absence of real performance, a floundering government must rely on distraction and noise.

Ashraf Engineer has been a journalist for almost three decades, leading newsrooms and initiatives across print, digital, and audio. He is the founder of the All Indians Matter platform, a home for conversations with and about India on issues that matter, and the host of the podcast by the same name.

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