‘What’s in a name?’ is perhaps not the question the Indian navy would like to be asked when it is grappling with the death and devastation on INS Sindhurakshak. But once the pain wears off and when the significance of the week gone by sinks in—when INS Arihant, an indigenously developed nuclear submarine, achieved ‘criticality’ and INS Vikrant, the indigenously developed aircraft carrier, was launched—a question well worth asking is: what kind of signal does this secular republic send when most of its naval vessels, whether they are developed in India or acquired from elsewhere, are given mostly Sanskrit names, often picked up from Hindu mythology?
From 1948 onwards, India had formulated its own policy of naming new naval vessels. They were to be given Indian-origin names. Accordingly, the light fleet was named after mountains or their peaks, cruisers after national capitals and major Indian cities, destroyers in a manner so that each flotilla would have the same initials, aircraft frigates after rivers, anti-submarine frigates after Indian weapons, submarines after various species of fish and minesweepers after Indian states.
Arihant, Vikrant and Sindhurakshak are names taken from Sanskrit and belong to a pattern the Indian navy has been following for some years now. Here are the names of some of its other vessels—Chakra, Vikramaditya, Sindhughosh, Sindhudhvaj, Shankul, Shalki, Shankush, Shivalik, Airavat, Trishul, Nirbhik, Vinash, Prabal and Pralaya—all are Sanskrit; quite a few are taken from Hindu mythology. The practice also extends to the other wings of the armed forces—the army and air force. Our missiles have names like Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Trishul and Nag; our main battle tank is called Arjun and our multi-role jet fighter is named Tejas.
Do names with Indian origin mean only those with Sanskrit provenance, or those part of Hindu mythology? Or more importantly, while giving such names, what is the target audience we have in mind? Are they meant for people inside the country or are we trying to send out a strong signal to those across the border?
Different countries have their own sets of guidelines for naming ships, naval vessels and crafts. At times they come from mythology, at other times, names of national heroes and historical places and events are celebrated through such names. But more often than not, a secular democracy is also aware of how such names will be perceived not only within but also outside the country.
The US has had a system from 1819 by which naming of such vessels is left to its defence secretary, who in turn follows a protocol whereby cruisers are named after battles, attack submarines for US cities and destroyers after naval and marine heroes. The British naval fleet, depleted significantly over the years, even had ships and crafts with names like HMS Flirt, HMS Blonde and HMS Dapper, apart from carrying names of major cities, ports, battles and royalty. But if you are looking at diverse names, look at the French navy, which has even named one of its vessels Venus, after the Roman goddess of love.
One of the countries where this pattern is not followed is Pakistan. It was a country formed on the basis of religion. In the past six decades Pakistan has hardly missed any opportunity to showcase its Islamic identity, particularly when it comes to naming armaments after Muslim invaders of India. But while doing so, it has often overlooked the fact that these invaders not only tormented and brutalised Hindus, but also large numbers of Muslims in India, often at times when the country was under Muslim rule.
But is India trying to become a mirror image of Pakistan? Why is it not moving away from a narrow interpretation of looking at things Indian through the narrow prism of Sanskrit and Hindu mythology? India may well be a Hindu majority country, but we proclaim in our Constitution that it is a secular nation. There is no denying that Sanskrit has been the parent language of many of the tongues that we speak. But that is half the story. Many of our languages originated and developed beyond the pale of Sanskrit. Many different cultures and religions made significant contributions to the making of modern, secular India. Let us consider why we should not celebrate the achievements of our scientists, scholars and entrepreneurs by using all the other influences that shaped us. Let us move away from this obsession that we have developed about Sanskrit. Perhaps, the time has come for the next indigenously developed Indian aircraft carrier or a naval vessel to be named from a pool that is much deeper and wider, and truly celebrates the diversity of secular India.