Are names of all countries proper nouns that should be the same in all languages? This is certainly not true for all countries. Germany is known as Deutschland by all German language speakers. It is also called Allemagne in French, Alemania in Spanish and Arabic, Tyskland in Danish and Saska in Finnish. It probably has a dozen names in a dozen languages. Hungary is known as Magyarország by Hungarians, Ungarn by Germans and Magyarestan by Persian speakers. The country we know as China in English, Cheen in Hindi, Kitay in Russian, is called Zhōngguó by the Chinese people. The country we know as Japan is called Nippon by the Japanese. The list of such countries is long.
Yet, the people or governments of none of these ancient countries have complained that their names in other languages are an imposition or are a sign of colonisation. If you look at a German government document or website in the English language, the country is called Germany, just as Bharat is called India in any English language document. The point I am trying to make is that having different names in different languages is not limited to India, and this is neither a sign of colonisation nor something to be bemoaned.
Why are some Indians being small-minded about this? Names of countries with ancient civilisations have become parts of various languages over the millennia. They are not subject to limitations as ordinary proper nouns. India belongs to this select group of countries with a long history. We are called Bharat in Hindi and many Indian languages, Hindustan in Urdu and Persian, Alhind in Arabic, Inde in French, Indien in German, Yindu in Chinese, and India in English. This should be considered a privilege, one not available to newer country names like Pakistan or Bangladesh, which do not have a lot of history behind them. Therefore, the Hindutva brigade’s apparent push to limit the country’s official name to Bharat seems illogical.
Yes, countries like Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka did change their countries’ names from their colonial designations, but India has no reasons to follow suit. So many things are not clear about the name change yet. While the seeds of an official name change were sown in September 2023 during the G20 summit in India, it looks like the frenzy at the official level has mostly died down. That is not to assume the backdoor strategy has also died down. It is hard to tell when the next shoe will suddenly drop.
In the meantime, jingoistic cricket fans are proactively using the name Bharat instead of India in their slogans and chants. What is also not clear is if the government will force the name Bharat on speakers of other languages, which have their own names for India. At best, this seems to be a narrow-minded move, and at worst, a diabolical one.
The argument that the name India was coined by British colonisers is a misinformed argument that has been debunked repeatedly. Historians have noted that the name India is thousands of years old and is linked to the Indus river, which was home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations. The word India comes from the Indus, called Sindhu in Sanskrit. Iranians and Greeks, who came through the northwest about 2,500 years ago and were familiar with the Indus, called it the Hindus or the Indos, and the land to the east of the river was called India.
The term ‘India’ was not “used by the British after Independence”, as some people have been convinced into thinking. In fact, various legislations made by the British Parliament in the 19th and 20th centuries, prior to Independence, have used the term ‘India’. The term ‘Indian’ was even exported to the Americas as early as in the 15th century AD as the name for indigenous populations because Christopher Columbus mistakenly thought he had reached India, when he had actually reached the American continent. If anything, there should be an effort to reclaim the name India from its inappropriate use in the American context. The name “India” carries a strong global identity, and the country has built a reputation on this name over centuries. Renaming would require extensive rebranding efforts, and there’s no guarantee that the new name would resonate with the international community as well as the old one does. This could potentially harm India’s standing in the global arena.
India has a long and diverse history that spans thousands of years. The name “India” is deeply rooted in this history and has been used internationally for centuries. Renaming the country would create confusion and disrupt historical continuity. It would require massive adjustments in official documents, maps and international treaties, which could lead to diplomatic complications and logistical nightmares. Then there is the question of every English speaker butchering the name of our country when they try to pronounce Bharat. When I listened to Steve Inskeep of America’s public broadcaster NPR reporting on the news of India’s renaming efforts in early September, his pronunciation of “Bharat” was cringe-worthy. In his interview with The Hindu’s Suhasini Haider, Inskeep pronounced it more like “burret”, and Haider made no effort to correct him. I’m sure other people will pronounce it like baraat, baaraat, and every incorrect way possible. Due to identical spellings, it will be hard to explain the difference between pronunciations of names of Bharat the country and Bharat the Ramayana king whose name is the basis for the country’s name in Sanskrit.
Without context, even Indians may pronounce the word wrong. Now, do Indians as a whole, apart from Hindutva proponents, want the change? One of my good friends, a proponent of the change, argues that no matter what other people call you, no matter how other people will pronounce your name, you should insist on being called by your own name and must not change your name to suit others. The fallacy of this argument is that we don’t know if our country wants to be renamed. We already use the name Bharat in Hindi and other Indian languages, so why does it matter that it is called India in English and other names in other languages?
Is this movement just a brainchild of the BJP or is it a widespread movement? Has a referendum or opinion poll been conducted to see what the Indian people want, or is this being imposed by people with an agenda? Advocates for the name change often argue that it’s a symbolic gesture towards embracing Indian culture and heritage. However, symbolism alone cannot address the myriad challenges India faces, such as poverty, corruption and environmental issues. Focusing on substantive policy changes and reforms should take precedence over symbolic gestures. The debate over changing the name of the country can divert attention and resources away from more pressing issues.
In a nation as diverse and complex as India, there are numerous challenges that require immediate attention and resources. Renaming the country could divert these valuable resources from critical areas of development and progress. While the proposal to change India’s name to Bharat may have noble intentions of celebrating cultural heritage, it is a bad idea due to the historical, linguistic, administrative and legal challenges it poses. Rather than focusing on symbolic gestures, India should prioritise substantive policy changes and reforms that can lead to a better future for all its citizens. Last but not the least, ‘India’ and other names for our country have become part of poetry, slogans and folklore even more than ‘Bharat’ has. For example, sare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara. Don’t take that Hindustan away from us. Bollywood movies have coined slogans like “I love my India” and “Mother India”. Don’t take that India away from us.
(Views expressed are personal)
Raman Kaul is a Philadelphia-based blogger