There is an incipient demand from an academic organisation that is closely linked to the far right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to change the name of India to “Bharat”. According to media reports, Atul Kothari, general secretary of the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, an activist organisation founded by the controversial right wing former teacher Dina Nath Batra, says it is anomalous that the country goes by three names—India in English; Bharat in Hindi; and Hindustan in Urdu. Kothari’s logic, as reported in the media, rests on the belief that a country should go by one name and not different ones in different languages.
Changing the names of cities, states, streets, roads, monuments, and buildings, has been common practice in India since Independence in 1947. Successive governments in the respective states have changed anglicised city names such as Calcutta, Bombay, Bangalore, and Madras, among several others. Some changes were driven by ease of pronouncing it in the regional language: such as Mumbai in Marathi or Kolkata in Bengali.
In some instances, the change was inexplicable–as in the case of Madras. In 1996, the then DMK government in Tamil Nadu decided to change the name of the state’s capital to Chennai in order to get rid of an ostensibly British legacy. There were two problems with that logic—first, the name Madras had been in existence before the British came to India and one theory is that it may have originated from the name of a small fishing village called Madraspattinam; and, second, the name Chennai derives, not from Tamil, the regional language of the state, but from Telugu, the regional language of the adjoining states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.
There are a few reasons why governments—at the states or at the national level—decide to change names of cities, places, and so on. Chiefly it is when they want them to no longer hark back to earlier eras—particularly, as in India, during a period when the country was under foreign rule. And often it is patriotism or nationalism that drives the urge to rename. There’s nothing really wrong with that but the problem is that once in a while it becomes self-defeating.
Consider Kolkata’s (or erstwhile Calcutta’s) central business district and also the seat of the state government’s power, the erstwhile Dalhousie Square, originally named after a British governor general of India, Lord Dalhousie. Several decades ago, the government decided to change its name to Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh, after three young freedom fighters of the 1930s. For all its good intentions, no one ever refers to the square by its full name: it is known as BBD Bagh, sadly abbreviating down to three initials the names of three brave young men. If it was the intention to remember them by the renaming of the square, it doesn’t really do so.
But new names don’t have to be short to remain unused. Central Delhi’s historic Connaught Place was renamed Rajiv Chowk after India’s former Prime Minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi. It is rarely referred to by its new name; most people opt to call it by what the British named it in honour of the Duke of Connaught. More recently, the National Capital Region’s booming city, Gurgaon in Haryana, was renamed Gurugram to invoke Mahabharata’s Guru Dronacharya but the new name is yet to come into vogue and many consider it alien to the Haryanvi dialect.
Name changes aren’t exclusively an Indian penchant. Some years ago, Burma changed its name to Myanmar. In Russia, after the October Revolution of 1917, the names of a very high number of cities and towns got changed in order to efface memories of Czarist regimes. But again, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, another wave of renaming happened—many of the new names being the erstwhile ones being brought back!
This brings us back to Mr Kothari and his organisation’s demand for a new name for India. Such a demand must be viewed against the backdrop of a resurgence of the clamour for new names for cities, airports and other public places since 2014 when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed India’s national government. There is a perceptible (and quite overt) pattern in the type of renaming that has been underway. A few months back, the historic Mughalsarai Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh was renamed after the late RSS thinker Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Another UP city, Allahabad, is to be renamed Prayagraj; and there is a demand for several more towns, airports and public facilities, mainly in north India, to be renamed either after Hindu ideologues or religious figures.
The demand for having a single name, Bharat, for India based on the argument that it is the appropriate name in Hindi is flawed on many counts. First, why choose a Hindi name? India’s Constitution recognises 22 languages, several of which have different roots, and, therefore, words, to describe the same thing. Would Bharat be acceptable in Indian languages that are not relatable to Hindi? Second, what is the problem with different names—in English and in Indian languages—for the same country? In continental Europe, nearly every country has a different name in the national language than what it is called in English (Germany in English is Deutschland in German; Hungary is Magyarország; Finland is Suomi; Sweden is Sverige; Spain is España; and so on). And there’s little evidence to show that national pride or patriotism has suffered because of that.
The other problem is that unlike some of these smaller countries, India is a far more populous and complex agglomeration of cultures, languages and religions. The English name for it has, for all practical purposes, been consensually accepted by nearly everyone. In fact, Bharat and India are used interchangeably in official as well as unofficial contexts, depending on which language is being used for the purpose.
Finally, can changing names change the history of a country, a city, a town or a monument? If a Delhi street named after a Mughal emperor is changed and it is renamed after a supportive former Indian President (Aurangzeb Road is now known as Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Marg) , does that wipe away from history the fact that large parts of India were under Mughal reign from 1526 to 1857?