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  India is eternal by any name

India is eternal by any name

Published : Mar 14, 2016, 11:26 pm IST
Updated : Mar 14, 2016, 11:26 pm IST

Given the mood of the times, it should not be surprising if someone accuses Justice T.S. Thakur, the Chief Justice of India, and his colleague on the Supreme Court bench, Justice U.U.

Given the mood of the times, it should not be surprising if someone accuses Justice T.S. Thakur, the Chief Justice of India, and his colleague on the Supreme Court bench, Justice U.U. Lalit, of lacking in patriotism for rejecting even to consider a plea that India should be called Bharat for all “official and unofficial purposes”. Events like the mammoth festival that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed as a “Kumbh Mela of art and culture” confirm the upsurge of chauvinism in which religion and nationalism blend as in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel Anandamath which was set against the background of the Sannyasi Rebellion in late 18th century Bengal.

Whatever its emotional appeal, Bharat cannot be the country’s official name for the same reason that Vande Mataram, which was first published in Anandamath, cannot be the national anthem.

Multicultural, multireligious, multilingual India demands that the symbols of state should bring closer together the many strands that enrich our composite nationhood and not drive them farther apart. This doesn’t mean placating any minority group. But the “cooperative federalism” Mr Modi talks about calls for a national framework in which every community can comfortably subsume its parochial identity in the national label. That is what Jawaharlal Nehru meant by unity in diversity.

I happened to be in Jamshedpur 50 years ago when a Bihari politician asked Gen. Shiv Verma, who had joined the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company after retirement, how many Biharis Telco employed. As I reported at the time, Verma replied with a flick of the snowy handkerchief always tucked into his jacket sleeve, “I wouldn’t know, sir, but I always make a point of employing only Indians!” That pride hasn’t evaporated. It surfaced again recently when Salman Khan was asked his caste. He replied he was a “human being and an Indian”.

Yes, some might see it as a handicap that India doesn’t have an authentic indigenous name that applies to the entire country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from the borders of Myanmar to Punjab. But neither of the two alternatives, “Bharatvarsha” and “Hindustan”, preferred by the Hindutva lobby is sufficiently inclusive either demographically or geographically. The ancient Hindu text, Manusmriti, uses the term “Aryavarta” but that, too, is racially and territorially limited. India is the only description that neutrally covers the entire country and all its people. In fact, it’s a Pakistani grievance that it covers too much, since it also refers to the whole of the subcontinent the British ruled.

That was why Ian Stephens, editor of the Statesman at the time of Partition, had the bright idea of replacing British India with “Delkaria”, a coinage combining portions of the names of the then capital cities (Delhi and Karachi) of the two new dominions. Mercifully, it was laughed out of court like the Bharatiya Janata Party’s more recent suggestion that irrespective of religion, all Indians should be known as “Hindus”.

The word “India” has been around long enough to cause no discomfort to anyone except, perhaps, a few insecure Pakistani bigots. The ancient Persians may have derived it from the name of the Sindhu (Indus) river but it became better known internationally through the writings of the 4th century BC Greek historian Herodotus. It doesn’t prevent us from saying Bharat or Hindustan when speaking in any of the native languages. It also allows Tamil, Telugu, Malayali and Karnataka speakers to use the term India.

Ours isn’t the only country with more than one name. The Netherlands is a synonym for Holland. Germany boasts four names — Allemagne, Deutschland, Saksa, Tyskland and Niemcy. China is the English for Zhongguo, just as Japan is English for Nippon. The Dutch and Germans are unruffled by multiple descriptions. The Chinese and Japanese don’t get paranoiac about how the English describe them because they are confident enough and pragmatic enough to recognise that what a country does for its people is more important than what it is called.

This isn’t the first time the matter has been brought up in India. The wave of nationalism that produced Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, etc., will no doubt suggest other alternatives to India as time goes by. All Supreme Court judges may not be as firmly rational as the present lot. A later bench might share the sentiments of those who want change. This is the worrying aspect of the current drift. India is eternal by any name. But the agencies within the country that shape thinking and affect life in many ways either take their cue from the ruling coterie or reflect its prejudices.

As a result, our horizons are shrinking. The recent attack on a church in Raipur couldn’t have taken place earlier for two reasons. First, all places of worship (Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or Hindu) enjoyed the protection of governments that were bound by the rule of law. Second, even those Indians who were disposed to attack them knew that lawlessness would quickly be punished.

Protection and punishment are today vanishing concepts in this context. Any divergence from what can only be called the lowest common level of the majority point of view is at once dubbed anti-national and seditious. For instance, the devout are told — and believe — that an enormous footprint in the modern cement paving outside the Jakhoo temple above Simla was left by Rama himself.

As for public taste, Outlook magazine reported in May 2008 that hundreds of historic gurdwaras were being demolished and replaced by new “garish, opulent, marble gurdwaras”. This is not the National Democratic Alliance government’s doing, but through its acts of omission and its patronage of mega melas, the NDA seems to encourage every regressive instinct in the Indian psyche.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author