Bharat, Hindustaan and India

Salil Saroj, New Delhi

e.mail id:

The politics of naming is part of the social production of the nation. Its processes are shaped by broad socio-political conditions and can be studied from several angles. In the 19th century the name Bhārata was used to refer to the geographical, political and administrative entity that the colonial power called ‘India’. The evidence presented shows that it was the Puranic memory of a naturally bounded (sea, mountains) and specifically socially organized territory where human beings could fulfill the specific sets of socio religious duties required to maintain their cultural identity. That Bhārata—a cultural space whose unity was to be found in the social order of dharma—was a pre-national construction and not a national project. At the time of independence, India and Bhārata were equally worthy candidates to baptize the newly-born nation, along with ‘Hindustan’. But the opening article of the Constitution discarded Hindustan and registered the
nation under a dual and bilingual identity: ‘India, that is Bharat’. One name was to be used as the equivalent or the translation of the other as exemplified on the cover of the national passport, where the English ‘Republic of India’ corresponds to the Hindi ‘Bhārata gaṇarājya’, or, perhaps even more telling, on India postage stamps, where the two words Bhārata and India are collocated. The name Hindustan has continued to be widely used in spite of, or may be thanks to, its plurality of meanings and the implication of the equivalence of Bharat with India has remained a subject of debate. It is likely that all these names will continue to be interpreted to fit new circumstances, to give new meanings to India’s national identity, an ongoing, open-ended process.

Manu Goswami, Associate Professor of History, New York University has written eloquently on the conditions that allowed the emergence of new ways of viewing Indian past and has shown how the old Puranic conception of Bhārata acquired a new meaning for the Hindu intelligentsia during the colonial period. Whereas Bhārata was conceived as a social order, a space where specific social relations and shared notions of a moral order prevailed, (British) India referred to a political order, to a bounded territory placed under the control of a single centralized power structure and an authoritarian system of governance. By the mid-nineteenth century what educated Hindus called ‘Bharat’ was the territory mapped and organized by the British under the name ‘India’. The old and native name Bhārata became a workable concept for the national cause despite the forcefulness with which the British conception of ‘India’—and all it entailed in terms of spatial and political unity—was propagated and imposed. Now the reason why it retained its prestige for the educated Hindus is not only to be found in the uninterrupted transmission of the Puranic conception within their class. It is also due to the fact that from the mid-nineteenth century Orientalists gave ‘Bhārata’ a very special place in their discourse.

Supported from all sides as it was, then, not only had the old name Bhārata not fallen into oblivion, but it had been invested with a new meaning and was ready to serve the emerging country. But Hindustan remained a worthy candidate for the same cause, as, among other reasons, it could claim a political career that was associated with the Moghul Empire and therefore predated the colonial period. It is noteworthy that although Bipin Chandra Pal somehow described Hindustan as ‘foreign’, he was keen to draw the attention of his young correspondent to the contribution of the Moghuls to the development of an Indian consciousness. It was during Moghul rule rather than during British rule, at a time when India was called Hindustan, that political unity had been achieved and added to the already existing cultural unity of Bhārata, allowing Indians to develop a complete sense of belonging together, irrespective of their religions.

In 1904 when he penned his famous patriotic poem in Urdu Hamārā deśa, ‘Our country’, Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938) also associated Hindustan with Indians at large and with a
composite religious culture:

Sare jahāṃ se acchā Hindustāṃ hamārā
Ham bulbuleṃ haiṃ us kī, yi gulistāṃ hamārā

The sense of belonging to a country (vaṭan) here overrides other loyalties. It is with this nationalist understanding of Hindustan that Iqbal’s song, which became immediately popular in anti-British rallies, was solemnly chanted on 15 August 1947, the day of the proclamation of India’s independence, along with Jana Gana Mana, composed by Rabindranath Tagore. Iqbal’s song is still widely sung in India today.

On 14 August 1947 at midnight, India became independent. Two weeks later, on 29 August 1947, the Constituent Assembly, that had been meeting since December 1946, set up a Drafting Committee under the Chairmanship of B.R. Ambedkar. From February 1948 to November 1949, the members of the Constituent Assembly examined the draft, moving and discussing in the process almost 2,500 amendments. On 26 November 1949, they finally adopted the Constitution of India and signed it on 24 January 1950. On 26 January 1950, the Constitution of India officially came into force, and the Constituent Assembly became the Provisional Parliament of India until the first general elections of 1952. As we know, the Constitution was drafted under the extremely difficult circumstances of the immediate post-partition period, just two years after horrendous chaos and bloodshed. It was a time, then, when the unity and stability of the new born country were in doubt. Was it because it was linked to its identity or for another reason that the question of its naming is found to have come relatively late in the long process of the adoption of the Constitution? Whatever the case, the section ‘Name and territory of the Union’ was examined only on 17 September 1949. The very touchy nature of its first article was immediately perceptible. It read: ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States’.