What's In A Name: The Strange Process By Which The Subcontinent's Two Large Countries Came To Be Known As ...

What's In A Name: The Strange Process By Which The Subcontinent's Two Large Countries Came To Be Known As India And Pakistan
In August 1947, British India was partitioned into the dominions of India and Pakistan. The western half of Pakistan comprised of the Indus River Valley, a more-than-five-thousand-year-old cradle of human civilisation. But the name ‘Pakistan’ was only a recent invention. Why did an ancient civilisation have to invent a new name? After all, this region must have had a name. For two thousand years from the 4th to 2nd millennium BC, modern-day Pakistan was the centre of a great civilisation known today as the Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization, as attested by the ruins of the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. These people not only built well-planned cities but also traded widely, especially with the equally fabulous cities of Mesopotamia (Iraq) towards their west. By the start of 2nd millennium BC, the Indus Valley Civilisation was in decline, possibly due to climate change. The great cities were abandoned, and the people dispersed into small communities. Soon, all knowledge of their splendour was lost.

The Harappans had a written script, which unfortunately is yet to be deciphered. However, their Mesopotamian trading partners, who had invented writing, were frenetic recorders. They wrote in their cuneiform script on baked clay tablets, which have survived in their thousands and can be read today. While we do not know what the Harappans called themselves, the Mesopotamians referred to them as ‘Meluhhans’ and their homeland in the Indus Valley as ‘Meluhha’ or ‘Melukhkha. After the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation, trade with Mesopotamia came to an end and the name Meluhha/Melukhkha disappeared from historical records.

Akkadian cylinder seal with inscription: 'Shu-ilishu, interpreter of the Meluhhan language' - at the Louvre Museum, Paris, France

Yet it is conceivable that the name has survived to this day in another form. While the cities of the Indus Valley were being abandoned, another civilization was taking root in the Ganges Valley towards their east, which over the next centuries, would lay the foundations of Brahmanism based on a rigid caste system. It has been suggested that the Sanskrit word ‘Mleccha’ is none other than ‘Meluhha’. The term initially meant ‘foreigner’ but soon came to signify a barbarian or a person with ‘no caste.’ Evidently, the two peoples did not get along even then. Later, it became even more pejorative and was used mostly for Muslims and other ‘undesirable’ castes.

In the 6th century BC, the Persians conquered a vast empire stretching to Egypt and Turkey. In 535 BC, they arrived in the Indus Valley. They must have been awestruck when they laid their eyes on the mighty Indus. The local inhabitants identified the river and its land as ‘Sindhu’. In Old Persian, the initial letter ‘s’ of a word was usually rendered as an aspirate ‘h’. Thus ‘Sindhu’ in Sanskrit became ‘Hindu’ in Persian, while the land around it was called ‘Hindush’ or ‘Hind’. Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great arrived in the Indus Valley after conquering the Persian Empire. The Greeks dropped an aspirate of their own and pronounced ‘Hindu’ (Sindhu) as ‘Indos’ and called the area ‘Indica’. When the Greek texts were later translated into Latin, ‘Indos’ was Latinised into ‘Indus’ and ‘Indica’ into ‘India.’ And this is the name by which the rest of Europe came to recognise the Subcontinent.
The reason that there was no indigenous name for India was because it was a Subcontinent, which for most of its history had been divided into numerous states

In 224 AD, a new dynasty arose in Persia called the Sassanians, who reconquered large parts of the Indus Valley. In the meantime, their language had evolved into what is now referred to as Middle Persian, which used the suffix ‘-stan’ to denote a region or country. Hence, ‘Hind’ became ‘Hindustan’, meaning ‘land of Hind’ or ‘land of Sindh.’ In 712 AD, the Arabs invaded the Indus Valley, this time from the sea. They stuck with the local name of Sindh but their conquests only extended to Multan. So now we had Sindh as in the present province of Sindh, and Hind; the lands beyond. Starting in 1001 AD, the Indus Valley experienced successive waves of invasions from Afghanistan by Turkic invaders. They, however, did not stop in the Indus Valley but went all the way to the Gangetic plains, which became the centre of a new Muslim empire. The name Hindustan now extended to the whole of the northern Subcontinent. And so it remained until the arrival of the British, seeking the riches of ‘India’. However, right till the end, the British continued to use both India and Hindustan for their South Asian conquest, although Hindustan at times referred only to the northern part of the country.

Archaeological ruins at Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan

This brings us back to the dawn of independence, when the Muslims of British India were seeking a separate country of their own. Allama Iqbal had proposed a new Muslim homeland in 1930 but no one had discussed a name for it. After all there weren’t many readily available names for it. India, which meant ‘land of the Indus’ was the logical candidate, but besides being of foreign origin, it had now come to denote the entire South Asian Subcontinent. The same was true for Hindustan, the land of Hind (Sindh). The term Sindh could have been a reasonable choice but for centuries now it was limited to a small region, and it might not have been acceptable to non-Sindhis. Enter Choudhary Rahmat Ali and his fellow firebrands. In 1933, Rahmat Ali, a young Muslim lawyer published a pamphlet in which he proposed the name ‘Pakistan’ based on an acronym denoting ‘P’ for Punjab, ‘A’ for Afghan Province (NWFP), ‘K’ for Kashmir, ‘S’ for Sindh and ‘-stan’ for Balochistan [5]. There was no ‘B’ for Bengal in the name as at that time Bengal was not a part of the proposed Pakistan. For an independent Bengal, Rahmat Ali later coined the name ‘Bangistan’. As Pakistan Movement gained momentum, this new name based on nationalist fantasies of a young man, fired the imagination of Muslims. Its appeal lay both in its sound as well as its literal meaning. The ‘-stan’ proclaimed its Islamic credentials, while ‘pak’, which means pure or clean was suitably worthy of Muslim sensibilities. A new Islamic name for a new Islamic state. There was no looking back. Even the Bengalis, who had no representation in the name were swept along in the excitement. So Pakistan it was that came into being in 1947, and almost 75 years later, Pakistan it remains. Pakistanis have embraced their new identity and appear to be quite happy with it. The only people, who might have had misgivings about the absent ‘B’ went their separate way in 1971, removing any discrepancies in Rahmat Ali’s acronym.

But what about our eastern neighbour, which also gained independence at the “stroke of midnight” on 14/15 August 1947, as the Dominion of India? They, too, after all were an old civilisation. And yet they were called ‘India’ meaning ‘land of the Indus’ – which, geographically speaking, was now Pakistan!

Choudhary Rahmat Ali

The reason that there was no indigenous name for India was because it was a Subcontinent, which for most of its history had been divided into numerous states. It was only under the Muslim and British rulers that it had emerged as a unified country. Hindu nationalists had never been comfortable with ‘India,’ which was a foreign name. Hindustan was an equally unacceptable alternative because of its association with the 800-year Muslim rule. As early as the 19th century, they had sought a suitably Hindu name for the country. One of the proposed Sanskritised names was ‘Hindusthana’ (land of the Hindus) but it did not gain any traction. A more popular alternative was ‘Bharat’ (from the idealised Bharatavarsha of Puranas) named after a mythical king from the Gangetic plain. However, right until 1947, all four names; India, Hindustan, Hind and Bharat were in common usage. But the country gained independence as India and not as Bharat or Hindustan. This was because Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, acceded to Jawaharlal Nehru’s demand that his new state would be called India.

When the Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah learnt about it, he “was absolutely furious.” He had believed that the name India would continue to refer to the whole Subcontinent and not a part of it. But there was nothing he could about it. Nehru had laid claim to the entire historical and cultural legacy of the Subcontinent. The irony of claiming a name which geographically no longer applied to his new state apparently escaped him.

However, opposition to the foreign name would not go away. To accommodate both sides of the argument, the Indian constituent assembly came up with a clever play of words. When the Indian constitution was framed in 1950, it referred to the new republic as “India, that is Bharat.” They had appropriated two names in one sentence. Although there was no mention of Hindustan or Hind in the constitution, the Indians have been loath to give up even these foreign names. Unlike Pakistan, the debate over the country’s name continues to tax their minds even today. While hostility to ‘India’ persists in Hindu nationalist circles, they appear to have overcome their aversion to ‘Hindustan’ by resurrecting an old revisionist myth. By employing phonetic jugglery, Hindustan has been Hinduised as ‘the land of Hindus’ as opposed to its actual meaning of ‘the land of Hind (Sindh)’. At the same time, prominent Hindu leaders like Narendra Modi have started calling India/Bharat as Hindustan in their public pronouncements.

Thus it came to pass that Pakistan, built upon a 5,500-year-old civilization, was named after an acronym, while India, with an equally venerable past, ended up with four names: India, which means land of the Indus, which is today Pakistan; Hind, which means Sindh, which is today in Pakistan; Hindustan, which means land of Sindh, which is also in Pakistan; and Bharat, a mythical king or tribe, who may or may not have existed.

But then, as the old Bard wrote:
What’s in a name?

  1. McIntosh, JR, The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008, p. 40.

  2. Parpola, Asko, Parpola, Simo, On the Relationship of the Sumerian Toponym Meluhha and Sanskrit Mleccha. Studia Orientalis, 1975, vol. 46, pp. 205-238.

  3. Habib, Irfan, Hindi/Hindwi in Medieval Times: Aspects of Evolution and Recognition of a Language, In: The Varied Facets of History, Delhi: Primus Books, 2011, pp. 105-106.

  4. Ali, Choudhary Rahmat, Now or Never: Are We to Live or Perish for Ever? Cambridge: The Pakistan National Movement, 1933.

  5. Clementin-Ojha, Catherine, ‘India that is Bharat…’ One Country, Two Names. South Asian Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 2014, vol. 10, pp. 2-18.

  6. Keay, John, India: A History, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, pp. 55-59.

  7. Daniyal, Shoaib, Land of Hindus? Mohan Bhagwat, Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar are using ‘Hindustan’ all wrong. Scroll.in, 30 October 2017