What’s In a Name? Nothing and a Lot

By Anjum Altaf

A rose is a rose is a rose – Gertrude Stein

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare


I know, I know, I know – which is why I didn’t have much of a problem when Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was remuslimed as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road. I couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. A road is a road is a road and people have the right to call it what they will. Some would continue to call it by its old name, some would use the new one, and most others would traverse it quite unaware of the name at all. In any case, life would go on without much care for passing passions.

We don’t need to wander far to vouch for that: Bunder Road is still Bunder Road in Karachi and The Mall is still The Mall in Lahore. Rarely does one hear the first being called M.A. Jinnah Road or the second being referred to as Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam, all love for Mr. Jinnah notwithstanding. In fact, the longer and more pompous the new name the less likely it would replace the old one – Shahrah-e-Abdul Hameed Bin Badees was dead on arrival in Lahore and has not made a dent on Empress Road, notwithstanding all our revulsion for the queen; Aga Khan III Road in Karachi remains Garden Road to all intents and purposes, notwithstanding all our gratitude for the Aga Khan.

All this is old hat. Only those without any sense of history indulge in these kinds of instant gratifications. How well did R.K. Narayan deal with all of that many years ago – go read Lawley Road and reflect, and repent.

I really don’t have an issue if people want to denude a city of all its landmarks and turn it into a maze with no names. But I do have a problem with how this might be done. It doesn’t seem right that some minister or bureaucrat or parliamentarian or sena somewhere can mandate such an uprooting of traditions. A street really belongs to the people who live and work in it, for whom it is a part of past memories and present lives. If they wish to rename Aurangzeb Road as Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road they at least have some legitimate claim to do so and they should be able to exercise that right in an acceptable manner. My own guess is that the denizens of Aurangzeb Road would not have given the name a second thought but in case they wished to rename it, they would have been very unlikely to have opted for what has, once again, been foisted on them without their participation. The same goes for the choice between Shadman Chowk and Bhagat Singh Chowk in Lahore – it is not for the District Coordination Officer to propose a change and the Tehreek-i-Hurmat-i-Rasool to challenge it in the High Court.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I must register my disagreement with the sentiment that names don’t matter at all. And here I present as evidence the case of ‘India’ – the name of a whole that was appropriated by a part to the lasting loss of many others.

Let me illustrate this by way of an analogy. A German can refer to himself or herself as a German and a European. Now imagine a new country formed by the breakup of an old confederation, say Yugoslavia, appropriating the name Europe for itself. Imagine Kosovo wanting to call itself Europe. This would not be allowed, and rightly so, because it would deprive the German of a very integral part of his or her identity. No longer would he or she be able to claim being a German and a European without causing a great deal of confusion.

I hope the point is clear. When India was divided in 1947 into two parts, the name India was appropriated by one thereby depriving me, a future Pakistani, of a key part of my civilizational identity. I legitimately wish to claim that I am a Pakistani and an Indian but am unable to do so. The terms ‘Subcontinental’ or ‘South Asian’ are second best and just do not resonate in the same way – by way of the loss just note the name of this weblog.

This eventuality is all the more egregious because India not only appropriated India, it took ownership of all the other names used for the undivided land mass – Hind, Hindustan, and Bharat. Of all these names, as far as I know, only Bharat is indigenous to the region – India was conferred by Greeks and Hind and Hindustan by the Persians, both using the demarcation of the Sindhu (Indus) River to refer to the people who lived beyond that natural boundary.

It would have been reasonable to name the two parts of the divided land differently so that both could claim their legacy without ambiguity. Pakistan chose its name for better or for worse. Today’s India could have chosen an entirely new name or Bharat, a name rooted in the traditions of the land, while ceding the other terms – India, Hind, and Hindustan as the common property of all the people who shared the civilization.

To be fair, these names were not appropriated by India; they were gifted to it by those so obsessed with purity and purification (there is an irony here, isn’t there?) that they were bereft of a sense of civilizational loss. The allocation of names should also have been a matter of negotiation but if that sensibility had prevailed our entire history may well have been different. From “Saarey jahaaN se achcha Hindostan hamara/Ham bulbuleN haiN iski ye gulsitaaN hamara” to “Cheen o Arab hamara, Hindostan hamara/Muslim haiN ham, watan hai saara jahaaN hamara” is the most apt summary of our journey.

I remain a Pakistani unwilling to relinquish my Indian heritage but the label leads to many misunderstandings – I cannot call myself an Indian in the same way a German can call himself a European. The expression of this sentiment is by no means a grand call to reverse history. I only wish to substantiate the minor claim that, in some instances, names do matter and not just a little.

A Capulet is a Capulet, a Montague a Montague – take that William Shakespeare.

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25 Responses to “What’s In a Name? Nothing and a Lot”

  1. Vikram Says:

    The word India is ultimately derived from Sindhu, the Sanskrit name for the river where Indian civilization started.

    Incidentally the name China is also derived from Sanskrit Cina.

    The Taiwanese still call themselves Chinese despite political independence, and the Pakistanis could have done the same.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: I agree – It is a matter of feeling. As I wrote in the post, if the proponents of Pakistan had felt that way they might not have embarked on their mission in the first place. Or, if they had, they would have felt some ownership about the name especially since the Indus river flows largely through what is now Pakistan which also contains the province of Sindh.

      I guess most Pakistanis won’t see it my way but I feel a better alternative would have been to name the (now) three countries West, Central, and East India. When Sudan divided, the people of the seceding region chose South Sudan as its name – the heritage must have been of value to them. Similarly, both West and East Germany held on to the German legacy. The case of Taiwan is a bit different since ‘Chinese’ connotes ethnicity more than nationality while ‘Indian’ connotes nationality more than ethnicity. Also, I believe the Taiwanese still retain a claim on all of China and vice versa.

  2. Vikram Says:

    South Asianism is an ideology ultimately rooted in the obsession to see India and Pakistan as somehow ‘equivalent’ or ‘same’. If one reads the first chapter of Jaffrelot’s ‘The Pakistan Paradox’, one will recognize this is a newer version of the quest for parity that the Muslim elites of UP engaged to preserve their dominance.

    Ultimately these ideologies are rooted in the inability to see Hindus as equal human beings with an identity.

    Needless to say, South Asianists do not insist that the ‘Arab/Muslim World’ be called West Asia, ‘Persian world’ be called South Central Asia etc.

    • Kabir Waheed Altaf Says:

      South Asia includes other countries besides India and Pakistan. Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka (sometimes) Burma and (sometimes) Afghanistan. Asides from Pakistan and Bangladesh, no argument can be made that these other countries were ever part of “India”. As for “equivalence”, India and Pakistan are both sovereign nation-states and in that sense they are equivalent.

      The “Arab world” is often called West Asia or the Middle East. It depends on the context.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: If at all Muslim elites of UP can be blamed for anything it would be for wanting to create an independent country for Muslims. I doubt if the notion of South Asia ever crossed their minds.

      As I have mentioned before, the need for South Asia arose only because a new post-1947 country chose the name India for itself. This meant that the region could not be referred to by the same name without causing confusion – a whole and a part cannot be referred to by the same name.

      The use of such terms is very common to group countries in regions: In addition to South Asia, there are West Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, Middle East, Far East, North America, Central America, South America, Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, West Africa, East Africa, North Africa, etc.

      Note that there is no region called South Africa for the same reason that there is no region called India – because an individual country has that name. So alongside West Africa, East Africa, and North Africa there is a region which has to be called Southern Africa which includes the country South Africa.

      • Vikram Says:

        I have no problem with South Asia as a geographical term.

        But why do they want to use South Asia for ancient India and Indian civilization ? Why is the same thing not being done for China then ? And the Muslim world, etc ?

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: For exactly the same reason that I mentioned earlier. There is no confusion when the terms China or the Muslim World are used but the use of India requires some qualifier – Ancient India or British India or Mughal India – to distinguish it from the post-1947 country India which is now just one part of the region which was previously called India.

          Recall, that an island off the coast of China originally adopted the name Republic of China which is still its official name. But the whole world refers to it as Taiwan so that there is no confusion when the term China is employed. India can adopt the name Bharat and release India to be referred to the region although I doubt the other countries would accept that now – the opportunity has been lost. One can’t have one’s cake and eat it too.

          • Vikram Says:

            Which other country uses the word India ? How is the India vs Pakistan/Bangladesh thing different from China vs Taiwan ?

          • Anjum Altaf Says:

            Vikram: You misunderstood my point. What I am saying is that a country and a region cannot both have the same name without causing confusion.

            Take an example: Many universities have Centers for South Asian Studies. If the name is changed to Center for Indian Studies, many would take that to mean that the work of the center is confined to present-day India whereas their mandate is to cover the entire region.

          • Vikram Says:

            “Many universities have Centers for South Asian Studies. If the name is changed to Center for Indian Studies, many would take that to mean that the work of the center is confined to present-day India whereas their mandate is to cover the entire region.”

            Modern universities usually name their centers after geographical regions, so the name ‘Center for X Asian Studies” is apt.

            But why should the Mauryan, Satavahana and Gupta empires be called Ancient South Asia, while the Han dynasty is called Ancient China in children’s textbooks ?

  3. Vikram Says:

    AA, here are some of the changes proposed by the South Asia Faculty Group:

    “In the center, the Muslim world (now divided into many states) and India”

    “At the center, the world of Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean region,”

    Did the majority of the population of the Mughal empire and other Muslim ruled kingdoms in India, consider themselves part of the Islamic civilization ?

    “For this entire period, therefore, the major Afroeurasian centers – China, India, and the Islamic World – were too strong for Europeans to conquer.”

    “For this entire period, therefore, the major Afroeurasian centers of power – the Islamic Empires and China – were too strong for Europeans to conquer.”

    Once again India is south to be subsumed under ‘Islam’.

    “Along the northern edge of the agricultural regions of China, India, Persia and Rome, in the steppe grasslands, pastoral nomad societies moved east and west.”

    “Along the northern edge of the agricultural regions of China, South Asia, Persia and Rome, in the steppe grasslands, pastoral nomad societies moved east and west.”

    Note India is changed to South Asia, but China and Persia remain.

    “The city’s culture was a mix of Arab, Persian, Indian, Turkish, and Central Asian culture.”

    “The city’s culture was a mix of Arab, Persian, South Asian, Turkish, and Central Asian culture.”

    Arab, Persian and Turkish remain, but India changed to South Asian. Note that both Persian and Turkish can be included in Central Asia.

    More here: http://scholarsforpeople.org/edits-proposed-south-asia-faculty-group/

  4. Vikram Says:

    There are two main issues with the suggestions:

    1) A lack of consistency. If we are naming pre-modern entities by region, that should be done consistently for all of them. If ancient India is changed to ancient South Asia, then China has to be changed to ancient East Asia, Persia to ancient South-West Asia and so forth.

    2) The association of caste with Hinduism, which is no longer supported by leading scholars, and the inability to put the specific system of social control in a global context. In short, this isolates Hinduism as an odd religion that sanctions hierarchy.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Do you feel the faculty group is ignorant, ill-informed, or biased? Let us see how the Commission decides.

  5. Vikram Says:

    AA, do you feel the kids who are being bullied for their religion deserve to be bullied ?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: No, of course not. Does this mean you believe the faculty group is not ignorant, ill-informed, or biased but callous?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: I feel you would be satisfied with how this issue was resolved:

      • Vikram Says:

        I think Rohit Chopra makes some good points here:


        One really critical point is “The answer is simple: the same sorts of groups, regardless of their politics, are also often the first ones to protest racist depictions of Indians or Hindus, such as when American Eagle Outfitters printed the image of Lord Ganesha on flip-flops.

        It is not the rock star academics working on South Asia, India, or Hinduism who spearhead such protests, though in their research they do challenge Orientalist and racist stereotypes.”

        An even more damning piece of evidence would be ‘South Asian’ academics attitudes towards Hindus in the Carribean. Till 1985, they were systematically persecuted leading to large scale emigration out of there, just like Pakistan and Bangladesh.

        Between 1990 and 2011, T&T population increased by 9%, but the Hindu population there decreased by 18%. This case of unfortunate suppression of Indian Hindus by African Christians has hardly received any attention by ‘South Asia’ academics.


        • SouthAsian Says:

          Vikram: It is good that this has reached closure.

          • Vikram Says:

            I would be interested in hearing your perspective on why ‘South Asia’ academics have not written a lot about the treatment of Hindus in the Carribean.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: I can only speculate about the possible reasons. First, historians are not advocates of human rights; they are scholars. Second, these days they become scholars through an apprenticeship in a PhD program. Given career prospects, most scholars concentrate on the central and core themes in their disciplines. South Asian scholars focus on South Asia. In this scenario, the treatment of South Asians in the Caribbean is a very peripheral matter and not attractive as a subject of a doctoral dissertation. This is not to say that the treatment is not important to those who have suffered it. I am sure it must have featured in the writings of novelists from the region.

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