What’s in a name?

Pakistan Today | 20 March, 2017


“India” should be a shared nomenclature between the Republic of India and Pakistan


Disputes over the Indus waters divide the Republic of India and Pakistan. There is talk of talks in Lahore this month between the countries’ representatives. Recognising shared historical identity stemming from the river could bring people of the two nations closer, and facilitate smoother discussions in the long term.

Millennia ago, Persians and Greeks corrupted the local Sanskrit appellation ‘Sindhu’ for what is now known as the Indus to describe residents of its valley as ‘Indoi’. While the Indus starts in Tibet/China, then runs through Jammu and Kashmir/India, the valley of the Indus lies in Pakistan. And yet it is Pakistan’s neighbour to the east that has inherited the nomenclature. This wasn’t fated.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah is reviled and hailed for the Partition of India. But such credit should rightfully go to Viceroy Louis Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, for Jinnah’s vision, according to the scholarship of Tufts University history professor Ayesha Jalal, was for a federation called ‘India’.

Operating with a weak centre, it would consist of autonomous Muslim and Hindu-majority states, respectively Pakistan and Hindustan. The function of Pakistan would be to provide a safe-haven for India’s Muslims and Christians from rising Hindu nationalism, noted by Columbia University anthropology professor Partha Chatterjee as a modern political identity conceived under British colonialism. Hindu nationalism was not underpinned by specific beliefs or practices, because it was inclusive of anti-Vedic and anti-Brahmanic Buddhism and Jainism, as well as of people outside caste society. It was defined more by what it was not – religions from the Middle West. Hinduism was neither Islam nor Christianity.

Paradoxically, while the name ‘Pakistan’ translates as ‘land of the pure’, and is an acronym for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh and Balochistan’, nationalists at the Wagha border answer the bearded cheerleader’s cry, “What is Pakistan’s meaning?” with, “There is no deity but Allah.” The message is for the benefit of Indians across the border, because the general perception is that Indians believe in many gods. The message is essentially, “Pakistan’s meaning is that we are not India because we are not polytheists.” The rhyming couplet was authored three years before Partition by a schoolteacher and became a nationalist rallying cry. It is reported that upon hearing this chanted at the last session of the All India Muslim League, Jinnah responded, “Neither the Muslim League Working Committee nor I ever passed a resolution [called] ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya’ — you may have used it to catch a few votes.”

Without digressing into sociological discussions as to whom amongst Pakistan’s neighbours are polytheists and theological debates as to whether they should be, nationalists of both Pakistan and the Republic of India have constructed destructive identities on the basis that they are not the other. How are their contrived efforts continuing to win the narrative?

As Jinnah reminded the chanting Leaguer, Pakistan’s meaning had never been concluded. Muslims voted for the Muslim League in the British Indian central legislative assembly 1945 general elections on a slogan of ‘Pakistan’. But they did not vote for a specific agenda relating to Pakistan – because no such agenda had been detailed. A vote for Pakistan was not a vote against India. Likewise, though the 2014 Indian general elections brought to power the Hindu nationalist National Democratic Alliance led by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party and all the communalism they symbolised, it must be remembered that 64% of votes cast were against that coalition. The split is not beyond redemption.

Pakistan’s neighbour claimed the name derived from the river that runs through Pakistan. ‘India’ is legendary, mystic, and historic. Pakistanis owe it to themselves to not let it, and with it, their heritage be monopolised. As we share the Indus’ waters with our neighbours, so too should we share in its name, and admit to ourselves, as well as to our neighbours and to the rest of the world, that we are both of the Indus, the river that hailed the world’s first civilisations, including the Neolithic city of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation stretching from the Punjab to Sindh, the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa Buddhist Gandharan civilisation which gives so many museums around the world their Buddhist statues; that it was in our India that encyclopaedias refer to the extent of Cyrus’ Empire, to the Indo-Greeks, to the end of Alexander’s campaign; that it was our India in which Lahore reached its zenith under Mughal rule, and in our India in which it then became the capital of the Sikh empire. Pakistan is more than a 73-year old slogan or an 84-year old pun. It is home of the Indus. Pakistan is the birthplace of India.

Making the world aware that Pakistan is the original India will do no disservice to our underwhelmed historical sites. The neighbouring state of Rajasthan on its own received 1.5 million foreign tourists in 2013-14, according to the provincial government. According to the latest data that the World Bank has from 2012, this was more 50% more than all of Pakistan put together.

So, if you consider yourself Pakistani, the next time that you find yourself asked, “Are you from India?” nod with a knowing smile, and say, “Yes. I’m from Pakistan.” By acknowledging our commonalities with citizens of the Republic of India, we deepen our psychological ties and pave a better path to understanding and resolution.

Imaduddin Ahmed is a PhD candidate at University College London. He tweets at @ImadAhmed.


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