Thursday, February 02, 2006

On Desh

What is in a name? You call Desh by any other name, and it will still be our motherland. What, indeed is in a name? To borrow from a very famous story about the lunatics who shaped our history:

...which used to be in India, was now in Pakistan. .... which was currently in Pakistan, but could slide into India any moment. It was also possible that the entire subcontinent of India might become Pakistan. And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely vanish from the map of the world one day?

The entire subcontinent might become Pakistan? Well, I have played the game of Risk using a board where the territory between Afghanistan, China and Siam — that is, the territory normally marked India — was called Pakistan.

How did these names, India-Pakistan-Bangladesh come about?

Popular history books (such as John Keay's 'India: a history' or Stanley Wolpert's 'A new history of India') tell me that the Sanskrit word Sindhu became Arabic Hind which became Greek Indus, and India originally meant the land on the banks of or beyond the Indus. Well, if India is the land by the river Indus, then India should really be in what is now Pakistan!

These books also suggest that Mr Jinnah was extremely annoyed that after independence, the sovereign state that Mr Nehru was the Prime Minister of decided to call itself India. It seems that the expectation of many nationalists was that the colonial name India would be dropped in favour of indigenous Bharat or Hindustan. For Jinnah though, the issue was continutity. Free India became the successor state of British India, and Pakistan was a weird two-winged new bird. Of course, legally speaking, Pakistan was just as much a successor to the Raj as the Indian Union was, something the Indian leaders only grudgingly conceded, after much prodding from Mr Gandhi, for which he had to pay with his life.

Pakistan is an acronym for Punjab-Afganistan-Kashmir-Sindh-Baluchistan, conjured up by feudal aristocrats and rich businessmen over a few drinks. It is not surprising that successive Pakistani governments have kept the dream of making Afghanistan and Kashmir part of their country alive: the means change, but the end remains the same.

How Pakistan got her name is a well known story, less well known is how East Pakistan came to be called Bangladesh. To literary giants like Bankimchandra Chaterjee (the author of Vande Mataram, discussed here and here) or Saratchandra Chaterjee (the author of Devdas), Bangla Desh and Bharat were synonymous as the home of Hindus. Sometime in the first quarter of the last century, the British province of Bengal, which was partitioned in 1947, came to be called Bangla Desh in the vernacular. In 1956, East Bengal changed its name to East Pakistan. East Pakistani politicians, when talking about political freedom for their people, talked of Free East Bengal or Free East Pakistan, but not Bangladesh. Then sometime in 1970, a bunch of university students started calling the province Bangladesh. When open insurrection against the Pakistani rule commenced in March 1971, the name Bangladesh was widely accepted.

People of Bangladesh chose the name of their country through popular spontaneity, not by a committee of politicians or legislators. And Amar spontaneously hit on the idea of calling the homeland Desh when he saw the expressions of some brother in Barcelona. But he later discovered that some people thought Desh was un-Desi. Is Desh un-Desi? To use that clich├ęd phrase, Desh in its teeming multitude contains a quarter of the humanity, and who is say what is un-Desi?

Okay then, may be not quite un-Desi, but may be Desh is un-Islamic? If Desh is un-Islamic, then why does Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh have the word in its name? Dear reader, this is a party that violently opposed the creation of Bangladesh, fighting alongside the Pakistan Army in 1971. They are the ideological brethren of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Call them what you will, but they clearly take their Islam very seriously, and will not hesitate to use violence to force the point. At least for them, Desh and Islam are perfectly compatible.

We like the word Desh. There might be other words that evoke the same for others what Desh does for us. But for us Desh is perfectly Desi.