“Whose country is Germany?” asked Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat rhetorically on Saturday, addressing a crowd in Indore. “It is a country of Germans, Britain is a country of Britishers, America is a country of Americans, and in the same way Hindustan is a country of Hindus”.

That Hindutva, the core ideology of the Sangh Parivar equates Indian and Hindu nationalism is not news. In fact, for some time now, the Sangh Parivar has used this linguistic formulation to supposedly prove its contention. If the name of the country is Hindustan, that means it’s the land of the Hindus, argues the Sangh.

The use of “Hindustan” for India, therefore, is common on the Hindu right. Even Prime Minister Modi, who earned his spurs in the RSS, before moving to the Bharatiya Janata Party, used the word “Hindustan” in his Independence Day speech earlier this year.

Yet, the Sangh Parivar might be disappointed to learn that the word Hindustan has got little relation with the term “Hindu” as it is used today. In fact, it’s not even a native word, being imported from the Persian language – an uncomfortable fact given Hindutva’s fierce nativism on these matters. The word has, in fact, had a few meanings through the ages, all of them geographic with little to indicate nationality as Bhagwat would desire.

Hindustan beginnings

Getting the meaning of Hindustan wrong, Bhagwat might be pleased to know, is a hallowed tradition going right back to the founder of Hindutva, Vinayak Savarkar. Savarkar assumed that the name “Hindustan” traces back to a Sanskrit word “Sindhustan” since the “S in Sanskrit gets at times changed into an H in India”.

This is, to not put too fine a point on it, totally wrong. Hindu and Sindhu are cognates, words with a common root in the Iranian and Indic languages respectively. While the latter was used to name the region of Sindh as well as the Sindhu river that ran through it in various Indic languages, the Iranian languages used theirs to name the people across the river, calling them “Hindus”.

The word “Hindustan” came about by affixing a common Persian suffix, -stan, meaning land. This Persian suffix not only gives us Hindustan, but also Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhistan and so on, all places where once Persian was the lingua franca and language of the state. This “Hindustan”, used by the Persian and Arabs, is – like all premodern terms – hazy but roughly maps to the entire Indian subcontinent today. In 1305, the Iranian scholar al-Biruni, for example, called “Hind”, the Arabic version of “Hindustan”, as “limited in the south by the above mentioned Indian ocean and on all three sides by the lofty mountains, the waters of which flow down to it”.

“Hindustan” is, therefore, what is known an exonym – a name given by outsiders. Exonyms are quite common. For example, the name “Germany” is an exonym, being used by English speakers. Germans themselves used “Deutschland”.

Nativising the word

Yet, what is less common is exonyms being adopted by the people of the land themselves. This happened in India as a series of invasions from Central Asia meant Persian-speakers came to rule large swathes of the subcontinent. They brought with them, amongst other things, the Persian word “Hindustan”.

The word now shrunk a bit in meaning. Since these new rulers – collectively called the Delhi Sultanate – had their strongest base in north India, this now became “Hindustan”. For example, as 18th century traveller Dargah Quli Khan moved from Hyderabad to Delhi he described his journey in Persian as one from the Dakkan (Deccan) to Hindustan. And the British Raj called the common lingua franca of this region “Hindustani”. This historical meaning of the word still exists in spoken Bengali today, where “Bengal” and “Hindustan” are distinct parts of the landmass of “Bharat”. As recently as 1987, Nirad C Choudhary described Ram as “the incarnation of Vishnu who was worshipped as God, particularly as the warrior God, by the Hindustanis”, referring of course to north Indian immigrants in Kolkata.

Under the Raj, however, “Hindustan”, previously one part of the subcontinent, came to refer to the whole. Like exonymy, this is also a rather common linguistic phenomenon, called “pars pro toto”, the most common example of which is the Netherlands being called Holland – strictly, the name of a region in the country – in English. At the same time, the word “Hindu” – which, as mentioned above, started out as a word which the Persians used to refer to anyone across the Indus river – solidified in meaning to refer to a religious community. This change in meaning for “Hindustan” pointed to the role of north India in acting as the core of the nascent Indian nation. In fact, in Bollywood, the Persian-origin “Hindustan” is the preferred name for the country, trumping “Bharat”.

Emerging Hindu nationalists pulled off some linguistic jugglery to conflate the term Hindu and Hindustan, arguing that the latter now referred to a nation of Hindus. Such false etymology as a means of staking claim to history is common in Hindutva, the most egregious example of which is PN Oak, a common writer cited by Hindutva supporters. Oak’s contention that the entire world was once Hindu rests on claims such as “Christianity” descending from “Krishna-Neeti” (Sanskrit for Krishna’s strategy) and that “Vatican” is actually the Sanskrit “Vatika”.

India, that is Bharat

While common in Hindi-Urdu, India’s founding fathers, however, did not accept “Hindustan” as a synonym for India. The Persian-origin Hindustan is not an official name for the country which is restricted to the Sanskrit “Bharat” and the English “India”.

Yet, Hindutva would still use it in formulations such as “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” in trying to ideologically define India to its liking. In Prime Minister Modi’s speeches, for example, Hindutva terminology often trumps the lexicon of the Constitution and he does use the word “Hindustan”. In fact, a lawyer from Maharashtra has even filed a complaint over Modi’s use of “Hindustan” during his 2017 Independence Day speech calling it an insult to the Constitution.

Even as Bhagwat is historically and etymologically incorrect, unfortunately, his analogies fail him as well when he claims that Hindustan is a land of Hindus much like “Britain is a country of Britishers”. As it so happens, the term “Britisher” is seen as rather offensive in the modern United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Moreover, the modern UK is quite open about being multicultural. It even makes it a point to recognise four countries or nations within the UK: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In fact, the UK even permits countries to represent themselves in international forums. England, for example, has its own cricket team and the Scots are allowed referendums on the question of whether they want to leave the UK. Bhagwat should be more careful about what he wishes the next time.