One of the most intriguing naming disputes in the world has reared its head again. After 27 years of friction, Greece and Macedonia are in talks for the latter to rename itself. Greece’s objection to its neighbour’s name stems from the fact that its northern region is also called Macedonia. On June 12, reports said an agreement had been reached on Macedonia appending the word “north” to itself. But the very next day, Macedonia’s president all but trashed the idea.

As this dispute plays out, it might be interesting to recall that for a brief moment at the dawn of independence, the subcontinent had to grapple with the same problem: the Muslim League, like Greece today, objected to the Congress taking the name India for the new country.

India or Hindustan?

In September 1947, barely a month after the British Raj ceased to exist, leaving in its place the two independent nations of India and Pakistan, Louis Mountbatten invited Muhammed Ali Jinnah to be the honorary president of an art exhibition from the “Dominions of India and Pakistan”. Mountbatten had overseen Partition as the Raj’s last viceroy and was now India’s governor general, an honorary appointee of the British sovereign roughly equivalent to the post-1950 president of the Indian republic.

Mountbatten and Jinnah did not get along (in an interview in 1973, Mountbatten would call Jinnah a “bastard”). Yet, in 1947, both were governors general, Mountbatten India’s and Jinnah Pakistan’s. Such an invitation was, therefore, standard fare. Jinnah, however, objected to it. The reason: the invitation used India rather than Hindustan to refer to the new country. He wrote to Mountbatten: “It is a pity that for some mysterious reason Hindustan have adopted the word ‘India’ which is certainly misleading and is intended to create confusion.”

He wanted the description to read, “exhibition of Pakistan and Hindustan art” – something that was unacceptable to Mountbatten. In the end, Jinnah accepted the invitation as is.

This was not a one-off incident. The Muslim League had objected to the name “Union of India” in the run-up to Partition, although there was little clarity about its reasons for doing so.

Lot in a name

Some commentators have argued that Jinnah’s objection to the name India shows that his final goal was some sort of a loose federation or confederation rather than outright partition. “India” would be a sum of Muslim “Pakistan” and Hindu “Hindustan”. The historian Ayesha Jalal writes that this was a “commentary perhaps that Jinnah never quite abandoned his strategy of bringing about an eventual union of India on the basis of Pakistan and Hindustan”.

The name India triggered a tussle even within the Indian Union. The British had chosen India, a word with Greek roots, as the name of their empire in the subcontinent and this colonial origin of the name engendered some objections to its use in the Constituent Assembly. “India”, however, had its uses given that it established the country as the successor to Britain’s Indian Empire. From the Indian Army to United Nations seat, the Indian Union inherited most of the legal titles enjoyed by British India.

In the end, a compromise was reached with the clunky phrase “India, that is Bharat” included in the Constitution, keeping both English and Hindi. While “India” has faced no real challenge since – even Hindi news channels now use the name – small pockets of the polity have always demanded that “India” be booted out and only “Bharat” retained.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, nomenclature seems to mirror its conflicted sense of national identity – or lack thereof. The word “Pakistan” was made up just a few decades before the country came into existence. Unlike most countries in the Old World, Pakistan does not acknowledge an ethnic group in its name as, say, France or Nepal do. And its name doesn’t lay claim to any larger subcontinental identity as the name “India” does.