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Sultans on Wings: The Symbolism of Weapon Names in India and Pakistan

Religion and history are central to how both sides name some of their key platforms and equipment.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Sultans on Wings: The Symbolism of Weapon Names in India and Pakistan

A Pakistani-made ballistic missile NASR is loaded on a trailer rolls down during a military parade to mark Pakistan National Day, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, March 23, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

In January 2020, India twice fired off a missile a submarine underwater, testing its capabilities before starting the weapon’s production. The missile’s successful test paves the way for its use, important because of its ability to carry nuclear warheads. But the projectile also stands out in a completely different way. It bears a simple, neutral name: K-4. Just a letter and a number. This, by the standards of India and Pakistan, is rather uncommon.

Religion and history are central to the India-Pakistan conflict and are expressed within it on a number of levels. The conflict is even inscribed on many of each country’s weapons. Unlike the K-4, various weapon names carry concrete meanings. Some were consciously borrowed from select languages and styles. A few are even more straightforward in their meaning, carrying the names of historical personae. 

The best-known and most clear examples are the names of some Pakistani missiles. Several of these were named after Muslim rulers (most of them Turkic) who invaded India at various points in history. Ghaznavi (Hatf-III) is named after Mahmud of Ghazni, Ghauri-I and Ghauri-II (Hatf-V and Hatf-VA) after Muhammad Ghori, Babur (Hatf-VII) after the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India. One of Babur’s successors generations later was Aurangzeb, known for his piety, military skill and cruelty – thus one of the Pakistani frigates bears his title (Alamgir). Last on the missiles list is Abdali (Hatf-II), named after Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani dynasty in Afghanistan who attacked and pillaged parts of India eight times in the 18th century. 

One person missing here is Muhammad bin Qasim, an Arab commander who conquered the region of Sindh in the 8th century, historically the first Indian territory to be taken over by a Muslim force. But he is not entirely left out – one of Pakistan’s most important ports, located in Sindh itself, is named after him (it is not a navy facility, however). 

The symbolism of these choices is rather clear: The Pakistan government refers to how the establishment of the country was linked to the historical growth of Islam in South Asia (a growth that partially happened in a violent way). Islamabad is also outspoken in showing that its missiles are primarily aimed at India, having been named after leaders who once invaded it.

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A second category among Pakistani weapon names are those taken from the history of Islam, but not necessarily that of its South Asian chapter. The already-mentioned name of a missile series, Hatf, is taken from Arabic, it means “vengeance” and was an appellation for Muhammad’s lance. Another Pakistani frigate, Zulfiquar, is named after Muhammad’s sabre. Two Pakistani tank codenames, Al-Khalid and Al-Zarrar, as well as that of the armored personnel carrier Talha, immortalize Arabic commanders who served under Muhammad.

A third and final category of names – those bearing an ideological meaning – would be those that do not refer to a historical person or object, and yet the choice of the language of origin is telling. Most of these come from Arabic – and less often Persian – in the case of Pakistan, and Sanskrit in the case of India. Thus, one of Pakistan’s missiles is titled Nasr (“victory” in Arabic), another one Ababeel (“sparrow” in Arabic), yet another Shaheen (“falcon” in Persian), while one of the frigates is Shamsher (“sword” in Persian). 

Thus is not just a matter of semantic nuance. The choice is not simply of language, but an ideologically loaded style. The insistence on pure Arabic and Persian words is a wider process in Pakistan – and christening weapon systems is but a small instance of this – and one that is a part of the ongoing Islamisation of the country’s identity.

Compared to the above, Indian military names are not as aggressive ideologically. None that I am aware of carry the memory of a Hindu monarch that would be known for fighting Muslim rulers. The symbolism would be have been complementary had New Delhi named its missiles after those kings that fought the relevant Islamic conquerors (the ones whose names appear on Pakistani missiles). But that is not the case. India’s sole aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, was christened after a king, but a one that lived long before Islam was even born.

One can also barely find the names of Hindu gods within the Indian army. Agni, as one generation of missiles is called, means “fire,” though this could also be taken as the name of the ancient god of fire. Another missile name, Trishul, means “trident” though it could be understood as Shiva’s weapon as well. Varuna, an old god of heaven and waters – and a nearly forgotten one now in terms of cult practices – appears in the name of a square rig sail training vessel. Shamno Varunah – “Let Varuna be auspicious to us” – is also the motto of the Indian Navy. Some of India’s tanks – Arjun and Bhishm – carry the names of characters from the epics (in this case, the Mahabharata), honored but not treated as deities.

A large number of Indian army names are taken from India’s ancient language, Sanskrit, however. Some of these codenames were taken from a very pure style. The name Prithvi means “earth” and was given to a surface-to-surface missile, while another one, Akash, means “sky.” The Arihant submarine – the one on which the boringly-named K-4 is to be used – means the “slayer of enemies” in Sanskrit. Apart from their military usage, such words are much more frequent in higher forms of literature or historical sources than in common speech.

Meanwhile, many of the Indian Navy’s ships are simply named after geographic places (such as cities or rivers). Moreover, despite the dominance of Sanskrit-origin words, two ships — Bahadur and Buland — carry Persian words as their names. This is one of the few cases in which the same names could arguably have been used on the other side of the border.

Weapons are part of the struggle in South Asia, not only for their military intention but in their naming too — though much more noticeable on the Pakistani side. Let us hope that this identify struggle remains in the realm of a verbal battle.