‘Bharat’ or ‘India’? The Controversy Over Some Hindu Nationalists’ Push to Rename India

An official invitation to a G-20 Summit dinner with the President of India referred to the country as "Bharat," a move that sparked controversy.

‘Bharat’ or ‘India’? The Controversy Over Some Hindu Nationalists’ Push to Rename India
Bharat India G20

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has referred to India as “Bharat” in invites for a dinner party at the upcoming G-20 Summit in New Delhi, a move that has sparked controversy. The word is the Hindi name for India, and critics say its use is the latest sign of a nationalist push amid a banner year for the country.

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India is now the world’s most populous nation and is the fastest growing major economy. Beyond hosting the annual G-20 Summit this year, which runs from Sept. 9 to 10, the country also recently completed a historic moon landing.

The invites referred to the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, as “President of Bharat.” News of the invites comes two days after Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an ideological mentor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said in a speech that the country should use the word Bharat instead of India.

“At times we use India so those who speak English will understand. But we must stop using this. The name of the country Bharat will remain Bharat wherever you go in the world,” Bhagwat said.

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Several BJP leaders have cheered that approach. But there has been no confirmation that the government is mulling a formal name change, the BBC reported.

“We have seen that Modi and the BJP want to distance modern India from the colonial past. And so we’ve seen this trend of renaming streets that have names that refer to the colonial past. Clearly this is an example of wanting to use the term that the BJP thinks is the proper, more appropriate term to use for India,” says Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Two months ago, the alliance of opposition parties named themselves “INDIA” ahead of the Spring 2024 Indian general election, so the focus on rebranding to the name Bharat may also be partly motivated by that, says Ravinder Kaur, a historian of contemporary India.

“Partly, the ruling party is trying to counter by finding a different name. But the interesting thing is that India already has a double name, which is enshrined in the constitution,” Kaur says. 

Article 1 of the Indian constitution begins with the words, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” 

The name India is an Anglicization of the Sanskrit word for the Indus river, sindhu, and was introduced during the Crown’s rule over India from 1858 to 1947. The name Bharat, also Sanskrit, originates from ancient Hindu religious texts, the Puranas. The texts describe a large land mass on which humans live on, and one region of this landmass is referred to as Bharatavarsa.

Another popular name for the country is Hindustan, which means “land of the Indus” in Persian. It became a popular way to refer to the country during the Mughal era and is frequently invoked by Hindu nationalists. However, it is not officially recognized as the legal name for India in the constitution. 

On social media, the debate over which name to use has been at times heated, after pictures of the dinner party invitation went viral on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“BJPs aversion to India’s foundational principle of unity in diversity has touched a new low. By reducing India’s many names from Hindustan & India to now only Bharat shows its pettiness & intolerance,” Mehbooba Mufti, President of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party wrote on X.

Others, however, praised the potential change as anti-imperialist and authentic to India’s history. 

“I have always believed a name should be one which instills pride in us. We are Bhartiyas ,India is a name given by the British & it has been long overdue to get our original name ‘Bharat’ back officially,” wrote former Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag in a post.

Previously, court cases have been filed at India’s Supreme Court to change the country’s name to Bharat. But judges have so far declined to wade into the controversy.

— YASMEEN SERHAN CONTRIBUTED REPORTING