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Is India India, or is it Bharat? Indians have been arguing passionately this week over the rightful name for their country after a government invitation was sent out using India’s Hindi-language one.
Attendees at this week’s G20 summit of world leaders in New Delhi have been invited to a dinner this Saturday by Droupadi Murmu, India’s head of state, in an invitation that called her the “President of Bharat”. The Indian internet promptly exploded with speculation that Narendra Modi’s government was poised to change the country’s official name exclusively to Bharat, as some nationalists in his rightwing Bharatiya Janata party have been urging.
“The president has given priority to ‘Bharat’,” education minister Dharmendra Pradhan told local news agency ANI, seeming to confirm India’s transition towards a name change. “This is the biggest statement to come out of the colonial mindset.” Journalists quickly identified references to Bharat in recent documents relating to Modi’s visits to South Africa and Greece last month, and to Indonesia this week.
Rival politicians rounded on Modi, claiming he was nervous about the recent formation of an alliance of the BJP’s fragmented opposition, who regrouped under the acronym INDIA with the aim of ousting Modi in the next election. “If the INDIA alliance holds a meeting and renames the alliance Bharat, will they [the BJP] change the name Bharat too?” said Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi party in a briefing on Tuesday. “What kind of joke is this?”
The opposition’s formation in July of INDIA (which stands for the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) was hailed by commentators as tactically brilliant, as the acronym instantly generated news headlines about Modi opposing India, and vice versa. But then this week, as word of a possible name change to Bharat spread, some Indians felt Modi had one-upped the opposition at their own game by reframing the discussion as a struggle between India vs Bharat.
Rumours of a renaming could not have dropped at a more volatile moment. In addition to presiding over the G20 summit, his government has called an extraordinary session of parliament later this month, prompting speculation it is readying major legislation or even an early election.
Since taking power nine years ago, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has taken vigorous steps to purge the public square of the trappings of past foreign domination. This drive has extended to both British colonial rule and its Muslim dynasties, though the latter, liberal Indians point out, are now firmly part of India’s cultural and human DNA.
As part of a makeover of New Delhi’s British-designed government quarter, Rajpath (“Royal Path”, previously Kingsway under the British) was last year renamed Kartavya Path (“The Path of Duty”). The Mughal Gardens outside President Murmu’s official residence were renamed Amrit Udyan (“Garden of Nectar”) in January. Government officials, for their part, frequently use the words “colonial mindset” when deflecting foreign criticism of any kind.
Were Modi to remake India as Bharat, he would be following in the footsteps of nationalist leaders elsewhere: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year asked the international community to begin calling Turkey Türkiye. Myanmar’s military leaders, in their own drive to cast off colonial nomenclature, changed the country’s name from Burma in 1989. “Bharat” is in fact already enshrined in the national constitution, which makes clear reference to “India, that is Bharat”. Documents in Hindi have long routinely called India Bharat, as do the bilingual roadside banners welcoming delegates to the G20.
But discarding the name “India” entirely would incur costs, critics say, and could alienate states in the non-Hindi-speaking more prosperous south. Indian officials rowed back the notion of an imminent name change in conversations with journalists, giving this week’s controversy the feel of a culture war, a baiting tactic for the opposition or possibly a trial balloon.
“India that is Bharat — it is there in the constitution,” S Jaishankar the external affairs minister told ANI in an interview on Wednesday. “Please, I would invite everybody to read it.”