India or Bharat: What's behind the name row?

Use of the word 'Bharat' in a G20 dinner invite has triggered a political row. Critics say attempting to scrap 'India' is a Hindu-nationalist ploy ahead of the 2024 elections.

India's new parliament building, inaugurated recently by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has also called a special session of Parliament later this month, after the G20 Summit in New Delhi (photo: DW)
India's new parliament building, inaugurated recently by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has also called a special session of Parliament later this month, after the G20 Summit in New Delhi (photo: DW)


A dinner invitation sent on Tuesday, 5 September, by President Droupadi Murmu to foreign leaders attending this week's G20 summit in New Delhi drew controversy for naming her the 'president of Bharat', using the Sanskrit-derived name for India.

The use of 'Bharat' in a diplomatic invitation has sparked concern that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist government plans to scrap the official use of the country's Anglicised name.

Adding to this, the government called a five-day special session of Parliament later this month, which many think will put forward a special resolution to give official sanction to the name 'Bharat'.

India's many names

Language used in Article 1 of the Indian Constitution states 'India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states', mentioning both the English and Hindi names of the country, which gained independence in 1947 after almost 200 years of British rule.

The name 'Bharat' comes from Sanskrit, and its application is not in itself unusual as both 'Bharat' and 'India' are used interchangeably.

However, India's Opposition parties, which have formed a new alliance to challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the parliamentary elections set for next year, say the BJP is making a mistake by proposing that 'India' no longer be used.

"While there is no constitutional objection to calling India 'Bharat', which is one of the country's two official names, I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with 'India', which has incalculable brand value built up over centuries," Shashi Tharoor, a senior leader of main the opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

"We should continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name redolent of history, a name that is recognised around the world," added Tharoor.

Mehbooba Mufti, an opposition alliance partner from the Jammu and Kashmir region, said the BJP's "aversion to India's foundational principle of unity in diversity has touched a new low".

"By reducing India's many names from 'Hindustan' and 'India' to now only 'Bharat' shows its pettiness and intolerance," she wrote on X.

Bharat a matter of 'national pride'

The BJP has said using 'Bharat' instead of 'India' will instil a sense of national pride and reinforce the country's rich cultural heritage.

"This should have happened earlier. The president has given priority to 'Bharat.' This is the biggest statement to come out of the colonial mindset," Dharmendra Pradhan, a minister in Modi's cabinet, said in a press statement.

Anurag Thakur, minister of information and broadcasting, criticised those opposing the use of 'Bharat' in a statement.

"When they go overseas, they criticise Bharat. When they are in India, they have objection to the name of Bharat," Thakur said.

Last week, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the BJP's ideological backbone organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called on Indians to stop using the name 'India' and switch to 'Bharat'.

"Our country is Bharat, and we will have to stop using the word 'India' and start using 'Bharat' in all practical fields—only then will change happen. We will have to call our country 'Bharat' and explain it to others as well," the RSS chief said.

The RSS, a Hindu umbrella group that is the ideological inspiration for the BJP, has worked toward transforming India's Hindus from being a religious community into a political constituency. Critics say its aim is to establish Hindu hegemony in a Hindu-majority country, leaving religious minorities out in the cold.

Name change just a political ploy?

Political analysts claim that the BJP wants to test the political waters to appease its conservative voter base ahead of the 2024 general elections.

"They are worried about one-on-one contests in the election," political commentator Neerja Chowdhury told DW, adding that the BJP is trying to "invoke nationalist sentiment".

It is not the first time that the BJP has resorted to changing names. Since 2014, it has changed the names of cities and other historical places in India and rewritten the country's history by renovating historical markers in order to validate its Hindu nationalist ideology.

One example is the recent renovation of the Central Vista in the heart of New Delhi. The government changed this 35-hectare public area filled with iconic heritage landmarks with new museums and government buildings.

The €2.1 billion ($2.5 billion) makeover required demolishing several buildings and redesigning some key spaces such as the existing Parliament House, the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan), India Gate and the War Memorial.

Critics of the renovation said the BJP was trying to alter popular historical memory under the guide of doing away with numerous symbols of British colonial rule.

Scrapping the usage of the word 'India' will not be an easy task for the ruling dispensation, however. Legal experts say it would require a constitutional amendment to be passed, with a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament and ratified by at least half of the states.

Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai said the Opposition alliance has rattled the ruling party, and proposals like changing the name of the country are a sign the BJP is getting nervous ahead of the election.

"In the 2014 and 2019 general elections, there was no Opposition alliance, which gave the BJP a clear advantage. This time around, a united Opposition with a clear-cut electoral strategy is giving the ruling party jitters. They are betraying nervousness," Kidwai told DW.

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