It began with a dinner invitation. How it ends could affect more than a billion people.
State-issued invites sent to guests of this week’s G20 meeting referred to India’s president, Droupadi Murmu, as “President of Bharat.” Suddenly, in many circles, the question was everywhere: Would the country of more than 1.4 billion now be called by its ancient Sanskrit name?
Since then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s ministers, his Hindu nationalist supporters, Bollywood stars and cricketers have made similar public proclamations: India should officially be rebranded as Bharat.
India is known by two names: India, used worldwide, and the Sanskrit and Hindi nomenclature of “Bharat.” Now, Modi’s government is signaling that Indians should shed the name India and instead call their country Bharat.
The possibility is resonating with Hindu nationalists who form the prime minister’s core vote base. Their stated reason: the name “India” is tied to colonialism and slavery, a sentiment that Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has long shared. But the reasons — political, cultural, historical — run far deeper.
THERE ARE SOME PRECEDENTS, BUT INDIA’S SITUATION IS SINGULAR
A name — be it of a person or an entire country — is many things. It’s descriptive, emotionally important and deeply wrapped up in identity. So when it comes to a whole nation, a name change is not a small thing.
Around the world, there have been some notable national rebrandings in recent decades as nations shed names inflicted by colonial rulers. Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Rhodesia got rebranded as Zimbabwe in 1980. Burma became Myanmar in 1989. And last year, Turkey was officially changed to Türkiye. The list goes on — Cambodia to Kampuchea (and eventually back again), Swaziland to Eswatini, Malaya to Malaysia.
In India, the country’s renaming demands stem from a more cultural and religious perspective. They are often invoked by Hindu nationalists who say the name Bharat is more authentic to the nation’s past.
Officially, the Indian government has made no decision and issued no statement, and one senior leader dismissed the speculations of a name change as “just rumors.” But India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, seemed to advocate the increased use of Bharat this week.
“‘India, that is Bharat’ — it is there in the constitution. Please, I would invite everybody to read it,” Jaishankar said Wednesday.
Indeed, India’s constitution uses the term Bharat just once: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” Everywhere else, the country is referred to as India in English.
The name Bharat is an ancient Sanskrit word that many historians believe dates back to early Hindu scriptures. “India” has etymological roots in the Indus River, which was called “Sindhu” in Sanskrit. Another popular but not legally recognized name for the country is Hindustan, which means “land of the Indus” in Persian. All three names were in use long before British rule.
But Modi’s government, which won 2014 national polls and returned to power in 2019, has a penchant for changing names.
It has done so with various cities, towns and prominent roads that were long associated with the British rule and Muslim heritage, arguing it is an ongoing effort to salvage the country from the taint of colonialism and so-called Muslim invaders. Prominent among such efforts is the government’s renaming of the northern city of Allahabad — named by Muslim Mughal rulers centuries ago — to the Sanskrit word “Prayagraj.”
POLITICS IS AT THE CENTER OF THE DEBATE
The name-changing exercise is fraught with a political motivation that is an essential ingredient of the ruling government’s revisionist agenda and has, under Modi’s rule, come amid increasing attacks by Hindu nationalists against minorities, particularly Muslims. A largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character, India has a sizable Muslim minority — 14% of the population.
Already, Indians and even foreigners are tacitly being nudged to get used to the revised nomenclature of the country.
A government-made mobile application for media and G20 delegates attending the summit says Bharat is the official name of the country — a first public proclamation of its kind during any global event. Visiting guests for the summit are also being welcomed to the host’s capital city with giant billboards that refer to the country as both Bharat and India.
Efforts to change India’s name have been made in the past through court cases, but judges have so far steered away from the issue. However, an upcoming session of the federal Parliament — a surprise announcement made by the Modi government without disclosing any agenda — has prompted speculation. Opposition parties say an official rebranding could very well be in the cards.
In July, India’s opposition parties announced a new alliance called INDIA in an effort to unseat Modi and defeat his party ahead of national elections in 2024. The acronym stands for “Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.” Since then, some officials in Modi’s party have demanded that the country be called Bharat instead of India.
The formation of that alliance, says Zoya Hasan, an Indian academic and political scientist, “could be the immediate provocation here.”
“It’s a political debate which is aimed at embarrassing the opposition who have re-appropriated the nationalism platform with their new name,” Hasan said. “This rattled the ruling establishment, and they want to regain their monopoly over nationalism by invoking Bharat.”
She also said the timing of suddenly using Bharat is curious given one particular recent event. The chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a radical Hindu movement widely accused of stoking religious hatred with aggressively anti-Muslim views, recently urged Indians to use the Sanskrit name more often. The RSS is the ideological mother ship of Modi’s party, and the prime minister has been its lifelong member.
“They can call it Bharat. It’s one of the official names. But there’s no need to erase India,” Hasan said, adding that the furor is a “needless controversy” as both names “have happily coexisted.”
Modi’s party leaders, meanwhile, have celebrated what they call a much-needed change.
“REPUBLIC OF BHARAT — happy and proud that our civilisation is marching ahead boldly towards AMRIT KAAL,” BJP politician Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Amrit Kaal” is a Hindi phrase meaning “auspicious era” that Modi often uses to describe what he calls India’s resurgence under his government.
Modi’s opponents have been less welcoming, with many saying the government’s priorities are misplaced amid more pressing crises like increasing unemployment, widening religious strife and the backsliding of democracy. They also say his government is rattled by the INDIA grouping, and have — at least sarcastically — suggested they might change the alliance’s name as a countermove.
“We could of course call ourselves the Alliance for Betterment, Harmony And Responsible Advancement for Tomorrow (BHARAT),” opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor wrote on X. “Then perhaps the ruling party might stop this fatuous game of changing names.”