India or Bharat: What’s behind the dispute over the country’s name?

A change to the Sanskrit name is backed by PM Narendra Modi’s BJP, which says the word ‘India’ is a symbol of colonial slavery.

Controversy has gripped India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government referred to the country as Bharat on official invitations, leaving many wondering whether the name will be changed.

In dinner invitations sent on Tuesday to guests attending this week’s Group of 20 (G20) summit, Droupadi Murmu is referred to as “President of Bharat” instead of the usual “President of India”.

On the same day, a tweet by a senior spokesman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said Modi was attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia as the “prime minister of Bharat”.

In its constitution, the world’s most populous country is known as India and Bharat. Hindustan (“land of the Hindus” in Urdu) is another word for the country. The three names are used interchangeably officially and by the public.

However, around the world, India is the most commonly used name.

Why has ‘Bharat’ caused controversy?

Since the G20 invitations were delivered, government critics have accused Modi’s government and his Hindu nationalist BJP of planning to change the name to only Bharat.

The name is a Sanskrit term found in scriptures written about 2,000 years ago. It refers to an ambiguous territory, Bharatavarsa, which stretched beyond today’s borders of India and may have extended to include what is today Indonesia.

The BJP has already renamed cities and places that were linked to the Mughal and colonial periods. Last year, for instance, the Mughal Garden at the presidential palace in New Delhi was renamed Amrit Udyan.

Critics said the new names are an attempt to erase the Mughals, who were Muslims and ruled the subcontinent for almost 300 years, from Indian history.

For Roop Rekha Verma, professor of philosophy and former vice chancellor of Lucknow University in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the controversy is rooted in the intolerance shown by Modi’s government.

“We have seen that there is continuous disregard for the constitution and laws. If the Supreme Court gives an order and the government does not like it, then it is changed,” Verma told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

“I can’t say what will happen next, but I think that because of the alliance that the opposition has formed, they have now set out to remove the name India as well.”

How has India’s opposition reacted?

The opposition has warned the BJP against doing away with the name India.

“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 lawmaker for the Indian National Congress party, posted on X, the site 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,” he added.

Congress is leading a new opposition alliance that was recently formed with the aim of unseating Modi in the 2024 general election. The 26-party Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, has made the potential name change an issue.

“We all say ‘Bharat’. What is new in this? But the name ‘India’ is known to the world. … What happened suddenly that the government had to change the name of the country?” asked Mamata Banerjee, a top opposition leader.

What has the BJP said?

The BJP has argued that the name “India” is a remnant of the country’s colonial past.

Naresh Bansal, a BJP member of parliament, said the name “India” is a symbol of “colonial slavery” and “should be removed from the constitution”.

“The British changed Bharat’s name to India,” Bansal said in a parliamentary session. “Our country has been known by the name ‘Bharat’ for thousands of years. … The name ‘India’ was given by the colonial Raj and is thus a symbol of slavery.”

What happens next?

The Indian government has called a special parliamentary session on September 18-22 but has not announced any agenda, leading to speculation that it will be used to rename the country.

However, some government officials, such as Information Minister Arunag Thakur, have dismissed the idea as “rumours” spread by the opposition.

Political and electoral concerns are a key factor in the India-Bharat issue, according to Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank.

Kidwai believes the ramped-up rhetoric proves Modi is “feeling the heat” from the opposition.

“It demonstrates the BJP’s trepidation,” he said. “The party has been claiming that Modi is indispensable, but for the first time, he is feeling that the threat from the opposition bloc is real, which is why his party has planned to change the country’s name to Bharat.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies