Accessibility links

Breaking News

Is India’s Hindu Nationalist Government Rebranding Nation as Bharat?

In this image taken from video, the placard in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Dehli on Sept. 9, 2023, reads “Bharat” instead of “India."
In this image taken from video, the placard in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Dehli on Sept. 9, 2023, reads “Bharat” instead of “India."

India or Bharat?

Feverish speculation on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is rebranding India as Bharat is gaining momentum on the sidelines of the ongoing Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.

As the event got underway Saturday, the placard in front of Prime Minister Modi read “Bharat” instead of “India,” marking a break from the past. In his opening speech in Hindi, Modi said, “Bharat welcomes the delegates as the president of the G20."

The debate on a possible push to change the country’s name began raging earlier this week after a dinner invitation from President Droupadi Murmu to G20 delegates went out from the “President of Bharat.” It has been customary to use “India” in official communications sent in English.

India, the name by which the world knows the country of 1.4 billion people, is officially known both ways. The constitution states “India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states.”

The issue has sparked a flood of commentary. Those in support are advocating that Bharat should take primacy over India, while others are denouncing it as another bid by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to stir up its Hindu nationalist base ahead of next year’s general elections.

Historians say both nomenclatures, India and Bharat, have been used for centuries. The word India traces its origin to the river Indus, which was called “Sindhu” in Sanskrit, while the name Bharat is a Sanskrit word used in ancient Indian scriptures. British rulers adopted the name India.

The government has not commented on why “Bharat” is getting more currency than at any time in the past at an international gathering. A booklet issued at the summit said Bharat is the official name of the country. Indian officials wore badges that read “Bharat Official.”

Commentators say the motivation lies in the BJP’s domestic political compulsions and its bid to assert India’s cultural identity.

A recently formed alliance of opposition parties has named itself “India” — an acronym for “Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.” The name was chosen to strike a chord of nationalism in a bid to take on Modi, who has successfully fueled nationalistic sentiment to woo supporters during his nine years in power.

“There is a conscious effort to deflect attention away from the opposition alliance taking advantage of the term ‘India,’ and therefore we now see the emphasis on the word ‘Bharat,’ ” said Sandeep Shastri, director of academics at Nitte Education Trust. “I see this largely continuing ’til elections next year.”

The gate at the main venue for the G20 summit reads "Bharat Mandapam," or "Bharat Pavilion," in New Delhi on Sept. 7, 2023.
The gate at the main venue for the G20 summit reads "Bharat Mandapam," or "Bharat Pavilion," in New Delhi on Sept. 7, 2023.

Political analyst Shastri also points to cultural reasons — Bharat is the name that is commonly used to refer to the country in Hindi and other regional languages. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, has long advocated using “Bharat” instead of “India.”

"The name of our country has been Bharat for ages. Whatever may be the language, the name remains the same,” RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said earlier this month.

The opposition Congress Party has denounced the debate as an unnecessary distraction from pressing issues the country faces, such as unemployment and inflation.

Senior Congress Party leader Shashi Tharoor posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, "We could of course call ourselves the Alliance for Betterment, Harmony and Responsible Advancement for Tomorrow (BHARAT). Then perhaps the ruling party might stop this fatuous game of changing names."

During its nine-year rule, the BJP has renamed cities and streets that had their origin in either Mughal times or the British era, saying it was time for India to shed the baggage of foreign rule. The northern city of Allahabad, named by Mughal rulers, has been christened Praygaraj, a Sanskrit word. The street along the prime minister’s residence, known earlier as Race Course Road, is now called “Lok Kalyan Marg.”

Among many common people, there is a measure of cynicism with such moves.

“India’s GDP [Gross Domestic Product] will not improve if we call it Bharat. I won’t get more lucrative jobs, my standard of living won’t improve whether we call it Bharat or India,” said Aakash Kohli, who works for a corporation. “It is all a gimmick.”

Speculation that the BJP plans to rename India Bharat has also mounted because the Modi government has called a five-day special session of parliament starting September 18, without stating an agenda. Opposition politicians have questioned whether that could be one of the issues raised during the session.

The ruling BJP has made no comment. But Modi’s supporters have pointed out that from Asia to Africa, many countries have changed their names in the past — Ceylon to Sri Lanka, Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Burma to Myanmar and Turkey to Turkiye.

Officially dropping the name India and switching exclusively to Bharat, however, might not be easy because the change would require a constitutional amendment that needs the support of two-thirds of parliament. While the BJP could easily muster the numbers in the lower house, whipping up that support in the upper house would be harder.

“It will be more of rhetoric, which we will see in the run-up to the election campaign and then we will see it dying down,” said Shastri. “Of course, depending on how it plays out and if it yields electoral dividends, we may see the change happening post 2024.”

For many, the issue is simply irrelevant. “Honestly, I don’t care. How will a name change make any difference? But I really hope we don’t go around renaming everything from India to Bharat because that will be a huge waste of money,” said a 40-year-old who did not want to be named.