India may be changing its name

A single word on a dinner invitation has sparked frenzied speculation that India is changing its name and has picked a highly controversial alternative.

Earlier this week, Indian president Droupadi Murmu was referred to as the “President of Bharat” on an invitation to a state dinner for leaders attending the G20 summit in Delhi this weekend.

Sambit Patra, the national spokesman of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), added to the speculation when he shared an image of an official card that referenced Narendra Modi as “the Prime Minister of Bharat”.

That single word — Bharat — which appeared on both invites has ignited rumours that India may be in the process of officially changing its name.

Why might India change its name?

Bharat is an ancient Sanskrit word that has long been used to describe India.

Generally, the word India is used when referencing the country in English, while Bharat is used in Hindi. Both names — as well as a third, Hindustan, which means “land of the Hindus” in Urdu — are used interchangeably by the public.

But it was exceptionally unusual to see the word Bharat on the dinner invitations, which were otherwise in English — and the word is highly politically loaded.

Indian state governments, like those in many postcolonial countries, have in recent years renamed a slew of colonial-era cities. Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai and Calcutta became Kolkata, to name a few.

More controversially, though, India has also renamed many cities established by the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty responsible for founding much of India. In 2018, for instance, the Mughal-founded city of Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj, a Sanskrit word that officials claimed was its original name.

The BJP, which is led by Mr Modi, has been accused repeatedly of stoking Hindu nationalism in India at the expense of the country’s minority Muslim population — and it is the BJP that has spearheaded the fight to change India’s name.

Why is India’s potential name change controversial?

Proponents of the name change claim the word India is tied to the country’s colonial history under the British.

Retired Indian cricket star Virender Sehwag, for instance, heralded the potential change in a post to his 23.4 million followers on X. He even called on cricket authorities to ensure that “our players have Bharat on our chest” at the World Cup tournament in India in November.

“I have always believed a name should be one which instils pride in us. We are Bhartiyas. India is a name given by the British & it has been long overdue to get our original name ‘Bharat’ back officially,” he wrote.

Naresh Bansal, a BJP politician, also said the name “India” was a symbol of “colonial slavery” and “should be removed from the constitution”.

“The British changed Bharat’s name to India,” he 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.”

Importantly, historians generally agree that India was not named as such by the British. In fact, both names — India and Bharat — have been used to refer to the region for more than 2000 years.

The most fervent opponents of the potential name change say it is part of a greater push by the BJP to officialise Hindi over the 21 other languages referenced in the Indian constitution and at least 100 more that are spoken within various Indian communities.

Critics also say changing the names of Indian cities and regions — and potentially of India itself — erases the country’s historic and cultural heritage.

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician from the opposition Congress Party, said changing India’s name would blow “incalculable brand value” that had built up over centuries.

“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 wrote.

What happens next?

The Indian government has called a special parliamentary session on September 18-22 but has not announced an agenda, leading some to believe the meeting will be used to rename the country officially.

Others speculate the change will not come so soon, but rather the current controversy is a means of buttering up the public.

Robin Jeffrey, a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, said the references to “Bharat” on the event invitations could signal a slower move towards a new name.

“I think it’s a way to soften up the world’s media and get people learning about Bharat,” he said.

“It’s also a way of softening up India on this.”

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