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India vs Bharat: what’s in a name? Both have roots in Sanskrit, but only one has colonial baggage – blame Ancient Greece for that


The 2023 G20 New Delhi summit was recently convened in India – or, rather, in Bharat.

The country’s 1950 constitution recognises both: “India, that is Bharat”. Official practice uses both names jointly or interchangeably, with “Bharat” used in the local languages. Both feature on Indian passports.

The G20 logo had “Bharat” written in Hindi and “India” in English.

The G20 logo had “Bharat” written in Hindi and “India” in English. Photo: AFP

The name “India” has roots in the Sanskrit sindhu, meaning “river”, specifically the Indus River and the lower Indus basin (modern-day Sindh, in Pakistan).

This became Old Persian Hindu, after Persian conquest of the region, which passed into Greek as Indos for “Indus River” and Indía for the region of the Indus River to the Ganges delta. The name “India” was, via Latin, adopted into English.

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The name “India” is now being eschewed by the nationalist government as indexing colonialism and slavery.

Bhārat”, in contrast, is embraced for its Hindu symbolism, with origins in the Bhāratas tribe documented in the ancient Vedic Sanskrit texts and the epic Mahabharata.

It was prominent in anti-colonial struggles. A popular slogan is “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, “Hail to mother Bharat”.

Countries change names to reflect shifts in political power, changes in governance, or territorial expansion or contraction. Decolonisation and the assertion of indigenous cultural identity are particularly strong motivations.
British colonial statesman and financier Cecil John Rhodes, after whom colonial Rhodesia was named. It changed its name to Zimbabwe after independence. Photo: Getty Images

The African continent is a good illustration, especially with many nations’ independence in the 20th century.

Rhodesia, named after British coloniser Cecil Rhodes, became Zimbabwe. Upper Volta’s change to Burkina Faso foregrounds different languages of the country: Burkina from Mòoré means “men of integrity”, Faso in Douala means “fatherland”.

India’s renaming to “Bharat” is another step in the government’s decade-long process of decolonisation – via the erasure of linguistic vestiges of the British colonial era and Islamic rule of the Mughal period, as seen with changes in several cities’ and states’ names in recent years.
A Mughal-style painting of hunters riding elephants. India was under Islamic rule in the Mughal period. Photo: Getty Images

However, a relinquishing of “India” as country name and political signifier could lead to semantic change, and leave it with cultural and civilisational meaning instead, journalists Imran Mulla and Peter Oborne note.

“India” could then come full circle, and be reappropriated for a larger, earlier territory in the subcontinent.



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