India, a country recognized worldwide by its official name, has recently stirred a significant controversy involving its ancient name, ‘”Bharat.” This controversy was propelled into the limelight as New Delhi prepared to host the G20 leaders, and the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sent out invitations to a summit dinner. Interestingly, the invitations did not request the pleasure of the leaders’ company by the “President of India,” but rather by the “President of Bharat.” This deliberate choice of nomenclature reveals an underlying struggle between nationalism, historical heritage, and modern identity that runs deep within the Indian political landscape.
The term “Bharat” has ancient roots, being a Sanskrit and Hindi word that has long been interchangeable with “India.” The first article of the Indian constitution declares, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” However, the term “Bharat” has gained political significance in recent years, becoming the preferred nomenclature of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While some nationalists argue that “Bharat” is an accepted alternative to “India,” bearing colonial baggage, critics assert that the BJP uses “Bharat” to evoke an exclusively Hindu past in a country that is home to more Muslims than any nation in the Middle East.
Prominent BJP members praised the move to use ‘Bharat’ on the G20 invitations. Uttarakhand Chief Minister and BJP member, Pushkar Singh Dhami, took to social media, calling it “another blow to the slavery mentality,” alluding to the idea that the name “‘India” is tied to colonialism and slavery. Himanta Biswa Sarma, another BJP politician, expressed his pride and happiness, stating that the civilization is marching boldly towards “AMRIT KAAL,” an auspicious period that Modi evokes to describe the nation’s resurgence under his rule.
This move towards “Bharat” aligns with a larger revisionist impulse of the Indian right. The BJP has been pushing to erase names originating from colonial rule and, increasingly, those associated with Muslim heritage. For instance, officials changed the name of the northern Indian city Allahabad, named by Muslim Mughal rulers centuries ago, to the Sanskrit word Prayagraj, argued to be the original name.
Opposition politicians suggest that this move is a dig at the coalition of over two dozen opposition parties that gathered under the name “INDIA” – Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance – to challenge Modi and his ruling party in the upcoming national elections. Sitaram Yechury, leader of the Communist Party of India, expressed his confusion and frustration to the Press Trust of India, stating, “We just don’t know why they hate ‘India’ so much.“
Local media outlets have reported speculation that the BJP may propose to change the name officially through a Parliament resolution, signaling a potentially contentious debate in the near future.
The controversy surrounding the use of “Bharat” instead of “India” on the G20 invitations unveils a deeper struggle within India involving nationalism, historical heritage, and modern identity. It is a struggle that is reflected in the politics of other countries as well, as nations grapple with their colonial pasts and seek to redefine themselves in a modern context. The choice of nomenclature is more than just a matter of semantics; it reveals the undercurrents of a nation’s psyche and its aspirations for the future. Whether ‘India’ will officially become “Bharat” remains to be seen, but the conversation sparked by this diplomatic controversy will undoubtedly continue to shape the political and cultural landscape of the country.
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