A single word on a dinner invitation has sparked frenzied speculation that India is changing its name and opting for a highly controversial alternative.
Earlier this week, Indian President Droupadi Murmu was dubbed the “President of Bharat” in an invitation to a state dinner for leaders attending this weekend’s G20 summit in Delhi.
Sambit Patra, the national spokesman for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), added to speculation when he shared an image of an official card that referred to Narendra Modi as “the prime minister of Bharat”.
That single word – Bharat – that appeared on both invitations has sparked rumors 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.
In English, the word “India” is generally used to denote the country, while in Hindi, the word “Bharat” is used.
Both names – as well as a third, Hindustan, which means “land of the Hindus” in Urdu – are used interchangeably by the public.
However, it was extremely unusual to see the word Bharat on the dinner invitations, which were otherwise written in English – and the word is extremely politically charged.
Indian state governments, as in many post-colonial countries, have renamed numerous colonial-era cities in recent years.
Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai and Kolkata became Kolkata to name a few.
More controversially, however, India also renamed many cities founded by the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty responsible for founding much of India.
In 2018, for example, the Mughal-founded city of Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj, a Sanskrit word officials claimed was its original name.
The BJP, led by Mr Modi, has repeatedly been accused of fomenting Hindu nationalism in India at the expense of the country’s Muslim minority – and it is the BJP that has led the fight to change India’s name.
Why is India’s potential name change controversial?
Supporters of the name change claim the word India is linked to the country’s colonial history under the British.
For example, retired Indian cricket star Virender Sehwag announced the potential change in a post to his 23.4 million followers on X.
He even called on the cricket authorities to ensure “our players have Bharat on their chests” at the World Cup tournament in India in November.
“I’ve always believed that a name should be one that makes us proud. We are Bhartiyas. “India is a British name and it was long overdue to officially get our original name ‘Bharat’ back,” he wrote.
Naresh Bansal, a BJP politician, also said the name “India” is a symbol of “colonial slavery” and “should be removed from the constitution”.
“British changed Bharat’s name to India,” he told 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 referred to as such by the British.
In fact, both names – India and Bharat – have been used to designate the region for more than 2,000 years.
Strongest opponents of the possible name change say it is part of a larger push by the BJP to make Hindi official over the 21 other languages listed in India’s constitution and at least 100 other languages spoken in various Indian communities.
Critics also say that changing the names of Indian cities and regions – and possibly India itself – is wiping out the country’s historical and cultural heritage.
Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician from the opposition Congress Party, said changing India’s name would destroy “incalculable brand equity” built up over centuries.
“We should continue to use both words rather than give up our claim to a historic name, a name recognized around the world,” he wrote.
What happens next?
The Indian government has called a special session of parliament for September 18-22 but has not announced an agenda, leading some to believe the session will be used to officially rename the country.
Others speculate that the change won’t come any time soon, but that the current controversy is more of a means to ingratiate the public.
Robin Jeffrey, a visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, said the references to “Bharat” in the event invitations could indicate a slower move towards a new name.
“I think it’s a way to soften the world’s media and get people to know more about Bharat,” he said.
“It’s also a way to soften India up on this.”