The Narendra Modi-led government is dignified to present a tenacity to change India’s official name to Bharat — a term courting back to primeval Hindu scriptures Vishnu Purana and Brahma Purana
India has found itself embroiled in controversy as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration used the name ‘Bharat’ on official invitations, sparking speculation about a potential name change for the country.
While the current focus should ideally revolve around the forthcoming G20 Leaders’ Summit 2023, scheduled for September 9-10 in New Delhi, featuring prominent world leaders such as US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and French President Emmanuel Macron, there’s an even more significant buzz surrounding the possibility of India abandoning its official English name.
Although it may seem implausible to some, these rumors have gained credibility. India’s President, Droupadi Murmu, recently issued an official invitation for the G20 dinner in which she identified herself as the ‘President of Bharat,’ breaking from the customary ‘President of India’ title.
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Furthermore, according to recent reports in the Indian media, during the special parliamentary session set for September 18-22, the government led by Narendra Modi intends to propose a resolution to change India’s official name to ‘Bharat.’ This word traces its origins back to ancient Hindu scriptures like the Vishnu Purana and Brahma Purana, written in Sanskrit. Some even suggest that the seventh-century Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang, referred to the nation as ‘Bharat.’
India’s many names
India is possibly the only country in the world that has a numeral of names: Bharat, India, Hindustan or Hind and the most ancient Jambu Dweep. However, currently, only Bharat and India are widely used, with Hindustan/Hind making occasional appearances.
Conversely, the term ‘India’ finds its roots in the Anglicization of the Sanskrit word for the Indus River, ‘Sindhu,’ and was introduced during the British colonial rule of India from 1858 to 1947. Nevertheless, the usage of the term ‘India’ has a historical lineage dating back to ancient epochs, with mentions found in Greek writings as early as the 5th century BCE. It even found its way into Old English as far back as the ninth century and reemerged in Modern English during the 17th century.
Another frequently employed name for the nation is ‘Hindustan,’ which translates to ‘land of the Indus’ in Persian. This appellation gained prominence during the Mughal period and is frequently invoked by Hindu nationalists. However, it does not hold official recognition as India’s legal name within the constitution.
How has India’s opposition reacted?
According to political analysts in India, the BJP is seemingly testing the political waters in a bid to cater to its conservative voter base in preparation for the 2024 general elections.
Commenting on this, political commentator Neerja Chowdhury stated, ‘They appear concerned about the prospect of one-on-one electoral contests and are endeavoring to stir up nationalist sentiment.’
This move to change names and reshape historical narratives is not a new strategy for the BJP. Since 2014, they have been altering the names of cities and other significant landmarks across India, alongside revising the country’s history. These actions align with their Hindu nationalist ideology and agenda.
A notable example of this approach is the recent redevelopment of the Central Vista, a 35-hectare (8.6-acre) area in the heart of New Delhi, which contained iconic heritage sites. The government transformed it into a public space housing museums and government buildings. Critics argue that this renovation reflects an attempt by the BJP to reshape collective historical memory and erase symbols of British colonial rule.
However, discontinuing the use of the term ‘India’ would not be a straightforward endeavor. Legal experts assert that it would necessitate a constitutional amendment, requiring approval by a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and ratification by at least half of the states.
Rasheed Kidwai, a political analyst in India, suggests that the opposition alliance has unsettled the ruling party. Proposals like changing the country’s name may be indicative of the BJP’s growing unease as the election draws near.
Congress is spearheading a fresh opposition coalition recently established with the goal of removing Modi from power in the 2024 general election. This coalition, named the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), has brought the potential name change to the forefront of its agenda.
Mamata Banerjee, a prominent opposition figure, questioned the rationale behind this sudden move, stating, ‘We all refer to it as ‘Bharat.’ What’s new about that? The name ‘India’ is recognized worldwide. What has prompted the government to consider changing the country’s name?’
Why has ‘Bharat’ caused controversy?
It should be mentioned that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself frequently uses the term ‘Bharat’ when referring to India. This recent development aligns with the longstanding views of members from the Hindu nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have advocated against the usage of the name “India.” They argue that “India” has its roots in Western antiquity and was imposed during the era of British colonization.
Article 1 of the Indian Constitution, which establishes the fundamental principles governing the entire constitutional framework, begins by referencing both ‘India’ and ‘Bharat.’ Any alteration of the country’s name would necessitate an amendment to Article 1. The draft of Article 1 was ratified on September 18, 1949, and it was proposed by Dr. Ambedkar, who chaired the Drafting Committee.
According to PDT Archary, a respected constitutional expert, the phrase “India, that is Bharat” found in Article 1 serves a descriptive function, and these two terms cannot be used interchangeably.
What happens next?
The Indian government’s decision to convene a special parliamentary session from September 18-22, coupled with the absence of a disclosed agenda, has sparked speculation about the potential renaming of the country.
However, specific government figures, including Information Minister Arunag Thakur, have firmly rejected these rumors, labeling them as baseless claims propagated by opposition forces.
Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, emphasizes the pivotal role of political and electoral considerations in the India-Bharat debate. According to Kidwai, the escalated rhetoric reflects Prime Minister Modi’s recognition of mounting pressure from the opposition.
‘It highlights the BJP’s discomfort,’ he remarked. “Despite the party’s consistent assertion of Modi’s indispensability, there is now a clear acknowledgment of a genuine threat posed by the opposition coalition. This has prompted discussions within the party about the possibility of changing the country’s name to ‘Bharat.’