In boisterous democracies, there are heated debates over intangible and seemingly arbitrary issues such as names, titles, and identities. These arguments have a penchant for revisiting history. In the United States, discussions about gun rights, abortion, and race stem from different understandings of the nation’s past and, often, its very foundation.
The Indian government’s use of “Bharat” instead of “India” in the invitations for last week’s G20 meeting has unleashed such a discussion within the country and raised more questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s objectives abroad. The name Bharat was applied to the lands of modern India for over three thousand years. Ancient Sanskrit religious texts and epics, like the Vedas and the Mahabharata, reference the name. On the other hand, “India” was derived from the fifth-century BC Greek reckoning of the Persian corruption of the Sanskrit placename “Sindhu,” designating the Indus River.
First, the timing is noteworthy. India is using the G20 to position itself as the leader and voice of the Global South. Over the last few years, the Modi administration has consistently championed the voices of the developing world, referred to as the Global South. Not only was his government among the first to deliver vaccines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also used every opportunity on the world stage to discuss reforms in the multilateral system that would make it more equitable for nations in the Global South. Modi has also advocated for including the African Union in the G20. Consequently, leaders such as the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, James Marape, have hailed him as the leader of the Global South for offering a third way in the tense climate under Cold War 2.0.
India’s goodwill in the Global South on various global platforms is not only a result of their delivery of public goods or recent advocacy efforts. There is also the underlying solidarity extending from a shared history as victims of imperialism. This renaming of the nation in an invitation sent out to global delegates is a product of that solidarity. It is increasingly seen as a decolonizing effort, at least by the supporters of the ruling government. Though, the partisan support is likely out of domestic concerns.
Interestingly, on the domestic front, the Modi administration hopes to convert nationalist fervor into votes for the 2024 parliamentary elections. Furthermore, the leader of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on Bharat prior to the news of the invitation have understandably raised concerns among the opposition parties in India on the domestic impacts of this supposed decolonizing initiative.
The fears over the ideological motivations behind the change are not unfounded. The RSS has previously called for an “Akand Bharat,” or “undivided” India. This conception of India encompasses almost all modern-day “South Asia” (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, and Myanmar) and highlights the vast territories the RSS considers lost to various invasions in the last thousand years. This is at odds with the vision of the Indian National Congress (INC) and other state political parties committed to the borders agreed to post-1947 and have in the name of federalism.
The idea of changing names is more than a partisan initiative, however. Across the nation, names of cities, towns, and even streets have been changed to their pre-colonization ones or new ones in the vernacular. For example, Bombay was renamed Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, Calcutta became Kolkata, Cochin became Kochi, and more recently, Allahabad became Prayagraj.
The partisan divide in India concerns the larger question: Who colonized India? The BJP and opposition parties agree that the British Empire colonized India, and the former’s dissolution in 1947 warrants a shedding of imperial vestiges from Indian institutions.
However, they disagree on the Islamic Mughal Empire’s role in shaping India, its cultural fabric, and institutions. From the blood-stained partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 to 2023, the question lingers on. Hence, despite “India, that is Bharat” appearing as the first words in Article 1 of the Indian Constitution, renaming the nation, even on a state invitation, has led to this clamor.
Much like the American debates about the founding of the United States (1619 vs. 1776), there is the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul’s understanding of India (a wounded civilization coming to terms with its identity after centuries of Muslim and British rule) and prominent historian Romila Thapar’s inclusive, secular nationalist understanding of India. Naipaul’s thesis that the civilization’s scars predate the British Empire does not sit well with India’s liberal and left-wing thought leaders like Thapar and Arundhati Roy, who claim that the Mughals integrated within Indian society, unlike the British. Therefore, they did not truly preside over a colonial or imperial project.
Bharat by itself is commonly used in various contexts and has not been marred in controversy as it has recently. For example, it was used by freedom fighters and poets during the British Raj—even by those from southern India—the area now more critical of the use of Bharat. Several Indian government-run conglomerates and universities have long used Bharat or even Hindustan in their names. More so, even the venue for the G20 event is called the “Bharat Mandapam,” which translates to “Indian Hall.”
The name change is also a part of the Modi government’s yearning to assert India on the world stage. While it has a precarious way of going about it—dallying between different camps—one week at the BRICS summit and another at the Quad leaders’ summit—it is indeed cashing in on the benefits from both camps. In a meeting that brings both camps together, it has rightly used the opportunity to rename itself.
There are domestic and diplomatic reasons for the India-Bharat change, and it stands as the latest flashpoint in the debates over Indian (or Bharatian) identity. As an election year approaches, one can expect the vagaries of Lutyens Square (New Delhi’s knot of government buildings named after the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens) to make headlines. Those headlines, however, do not often materialize to earth-shattering reforms, particularly in an election year. Is Bharat here to stay? I’d suggest asking again in June 2024 for a definite answer.
Akhil Ramesh is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Pacific Forum.