The recent G20 summit hosted by India was the perfect stage to showcase the country’s rising prominence and ambitions on the world stage. With many developments on the table, one decision seemed to overshadow them all in light of its significance and implications for the world’s largest democracy.
In a move that could be seen as an assertion of its own identity, the official G20 dinner invites were sent under the title “President of Bharat,” departing from the conventional “President of India.”
Both names are mentioned in the first article of the Constitution of India, which reads, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,”- setting the precedent of the two names being used interchangeably. However, the latter is seen as a more fitting term that evokes more cultural and sentimental attachment in the native tongue.
The move has led to frenzied speculation about an impending name change to a singular Bharat.
The government in power has been committed to removing traces of outside influence, including India’s colonial past, and a move to reject what it deems a colonial nomenclature- ‘India’ in favour of Bharat, aligns with such motives.
Could the move be a simple acknowledgement of the country’s cultural heritage, or could it also have deeper underpinnings, an attempt to harness the rising nationalistic fervour or an attempt at political gains against adversaries? Allegations have been wide-ranging, from accusations of politicking to many debates on the wisdom of such a move, given its massive ramifications.
It is yet to be seen how this polarizing decision will impact the economic and political fabric of the country or if it will change the literature of the Constitution of India- the holy grail of Indian administration.
While there’s no official mandate on the renaming of the country to Bharat, many anticipate the topic to be a hot topic at the special session of the Parliament, beginning September 18th.
Mention of the word ‘Bharat’ can be traced back to the texts of the Rig Veda, the oldest known Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back to 1500-1000 BCE. It refers explicitly to ‘Bharatas’ as one of the original tribes of the northern Indian subcontinent.
The word is also found in the title of the Sanskrit epic- the Mahabharata, loosely translating to “Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty.” The epic mentions the prince Bharata or Bharat, an ancestor of the Kauravas, the Pandavas and the Bharata people, along with his geographic realm, Bharatavarsa (subcontinent of Bharata), comprising the Northern parts of the Indian subcontinent.
India and its usage under Colonial rule
Alternatively, the name India takes from the word Sindhu or Indus- the titular river that came to be associated with the country due to the influence of Greek writers like Herodotus, who ascribed the name to the entire eastern subcontinent.
This Greek-Latin association and its historical context may have played a large part in the adoption of the name by colonial powers like the British during the 16th and 17th centuries. The company that heralded colonial rule in India was also named the East India Company, further deepening the name’s ties to a colonial past.
Post-independence debate about the country’s name
Article 1 of the Constitution, which reads- “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,” was proposed by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution.
It aroused much deliberation even during the Constitution’s initial framing, with many objections to the name’s colonial association. Critics included HV Kamath from the Forward Bloc faction headed by Netaji Bose, who called the phrase “India, that is Bharat,” clumsy and pressed for an amendment of Article 1 to “Bharat or, in the English language India, shall be a Union of States.”
Hargovind Pant, a freedom fighter speaking in support of the name Bharat, said,
“If we, even then, cling to the word ‘India,’ it would only show that we are not ashamed of having this insulting word which has been imposed on us by alien rulers.”
Despite support from different quarters, including Congress leaders like Seth Govind Das and Kamlapati Tripathi, the motion was defeated by 51 noes against 38 ayes, leading to the adoption of Ambedkar’s initial proposition.
The Current political climate and rationale for a name change
Much of the Bhartiya Janata Party’s popular support comes from appeals to the country’s indigenous heritage and cultures, and many names with colonial or foreign undertones have been changed, sometimes controversially, for this very reason.
Prominent examples include the iconic Rajpath, renamed Kartavyapath or “path of duty,” and the cities of Aurangabad and Osmanabad, renamed Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar and Dhrashiv.
This attempt to break association with eras of subjugation under foreign rule could be the rationale behind the current promotion of the name “Bharat.”
Political motives could also factor into the sudden change, with a resurgent opposition building momentum after an election victory in Karnataka and banding together under the strategically named INDIA alliance.
The calculated move to appeal to a name from the country’s ancient past could position the ruling party as inheritors of the more culturally grounded ‘Bharat’ while repelling the opposition’s attempt to formulate a nationwide alliance under a name rife with colonial baggage.
Parties and leaders supporting the name change
The move was met with massive support from members of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, with many taking to platforms like X (formerly Twitter) to express their support. This included the chief minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma and the Education Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, who tweeted a line of the national anthem containing the word ‘Bharat.’ Other vocal supporters included the Union Minister for Electronics and Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the BJP Rajya Sabha member, Naresh Bansal.
Opposition- arguments and concerns
The move did not go over well with members of the political opposition. The Congress MP, Rahul Gandhi, termed it a panic reaction of the ruling party, borne of fear and a distraction from the newly formed INDIA bloc.
Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and a member of the rival AAP (Aam Aadmi Party), questioned the ruling party’s move, asking if the name would undergo further rechristening if the opposition INDIA bloc was renamed Bharat.
Sashi Tharoor, another esteemed member of the Indian National Congress, called out the wisdom of the move given the prestige and brand value associated with the “India” name over the years. He called for the use of both names- as stated in the Constitution, instead of relinquishing one for the other.
Darren Olivier, an intellectual property lawyer who previously estimated the cost of renaming Swaziland to Eswatini in 2018, predicted that a similar venture for India would come at a cost of Rs 14,304 crore. Olivier’s formula is based on studies of rebranding exercises in large corporations where the average marketing costs are 6% of total revenue, with rebrandings taking up over 10% of this earmarked budget.
Finding common cultural ground in a democracy as diverse as India requires a careful balance of interests and assurances to vulnerable minorities. In this regard, the name Bharat and its popularity among Hindu nationalists could alienate sections of society and minorities not from the predominant community. At worst, it could exacerbate preexisting religious divides.
Now to the million-dollar question: what happens to many renowned institutions that carry the India tag in their names. A rebranding could mean a severe hit to such establishments’ history and prestige, along with additional costs.
It goes without saying that mass Rebranding to reflect the country’s new name will also be a logistical nightmare that could compromise business activity and growth. This does not take into account the bureaucratic challenge of changing the name in official documents and records and getting the international community to acknowledge the move.
Take the case of Türkiye, formerly Turkey. According to a report by Mint, the country’s new name has often been bungled by the US administration, which has continually reverted to addressing the country as Turkey or Turkish in official communiques despite American departments shifting to the new term Turkiye.
If a simple change in pronunciation could elicit such confusion, a complete change would entail even more headaches.
The country could throw caution to the wind and endorse a total implementation of the name change, tanking hits to the reputation and credibility of established institutions. Or, more logically, proceed cautiously, making exceptions where necessary.
As it currently stands, the matter is very much speculative until the Indian government issues any solid directive.
Controversies and debates
Arguments in favor of the name change
An assertion of cultural and historical identity
An argument for adopting Bharat is the assertion of cultural and historical identity. The name ‘India’ carries a colonial legacy, evident from the earliest discussions of the constituent assembly post-independence. While it was retained for administrative continuity and inclusivity, among other reasons, a break is seen as the next logical step, befitting India’s rising status and place in the world.
Promotion of indigenous languages and heritage
Bharat, an endonym for the Indian subcontinent with origins in the ancient Rigveda texts, evokes a deeper connection with indigenous cultures and languages and is often found in rallying calls like the famous “Bharat Mata ki Jai.” The renaming could promote indigenous languages and heritage that have often been ignored over the years.
While both India and Bharat can be used interchangeably, India is seen as an Anglicized name for the country.
Arguments against the name change
Potential international confusion and complications
Sashi Tharoor’s earlier warning sums up the difficulties surrounding adopting the name Bharat over India.
In his words, “While there is no constitutional objection to calling India ‘Bharat,’ which is one of the country’s two official names, I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with ‘India,’ which has incalculable brand value built up over centuries.”
Given that India is synonymous with democracy, secular beliefs and diversity, a sudden name change could trigger alarm bells for allies and actors who will question the motive behind such a move or associate it with a departure from its core values.
Political motivations and distractions
The political angle cannot be discounted when looking into the sudden change in the President’s official designation.
Prime Minister Modi’s speeches in recent years have referenced the need to move past the slave mentality, referencing centuries of subjugation at the hands of foreign invasions and colonial empires. Under his governance, many cities and locations bearing names associated with the Mughals and English have been renamed after local heroes and freedom fighters to inculcate pride in the country’s heritage. The move to rename India would be consistent with the BJP’s political goals.
For critics, the move to rename India is seen as a political checkmate aimed at the opposition party’s recently formed INDIA alliance.
In his criticism, the Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, implied that the name change was due to the INDIA bloc and stated that the country belonged to 140 crore people and not to the whims of any single party.
The timing of the move has also come under flak from several quarters, with the Congress President, Mallikarjun Kharge, calling it a diversion and distraction. It should be noted that India’s northeastern state of Manipur was reeling under ethnic violence during these developments.
Regardless of the motives, changing the country’s name to Bharat will be an unprecedented move never attempted by a national party. It could have broader political implications for the future of the Constitution of India.
Regional perspectives and concerns
Despite its North Indian origins, Bharat or Bharatvarsa has come to encompass the entirety of the nation. The word has historically had mass support in the North and among the predominant Hindu community.
In Present-day India, support for the ‘Bharat’ name seems to have transcended regional lines, with supporters including the chief minister of Assam- a Northeastern state far from the nation’s heartland. Opposition to the move seems to be more grounded along political lines.
The etymological roots of ‘Bharat’ in Hindu culture and, to a larger extent, its adoption and popularity in right-wing circles could also alienate minorities without proper reassurance from the government.
Name changes are not uncommon in the international arena and can reflect changing political, social, economic or other realities. It would not be an aberration if India chose to move ahead with a formal name change.
The International community headed by the United Nations has maintained that it will consider formal requests for name changes. Speaking to NDTV during the recently concluded G20 summit, the UN Secretary General’s chief spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, said,
“When India completes the formalities to change the name, they will inform us, and we will change the name at the UN (records).”
He cited Turkey’s change to Türkiye through a formal request and maintained that the UN would entertain similar requests as long as the formalities were followed.
He also maintained that the UN would refrain from commenting on any debate over India’s name change.
Diplomatic considerations and foreign relations
A departure from colonial nomenclature could be a symbolic victory for a resurgent India and a psychological win for similar colonies that languished under colonial rule. It would help legitimize India’s growing leadership role in the global south and lead to a potential restructuring of the world order that does away with the influence of traditional superpowers.
While the country can benefit diplomatically from a name change, it also risks alienating current partners.
As previously stated by Shashi Tharoor, the name ‘India’ has incalculable brand value built up over decades. The name has come to be associated with the country’s secular principles and inclusivity for its diverse demographic. Sudden deviations could, therefore, lead partners to question the country’s commitment to its constitutional values or agreements and strain already established ties. This is without considering the additional bureaucratic burden it would place on all parties to revise international agreements.
The article has discussed the reasoning that could be behind a move to change names, its historical roots in ancient Hindu texts, possible motives and the political context behind the move, what the two constitutional names India and Bharat have come to symbolize, the economic and social impact of any change and the apprehension it could cause among minorities for a nation as diverse as India.
As India ascends on the world stage, such decisions will be subject to greater scrutiny and have more significant connotations and consequences.
The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party is uniquely positioned to compete with the legacy of previous political dynasties. Renaming the country to reflect its cultural heritage could be crucial in separating themselves from their predecessors.
In the same vein, the opposition has the responsibility of being an effective check and balance on the powers of the ruling party to secure the future of the largest democracy in the world.
There are no concrete answers to the ‘Bharat’ question, and the government has been surprisingly mum on future plans since the G20 incident. The only breakthrough, if any, was the news of a special session of the Parliament scheduled for September 18- 22. Speculation has been that the government will announce the country’s renaming over this special session.
As of September 20th, the special session of the Parliament has unanimously passed a Women’s Reservation Bill granting women 33% seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. No announcements have been made regarding changes to the country’s name.
It remains to be seen if the change in the President’s designation as President of Bharat during the G20 Summit was a one-off coincidence or if it has implications for the future of the country’s name.