New Delhi, India – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his opening address to the G20 summit on Saturday with his country nameplate labelled ‘Bharat’ – an ancient Sanskrit word – in the biggest signal yet of a potential official change.
The gesture came days after invitations to the summit dinner were sent out in the name of the ‘President of Bharat’, prompting rumours that official usage of the country’s English name would be scrapped.
Modi himself typically refers to India as ‘Bharat’, a word steeped in Hindu religious symbolism and dating back to scripture: in the Mahabharata, King Dushyant and Shakuntala’s son was named ‘Bharat’ and the kingdom he inherited came to be known as ‘Bharatvarsha’.
Hindus are the overwhelming majority of India’s 1.4bn population but many religious minorities, in particular its more than 200mn Muslims, fear that Modi wants to remould India as a Hindu nation.
Zakia Soman, the co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a rights group, said the potential name change reeked of yet more ‘polarising politics’ by the government.
“It takes away from the real issues and real problems faced by the people of the country,” she told AFP.
“We’ve always been India and ‘Bharat’ both. By insisting only on ‘Bharat’, they are trivialising our heritage and legacy.”
‘India, that is Bharat’
India and Bharat are both official names for the country under its constitution, in which Article 1 opens with the phrase: ‘India, that is Bharat’.
But members of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party have campaigned against using the better-known moniker, which has roots in Western antiquity and was imposed during the British conquest.
Modi’s government has worked to remove any lingering symbols of British rule – and Muslim heritage – from the country’s urban landscape, political institutions and history books since coming to power in 2014.
The northern city of Allahabad – named by Mughal ruler Akbar centuries ago – was changed to the Sanskrit word Prayagraj in 2018.
Earlier this week, foreign minister S Jaishankar seemed to support the idea of shedding the name India.
‘Bharat’ he said, had ‘a meaning and understanding and a connotation that comes with it and that is reflected in our Constitution as well’, the Hindustan Times quoted him as saying on Wednesday.
Rumours of the plan were enough to spark a mix of anger from opposition lawmakers and enthusiastic support from other quarters.
“I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with ‘India’,” Shashi Tharoor of the opposition Congress party said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Former Test cricketer Virender Sehwag urged India’s cricket board to use ‘Bharat’ on team uniforms, writing: “India is a name given by the British (and) it has been long overdue to get our original name ‘Bharat’ back.”