India or Bharat? The row over country’s name explained

India could officially be renamed “Bharat” by the Narendra Modi government, according to recent reports that have been fueled by invites for the G20 summit that asked people to join the “President of Bharat” for dinner.

Various Indian media reports suggest Mr Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist government is looking to change the country’s name during an upcoming “special session” of parliament, though this has not been confirmed by officials.

In recent years the Modi administration has steadily chipped away at the legacies of former governments and leaders, changing names of official landmarks and buildings of national importance, while the prime minister says India has “left behind” former rulers Britain in a move to break away from the country’s colonial past.

Some senior BJP figures have welcomed the rumoured name change, while it has been met with a backlash and derision from opposition politicians across India.

What is India officially called?

The official name for the country is mentioned in the Indian Constitution as “India, that is Bharat” that “shall be a Union of states”. The Indian Constitution was written and made public in 1951 and the issue had been heavily debated after India gained independence as well, in 1947.

Nehru, also a historian, had said in his book, Discovery of India: “Often, as I wandered from meeting to meeting, I spoke to my audiences of this India of ours, of Hindustan and of Bharata, the old Sanskrit name derived from the mythical founders of the race.” He had mentioned the three most popular names – Hindustan, India and Bharat – with their own roots, geographical and historical relevance to the country.

All the official documents for the country in English carry the name “India” when referring to the Republic, its ministries, domestic and foreign correspondence, and describe government figures as Indian leaders. Valid identity cards like passports and voting cards use the term “India” as the official marker of citizenship.

But documents published in Hindi, which alongside English is one of India’s 22 official languages, say “Bharat” instead of “India”.

Where do the names India and Bharat come from?

The earliest records used to identify the country reveal the usage of “Bharat”, “Bharata” or “Bharatvarsha”. These commonly used terms have found a place in the Constitution alongside “India”.

Bharat, a Sanskrit name for the country, comes from ancient Puranic literature and also from one of the two major epics of India – the Mahabharata – in which Indians are believed to be the descendants of king Bharat, a mythical figure Hindus claim had started the Indian race. Many historians believe it dates back to early Hindu texts. The word also means “India” in Hindi.

The name “India” traces its origins to the river Indus (now Sindhu), and closely-related words have been used to refer to the subcontinent as a whole for many centuries, dating back to the Ancient Greek historians. The English form “India” gained greater relevance when the country was ruled by the British from the late 18th century onwards, and was prominently used in historical maps. After gaining freedom, the country’s new leaders did not do away with the usage, but incorporated it in official documents.

Who is calling for Bharat to be used?

After centuries of the country being known as India both inside and outside its borders, the Modi administration is reported to be pushing for the name change.

Right-wing political leaders from Mr Modi’s BJP insist “India” was introduced by British colonialists, is a “symbol of slavery” and argue that a name change is an effort to reclaim India’s Hindu past. Several of Mr Modi’s ministers have dropped India from their social media bios and replaced it with “Bharat” in the past few weeks.

A number of officials in Mr Modi’s party have openly called for the country to be referred to only as “Bharat”, without explaining how official documents, prominent national buildings, hospitals, colleges and universities using “India” in their name will be renamed.

Several right-wing leaders of the ruling party cheered on the possible use of “Bharat” as the only official name for the country on Tuesday, after photos widely shared across social media showed an official invite for India’s G20 summit asking foreign dignitaries to join the “President of Bharat” with no mention of India on the card.

Recent media reports about a “special session” of the Indian parliament, coupled with the photo of the invite, have also sparked rumours that BJP is planning to use the rare session to announce its intention to officially rename the country.

Why is it in the news now?

Calls for the name change have occasionally been made for several years now, but the conversation around the topic has exploded after photos widely shared across social media showed an official invite for India’s G20 summit asking foreign dignitaries to join the “President of Bharat” for dinner, with no mention of India on the card.

But this also comes just weeks after the country’s opposition leaders formed an alliance bloc called “INDIA” – short for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance – in a bid to remove Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from power in elections next year.

The opposition bloc says it wants to protect India and its democracy from a government pushing a Hindu majoritarian agenda, to the detriment of the country’s religious minorities including more than 200 million Muslims.