India or Bharat? G20 invitation fuels speculation over name change

Rumours are circulating that the government is preparing a new name in a bid to break with the country’s colonial past

A man in front of a poster background saying G20 2023
India hosts the G20
(Image credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

The nation of India could be preparing to change its name, according to rumours that have been fuelled by invitations for the G20 summit that asked people to join the “President of Bharat” for dinner.

Reports across Indian media suggest Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist government may be readying legislation that will change the country’s name during an upcoming “special session” of parliament later this month.

The speculation has not yet been officially addressed by government spokespeople. However, sharing the invitation on X, formerly Twitter, the top elected official of Uttarakhand state, Pushkar Singh Dhami, wrote that it represented “another blow to slavery mentality”.

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India is hosting the annual G20 summit in New Delhi this weekend, with world leaders due to attend, including US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.

India or Bharat?

The nation of more than 1.4 billion people is officially known by two names, India and Bharat, but the former is most commonly used, both domestically and internationally.

The prime minister “typically refers to India as Bharat”, said The Guardian, which is “a word dating back to ancient Hindu scriptures written in Sanskrit”.

The Indian Constitution already mentions Bharat, as well as the more widely used name. Written and made public in 1951, the document states that “India, that is Bharat… shall be a Union of States”.

However, the country’s name, like much of the contents of the constitution itself, has been “heavily debated” since India gained independence in 1947, The Independent said.

The name “India” traces its origins to the River Indus, which is now known as Sindhu. Similar names have been used to refer to the subcontinent, dating back to those used by Ancient Greek writers. The English form “India” gained prominence when the country was ruled by Britain from the late 18th century onwards.

The name “Bharat”, meanwhile, comes from ancient Puranic literature and can also be found in one of the two major epics of India – the Mahabharata, whose oldest sections date to around 400 BCE. In it, Indians are said to be descended from King Bharat, a mythical figure whom Hindus claim started the Indian race.

Since coming to power, the Modi administration “has steadily chipped away at the legacies of former governments and leaders”, said The Independent, in a bid to “break away from the country’s colonial past”.

Official landmarks and buildings of national importance have changed their names, and Modi has repeatedly said India has “left behind” its former rulers, Britain. Modi’s government has also changed Islamic place names relating to the Mughal empire that preceded British rule.

In 2015, New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road, which was named after a Mughal king, was changed to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road after protests from Modi’s party leaders. Last year, the government also renamed a colonial-era avenue in the heart of New Delhi.

The prime minister also replaced a statue of King George V with one of Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, under a canopy near India Gate – a memorial dedicated to Indian soldiers who fought for Britain in the First World War.

“The country has got a new inspiration and energy. Today, we are leaving behind the past and adding colours to future images,” Modi said at the time.

‘Mix of opposition and support’

The rumoured name change has been met “with a mix of opposition and enthusiastic support”, said The Guardian.

Shashi Tharoor, of the opposition Congress party, said on X: “I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with ‘India’. We should continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name redolent of history, a name that is recognised around the world.”

BJP President Jagat Prakash Nadda, meanwhile, retorted: “Why does the Congress have so much objection to every subject related to the honour and pride of the country? It is clear that Congress neither respects the country, nor the Constitution, nor the constitutional institutions.”

Former Test cricketer Virender Sehwag agreed, writing: “India is a name given by the British (and) it has been long overdue to get our original name ‘Bharat’ back.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.