As India prepares to host international leaders at the G20 summit later this week, the government’s deliberate choice of words on a brief dinner invitation led some to believe the government might be moving to change the country’s name.
Guests invited to dinner with President Droupadi Murmu in Delhi on Saturday were asked to dine with the “President of Bharat,” using a Sanskrit and Hindi word long interchangeable with India that has become politically charged.
The note prompted speculation that India might become the latest country looking to change its name, potentially joining a list of nations that includes Turkey, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
Such changes, experts agree, need to come with careful consideration, as names can be infused with social, political and economic recognition around the world.
“My concern is that for short-term political ideological gain, you are actually giving up a huge amount,” said Jo Sharma, an associate professor of historical and cultural studies at the University of Toronto.
Nationalist government changing city names for years
For thousands of years, the most populous country in the world has been known by two key names, which are both on its constitution: India (English) and Bharat (Sanskrit). Hindustan — or “land of the Hindus” in Urdu — is another.
Bharat and India are used interchangeably within the country, but around the world, India is most common.
The invitation from President Murmu this week was seen by some as a deliberate hint, given the Hindu-nationalist government of the day.
For years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been changing names of towns and cities, saying it would help India erase a mentality of slavery established under colonialism.
“This [dinner invitation] ties in with other moves by this government, where they have been trying to — as they see it — purify, sanitize India of elements that are tied to the Mughal Empire, or to the Persian, or many other languages,” said Sharma.
Supporters pushing for the change said British colonial rulers used the word India to stamp out Bharat and build their own British legacy.
“Our country’s name is Bharat and there should be no doubt about it,” Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a federal deputy minister, said Tuesday as the country’s opposition parties reacted to the invite.
Another expert said the government isn’t making the shift to erase India — only to emphasize Bharat, which evokes an image of India through its Hindu communities rather than its wider diaspora.
“Nobody in India, in the official sense, is suggesting that the term ‘India’ be eliminated. It is just the emphasis now on that term ‘Bharat’ that is occupying central stage,” said Neilesh Bose, an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria.
“I would say, though, if there were such a debate … if one were to erase Bharat and only refer to India, then one runs the risk of erasing the vast and ancient foundations upon which India is built.”
Is there precedent for name changes?
The names of states and cities within India have been changed since before Modi took office, too.
Trivandrum, on the country’s southwest coast, became Thiruvananthapuram in 1991; the densely populated Bombay became Mumbai in 1995; and another coastal city, Madras, became Chennai in 1996. Over the next two decades, most of the country’s major cities — from Bangalore (now Bengaluru), to Calcutta (now Kolkata), to Cochin (now Kochi) — were changed.
“There have been many, many examples of official names, big changes … of the names that are tied to slavery, colonialism and so on,” Sharma said.
Other countries around the world have changed names for reasons ranging from simple spelling and socio-economic gain, to shedding colonial names and celebrating independence.
In 2016, the Czech Republic adopted the name Czechia in hopes of distancing itself from its predecessor, Czechoslovakia, and its neighbour, Slovakia.
Swaziland became the Kingdom of Eswatini as the nation celebrated 50 years of independence in 2018, while Turkey changed to Türkiye last year, after its president said the latter better represented its culture and history.
Other countries include Holland (now the Netherlands), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Siam (now Thailand) and Burma (now Myanmar). Some countries like Russia, Serbia and Macedonia have seen more than a half-dozen changes over the decades.
Given that the name India holds global and economic significance, experts suggest any changes should be taken under careful consideration.
“We all say Bharat — what is new in this?” said Mamata Banerjee, a top opposition leader. “But the name India is known to the world.… What happened suddenly that the government had to change the name of the country?
Sharma said it would be “foolish” for any government to change a name for what she described as “short-term” political gain.
“There’s such a thing as name recognition. India is a globally resonant name. Bharat is not. So India and Bharat should coexist — and can coexist. But the official name? There is really no need to change it,” she said.