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India or Bharat? An invitation to the G20 sparks controversy over the possible change of the country’s name

The head of state broke tradition by using the place name promoted by Hindu nationalists in an invite in English

Narendra Modi India G-20
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an event in Australia last May.STRINGER (VIA REUTERS)
Andrea Rizzi

The invitation to an official dinner within the framework of the G20 summit in New Delhi has sparked a tense debate in India about the possibility of a change in the country’s name. In the English language version of the letter, the country’s leader, Droupadi Murmu, defines herself as the President of Bharat. The name has broken with the tradition according to which the country’s highest authorities use the place name India in English, while Bharat is used in the Hindi language. Murmu is a politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a Hindu nationalist ideology and whose leader is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She was elected to the largely ceremonial position with votes from her own supporters and those of other parties on the conservative spectrum.

The English language version of the current Constitution refers to the country as India. An eventual formal change of the name would require a constitutional reform, which would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. Eva Borreguero, professor of Political Science at the Complutense University specializing in South Asia, explains that the toponym was coined abroad, through an evolution of the local name of the Indus River, to define the territories beyond the watercourse. “Hindu nationalists reject it because they consider it an external concept. And instead, they embrace Bharat because it is the name for Hindu India in mythical texts.”

Secular concept vs. mythical past

“India is a historical and secular concept,” the expert continues. “It is how India has related to the world throughout history. It is a concept of dialogue. Bharat is a Hindu mythical concept, it reflects what India was called in ancient Sanskrit texts, but with it the secular dimension is lost and non-Hindus are excluded. Basically, Muslims and Christians,” says Borreguero.

The formation of the word India is ancient, but the prominence it acquired in the colonial period has fostered positions in the BJP and similarly oriented formations that suggest that it is a name stained by that period of subjugation.

The BJP has not formally announced initiatives to carry out the change, but the letter from the G20 — preceded and accompanied by statements from party leaders who believe that the name India must be removed — has sparked controversy. The episode coincides with the convening of a mysterious special session of Parliament, scheduled for September, whose agenda has not yet been specified.

The move also coincides with the recent formation of a broad alliance of opposition parties led by Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party, which has intentionally been baptized as INDIA, an acronym for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. This is a gesture by opponents who are trying to prevent Modi and his party from monopolizing national pride. Several opposition representatives have come out to criticize the invitation letter and reject the prospect of a name change.

“We'll see what happens. Of course, this is an old aspiration of Hindu nationalism. There have already been changes in city names in recent times,” says Borreguero.

In addition to the name changes, Modi and the BJP also have promoted turning the page with respect to symbolic places, such as the headquarters of the national Parliament, a colonial building in New Delhi, recently replaced by another, large-scale building, whose inauguration included gestures and symbols closely linked to Hindu tradition — and an enormous role for the prime minister.

The controversy over the name of the country has touched the deepest nerve of Indian politics, the struggle between change stemming from the Hindu nationalist inspiration that Modi has promoted with his party and the attachment to the values of the Constitution that came into force in 1950, which the Congress party and its allies are trying to defend. The text consolidates the dominant consensus that existed in the years after independence, and for decades afterward, of an inclusive vision of a society with extraordinary internal diversity. The nationalism advocated by Modi has closed ranks in the majority Hindu segment of society, above the old caste divisions. But, according to the opposition and many international experts, it marginalizes other communities, opening a gap that fuels tensions that are already serious now and could become explosive in the future.

While the country grows at a considerable economic pace and reaps successes such as the achievements of its space agency, multiple international study centers have recorded a sharp deterioration in the quality of Indian democracy in recent years.

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