As New Delhi gears up to host the Group of 20 leaders this week, the government’s pointed word choice on the summit dinner invitations stirred controversy and conversation Tuesday about what the country is, and should be, called.
The same day, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra shared an image of an official card referencing the visit of “the Prime Minister of Bharat Shri Narendra Modi” to Indonesia for the “20th ASEAN-India Summit” on Sept. 7.
Both used the ancient term “Bharat,” a Sanskrit and Hindi word long interchangeable with India. In its first article, the constitution of India declares “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.”
The term has taken on fraught political valence in recent years as the preferred nomenclature of Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While some nationalists argue that it is already an accepted alternative to “India,” which bears some colonial baggage, Modi’s critics have noted that the BJP uses “Bharat” to evoke the sense of an exclusively Hindu past in a country that’s home to more Muslims than any nation in the Middle East.
The invitations were met by strong reaction both from within and outside the right-wing party.
“Another blow to the slavery mentality,” Uttarakhand Chief Minister and BJP member Pushkar Singh Dhami wrote on the social media platform X, referring to the party’s idea that the name “India” is tied to colonialism and slavery.
Prominent BJP politician Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote on X: “REPUBLIC OF BHARAT — happy and proud that our civilisation is marching ahead boldly towards AMRIT KAAL,” using a term meaning “auspicious period” that Modi evokes to describe the nation’s resurgence under his rule.
The move aligns with a larger revisionist impulse of the Indian right. The BJP has pushed to erase some names that originated from colonial rule — and increasingly, those that have been associated with Muslim heritage. Officials changed the name of the northern Indian city Allahabad, named by Muslim Mughal rulers centuries ago, to the Sanskrit word Prayagraj, which officials argued was the original name.
The move, some opposition politicians suggest, is a dig at a coalition of more than two dozen opposition parties that gathered two months ago under the name INDIA — which stands for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance — to challenge Modi and his ruling party at next spring’s national elections.
“I don’t know why they are making this change,” said Communist Party of India leader Sitaram Yechury to the Press Trust of India. “We just don’t know why they hate ‘India’ so much.”
Some local outlets have reported speculation that the BJP may propose to change the name officially through a Parliament resolution.
Changing the formal names of cities and countries has a long, politically fraught history.
Some countries have sought to shed names given by colonial rulers, sometimes upon gaining independence, and in other cases later in their history. In 2018, absolute monarch King Mswati III changed the name of his country from Swaziland to Eswatini, a name derived from the local language.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey requested last year that the United Nations and other international organizations call it “Türkiye,” its official Turkish-language name. This change adds a syllable to the end of the English pronunciation.
Washington continued to refer to Myanmar as Burma decades after the ruling junta officially changed the country’s name in 1989 — a year after brutally suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations. During a 2012 visit to the country, President Barack Obama used both names, as well as other workarounds, including “this spectacular country.”