When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Group of 20 (G20) leaders’ summit on Saturday, he sat behind a country name placard that piqued the interest of many.
The placard didn’t say “India,” the name that his country is customarily known by internationally. Instead it read “Bharat,” the Sansrkit or Hindi title of the country, fueling speculation that his government plans to phase out the country’s English designation altogether.
“PM Modi uses placard Bharat for G20 inaugural address,” ran a headline in the Times of India, one of the country’s largest English-language outlets, moments after.
“Is it an indication of new beginnings?” asked the Hindi outlet ABP News.
Both India and Bharat are used officially in the nation of 1.4 billion people, which has more than 20 official languages. Bharat is also the Hindi word for India and is used interchangeably – both feature on Indian passports for example.
But the word was the center of a controversy this week after dinner invites for the Group of 20 (G20) leaders’ summit referred to India as “Bharat,” fueling a political row and public debate over what the country should be called, its history and colonial legacy.
The use on the invites marked a notable change in the naming convention used by the country on the international stage Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indian officials at the G20 event are also wearing badges that read: “Bharat Official.”
The G20 summit is a first for India as Modi aims to raise New Delhi’s global clout following nearly a decade-long tenure in power in which he has positioned himself as a leader intent on shedding the country’s colonial past – emphasizing the need to “liberate ourselves from the slavery mindset”.
Britain ruled India for about 200 years until it gained independence in 1947, and Modi has been keen to position himself as a disrupter of India’s colonial legacy, making steps to steer the country away from what it has called “vestiges of British rule.”
These efforts also include changing the names of roads and buildings that honor India’s Muslim identity, as well as its erstwhile Islamic leaders, the Mughals, who have left an indelible legacy on the subcontinent, to instead celebrate the country’s Hindu majority.
Some of his supporters say the name the country is best known by globally is a remnant of the colonial era.
An ‘abuse’ or an ‘incalculable brand’?
The name India has been derived by ancient Western civilizations from the Sanskrit word for the Indus River – Sindhu – and was later adapted by the British Empire.
“The word ‘India’ is an abuse given to us by the British, whereas the word ‘Bharat’ is a symbol of our culture,” Harnath Singh Yadav, a BJP politician, told Indian news agency ANI.
A former Indian cricket star, Virender Sehwag, also urged the sport’s officials to use Bharat on players’ shirts during the Men’s Cricket World Cup, which will be held in India this year.
But the use of “Bharat” on the G20 invites has raised eyebrows among opposition leaders.
“While there is no constitutional objection to calling India ‘Bharat’, which is one of the country’s two official names, I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with ‘India’, which has incalculable brand value built up over centuries,” Shashi Tharoor, a former diplomat and prominent lawmaker from the main opposition Congress party, wrote on social media earlier this week.
In July, the leaders from 26 Indian opposition parties formed an alliance – known as INDIA (or the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) – in a bid to unseat Modi in the next general election.
Some opposition politicians said the government’s use of Bharat was a response to the formation of the INDIA alliance.
“How can the BJP strike down ‘INDIA’? The country doesn’t belong to a political party; it belongs to [all] Indians,” Aam Aadmi Party lawmaker Raghav Chadha, an alliance member, said on social media. “Our national identity is not the BJP’s personal property that it can modify on whims and fancies.”
But in an interview with local news agency ANI, India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar said India “is Bharat.”
“It is there in the constitution. I would invite everybody to read it,” he said. “When you say Bharat,” it evokes a “sense, a meaning and a connotation.”
CNN’s Helen Regan contributed reporting.