OTR: "India" vs "Bharat": Would South Asia's Giant Change its name?

At the recently concluded G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, a state dinner invitation for the attendees ignited controversy. The invite came from the office of President Droupadi Murmu.

However, instead of "India," she opted to use the country's Hindi name, "Bharat," addressing herself as the "President of Bharat."

But why is it controversial?

Read more: 'President of Bharat' on G20 dinner invite reignites row, Congress hits out

The English name "India" was coined by Britain for South Asia's giant, and it is widely used both domestically and internationally. The British ruled India for about 200 years before it gained independence in 1947.

In the pre-colonial era, locals referred to their country as "Bharat or Bharata" or "Hindustan" (land of the Hindus in Urdu).

"Bharat or Bharata" is a Sanskrit term found in ancient scriptures that refers to Bharatavarsha, the territory where the descendants of Great Emperor Bharata lived, which lies between the oceans in the south and the snowy mountains in the north - the Himalayas.

Although, "India" also has an etymological root in the Indus River, which was called "Sindhu" in Sanskrit.

The names "India" and "Bharat" are legitimate in the constitution of the world's most populous country as it states in Article 1: "India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States."

Through the years, it has been customary for Indian officials to use the name "India" in English text and "Bharat" if it is in Hindi.

Yet, in an international setting, such as the G20 dinner, wherein English was the dominant language used, Murmu broke the norm.

When asked by the media about the president's intention, the latter's office declined to comment.

Speculations stirred: Would India soon be changing its name?

Watch: Where Did Word 'Bharat' Come From? Explains Devdutt Pattanaik, Mythologist and Author | Exclusive

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are disciples of the Hindu-nationalist ideology.

The BJP has been trying to move India away from its "colonial slavery" mentality by changing the colonial English names of towns, cities, and roads to Hindi.

But the most significant renaming could possibly be the adoption of "Bharat" as the country's official name.

Members of the BJP believe it is time to reclaim India's identity, given that the country is one of the world's fastest-growing economies and a rising powerhouse, a stature that was cemented by India's recent hosting of the G20 Summit as well as its historic moon landing.

Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and an ideological mentor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, justified the change in nomenclature.

In his speech last week, he said: "The world needs us today, we don't need the world… Our country has been known as 'Bharat' for ages. Whatever may be the language, the name remains the same. We don't have to think about whether anyone outside will understand this or not. If they want to, they will, but that is not our problem."

Read more: No illegality in using 'Bharat' in place of 'India': Legal experts

Critics of the ruling party argue that the motivation behind all of this was merely political as Modi runs for another term next year, citing that changing the country's name is unnecessary.

Opposition lawmaker Dr. Shashi Tharoor's reaction on X, formerly known as Twitter: "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."

In a follow-up interview with Tharoor, he stressed that Modi is only using the "India" versus "Bharat" debate as a diversionary tactic.

"We are watching the government really being absolutely best in what they do best, which is to change the narrative away from the issues and problems they have inflicted upon the nation," he said. 

Watch: Shashi Tharoor on India vs Bharat Debate

Disputes over "India" versus "Bharat" have gained ground since opposition parties in July announced a new alliance called the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), which aims to unseat Modi and defeat his party ahead of the 2024 national election.

Since then, some officials in Modi's party have demanded that the country be called "Bharat."

Efforts to change India's name have been made in the past through court cases, but judges have so far steered away from the issue.

Despite all these headlines, senior leaders of the government said speculations of a name change are "just rumours."

Read more: Modi's plan to change India's name to Bharat 'absurd': Radu Gandhi

-Asia Media Centre