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India or Bharat? As the history books show, this is a question that goes back centuries.

As India prepares to host the G20 summit this weekend, invitations issued to world leaders using the word ‘Bharat’ have sparked rumors that Narendra Modi’s nationalist government may be considering phasing out the name English.

Some said it was a triumphant move to finally throw off colonial shackles, others called it a disastrous vanity project on the part of the prime minister.

In 1947, when British rule was finally overthrown, India apparently had three coexisting names, each with its own history, connotation and legitimacy.

There was India, a name that is said to have its Sanskrit origins, referring to the Indus River that runs through the north of the country. It was first used on various occasions by the Persians, Greeks and Romans over 2,000 years ago and was widely adopted on British maps in the 18th century to designate the territory of the subcontinent under domination. British.

There was Hindustan, a name used by the Persians, Greeks, Sultans of Delhi and Mughals for hundreds of years to refer to much of the north and center of the subcontinent.

India or Bharat?  G20 invitations raise centuries-old questions |  India
Police stand outside Bharat Mandapam Stadium, the main venue for the G20 summit in New Delhi, India. Photo: Altaf Hussain/Reuters

Finally, there was Bharat, a name that dates back to an ancient Sanskrit text, the Rig Veda – written around 1500 BC – which mentions the Bharata clan as one of the main tribes occupying an area known today as northern India. It is also the name of a legendary king who appears in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, whom Hindus claim to be the father of the Indian race.

For Jawaharlal Nehru, the anti-colonial leader who would become India’s first prime minister, his country was all three. In his seminal book, The Discovery of India, written in 1944 after being imprisoned by the British, he said: “Often as I wandered from meeting to meeting I spoke to my audience of our India, of Hindustan and Bharata, the ancient Sanskrit name derived from the mythical founders of the breed.

It was not until 1949, when the Indian constitution was drafted, that a decision was made on the official name of the country. While the committee was torn over whether it should be ‘India’ or ‘Bharat’, the decision was finally made that it should be both, while Hindustan was dropped entirely.

India or Bharat?  G20 invitations raise centuries-old questions |  India
Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957. He wrote on “Bharata” in 1944 in prison. Photography: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty

In its current version, the first line of the Indian constitution, written in English, states: “India, ie Bharat, will be a union of states. »

Even then, the decision angered Parliament. “It should be known that this name was given to our country by foreigners who, having heard of the riches of this land, were tempted by it and stole our freedom to acquire the riches of our country,” said said Hargoodd Pant. , MP, after the draft constitution was read aloud.

Yet both names continue to be widely used nationally. India is used in English communication while Bharat is used to speak almost all Indian languages. Bharat is mentioned in the national anthem, and Bharat and India are listed on Indian passports.

While various legal and parliamentary petitions were raised asking for Bharat to be the only legitimate name, citing the name India as a colonial hangover, these were duly dismissed.

However, the argument picked up again this week when an invitation sent to heads of state for a dinner held as part of the G20 leaders’ summit, which is being held in Delhi this weekend, referred to the “president of Bharat” in English. It also appeared in an English G20 booklet for foreign delegates, titled Bharat, the Mother of Democracy, which stated that “Bharat is the official name of the country” and Indian officials at the G20 summit will now wear labels saying: “Bharat – official”. .”

While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Modi, has denied rumors that an official name change is on its agenda, officials have confirmed that Bharat will increasingly be used in official communication .

India or Bharat?  G20 invitations raise centuries-old questions |  India
Children pose in front of the G20 logo outside the Bharat Mandapam Stadium in New Delhi. Photography: Elke Scholiers/Zuma Press Wire/Shutterstock

Many saw the BJP’s move as part of its wider Hindu nationalist agenda, which sought to distance India from its British colonial past, with the renaming of roads and monuments as one such measure. When renaming Delhi last year from the Raj Path, which stands for King’s Way, to the Kartavya Path, Modi praised India for “liberating another symbol of slavery from the British Raj”. Names relating to Mughal Muslim leaders, whom the BJP also describes as colonizers, have also been erased.

The desire to make Bharat the official name of India enjoys strong support within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the hard-right religious nationalist group from which the BJP originated. “Sometimes we use India so that those who speak English understand. But we have to stop using it. The name of the country will remain Bharat all over the world,” RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat said in a speech last week.

The decision to use Bharat in G20 invitations has garnered strong support within the BJP. A minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, said it was a step towards overcoming a “colonial mentality”. “It should have happened earlier. It gives great satisfaction to the mind. Our introduction to “Bharat”. We are proud of it.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP Chief Minister for Assam, said, “Republic of Bharat – happy and proud that our civilization is boldly advancing. »

Yet opposition members condemned the move and speculated that it was an attempt by the BJP to undermine the opposition parties, which recently came together in a coalition under the acronym India.

Shashi Tharoor, a politician from the main opposition Congress party, said both names had value. “Even if there is no constitutional objection to calling India ‘Bharat’, which is one of the two official names of the country, I hope the government will not be stupid enough to dispense with it altogether. ‘India’, whose brand value is incalculable and has accumulated over the years. centuries.

“We should continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name steeped in history, a name recognized around the world. »