A state dinner invitation from Indian President Droupadi Murmu to the leaders of the G20 nations has triggered a political fight in the country over the use of the phrase “President of Bharat” instead of the traditional “President of India”, as the nation’s opposition parties accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party of attempting to politicize the national identity.
The controversy began on Monday after copies of the invitation sent from Murmu’s office were shared on social media, leading some opposition figures to question the change.
Although India is referred to as Bharat, or Hindustan, in various local languages and the former finds a mention in India’s constitution, official documents written in English typically use the name “India.”
The name change triggered speculation in Indian media that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government may push for a resolution to formally change the name of India to Bharat in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament.
Members of India’s opposition parties called out Modi and his government over the change, claiming it was a politically motivated move in response to the opposition banding together as part of the newly formed Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or “INDIA,” for the 2024 general elections.
The name change in the invite and the reports of a formal name change, however, garnered support from Modi’s own party and other right wing figures who claimed it was necessary, falsely stating that the name “India” was a colonial legacy from the British era.
On Tuesday evening, one member of the ruling BJP dismissed media speculation about a parliamentary resolution seeking a formal name change, claiming these were rumors spread by the opposition.
Commenting on the reports of a potential name change, opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor wrote on X: “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.”
Talks of a formal name change triggered unverified reports that if Modi’s government formally renames the country to Bharat, Pakistan make lay claim to the name “India.” According to historian John Keay’s book “India: A History”, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was “absolutely furious” when he found out that after partition along religious lines in 1947, the newly formed Hindu majority nation would keep the name India. Jinnah and many Pakistani nationalists believed this gave India “primacy” in the subcontinent and more legitimacy owing to the name’s centuries old links to civilizations in the subcontinent.
Several right wing Hindu nationalist figures and members of Modi’s BJP have expressed support for a formal name change, tying the word India to the country’s colonial past while linking Bharat to its ancient history. Among the vocal proponents of this stance has been the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the far-right Hindu nationalist group which is seen as the BJP’s ideological parent. Their argument has rested on the debunked claim that India was coined by the British colonizers. Historians have noted that the name India is millenia old and is linked to the Indus river, which was home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
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