While all the discussion right now should have been centred around the upcoming G20 Leaders' Summit 2023 slated to be held in New Delhi on 9-10 September with US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron being the major world leaders among the attendees, what is creating an even bigger buzz is the prospect of India discontinuing the official use of the country's English name.
Yes, this may sound absurd to many, but the rumours have some strong grounding, as it has come to light that India's President, Droupadi Murmu, issued an official invitation for the G20 dinner using the title "President of Bharat" instead of the customary "President of India."
And if the recent reports appearing on the Indian media are anything to go by, during the special session of Parliament, scheduled from 18-22 September, the Narendra Modi-led government is poised to introduce a resolution to alter India's official name to Bharat — a word dating back to ancient Hindu scriptures Vishnu Purana and Brahma Purana written in Sanskrit. It is also believed by some that the seventh-century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang had referred to the country as Bharat.
In contrast, the term India is derived from the Anglicisation of the Sanskrit word for the Indus River, 'Sindhu,' and was imposed during the period of British rule over India from 1858 to 1947. Nevertheless, the term India has a history of usage dating back to ancient times, with references found in Greek writings since the 5th century BCE. It even made its way into Old English as early as the ninth century and resurfaced in Modern English during the 17th century.
Another commonly used name for the country is Hindustan, which translates to "land of the Indus" in Persian. This term gained popularity during the Mughal era and is often invoked by Hindu nationalists. However, it is not officially recognised as the legal name for India in the constitution.
It should be mentioned that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself typically refers to India as Bharat. Prior to this recent development, members of the Hindu nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have for long been advocating against the use of the name India. They argue that India has historical origins in Western antiquity and was imposed during the period of British conquest.
Article 1 of the Indian Constitution, which establishes the foundational principles for the entire constitutional structure, commences with references to both India and Bharat, and altering the country's name would necessitate an amendment to Article 1. The draft of Article 1 was ratified on 18 September 1949, and it was proposed by Dr Ambedkar, who served as the chairman of the Drafting Committee.
According to PDT Archary, a distinguished constitutional expert, the phrase "India, that is Bharat" found in Article 1 serves a descriptive purpose, and these two terms cannot be used interchangeably.
Consequently, the possibility has ignited intense political debate and triggered strong political opposition. The members of the opposition bloc accused the Narendra Modi government of "distorting history and dividing India".
Congress Chief Mallikarjun Kharge has convened a meeting of senior alliance leaders to address this issue. Congress legislator Shashi Tharoor took to his X to state, "I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with 'India'. We should continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name redolent of history, a name that is recognised around the world."
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also criticised the move. "We all know India is Bharat, but the world knows us as India. What changed suddenly that we should use only Bharat?" she asked.
However, BJP leaders are quite naturally welcoming of the possible move. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma posted on X, "REPUBLIC OF BHARAT - happy and proud that our civilisation is marching ahead boldly towards AMRIT KAAL."
Former India international cricketer Virender Sehwag, upon hearing the prospect, also urged the cricket board to begin using Bharat on team uniforms. He wrote, "India is a name given by the British (and) it has been long overdue to get our original name 'Bharat' back."
Interestingly, the dispute over whether to refer to the nation as Bharat or India has a lengthy history. The deliberations on Article 1 trace back to 17 November 1948, although the conversation about the name's choice was deferred to a later date at the suggestion of Govind Ballabh Pant.
Nearly a year later, on 17 September 1949, Dr. BR Ambedkar presented the final version of the provision to the House, which included both Bharat and India. Several members voiced their opposition to the use of India, viewing it as a lingering symbol of the colonial era. This ongoing debate has persisted ever since.
But the answer to why it is taking the centre stage now may lie in the announcement of a new alliance by opposition parties in July this year — called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA — to unseat Modi and defeat his party in national elections in 2024. Since then, some officials in Modi's party have become more vocal than ever with the demand that the country should be called Bharat instead of India.
This also quite makes sense from BJP's ultra-nationalism and Hindu supremacy point-of-view, as it has long tried to erase names related to India's Mughal and colonial past.
In 2016, the Haryana state government had renamed the planned city of Gurgaon as Gurugram. Similarly, the city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh underwent name change to Prayagraj in 2018.
Also, in the decades following its independence in 1947, the country has shed colonial-era names, opting for names such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry), and Chennai (formerly Madras).
But bringing about such changes comes at a hefty cost. As per Indian government estimates, the renaming of Allahabad cost the state government upwards of Rs300 crore. But of course, changing the name of an entire country will cost way more than that.
Darren Olivier, an intellectual property lawyer and blogger based in South Africa, drew a parallel between the renaming of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and a rebranding effort undertaken by a large corporation to estimate the associated costs.
Olivier's analysis suggests that the typical marketing expenditure for a large enterprise accounts for approximately six percent of its total revenue, with rebranding efforts consuming up to 10% of the overall marketing budget. Applying this model to the renaming of Swaziland to Eswatini, Olivier estimated the cost to be $60 million.
When applying a similar approach to India's case, the resulting cost is substantial. For the fiscal year ending in 2023, India's total revenue receipts amounted to Rs23.84 lakh crore, encompassing both tax and non-tax revenue. Olivier used both revenue streams in his estimation model for Swaziland's renaming.
By applying this same formula to India's revenue, the estimated cost of renaming India to Bharat would be approximately Rs14,304 crore. To put this in perspective, the Indian government allocates close to Rs14,000 crore each month to its food security program, which provides sustenance to 80 crore Indians.
Additionally, even following a name change, it often takes a considerable amount of time for a country to completely transition away from its previous name in all government-related contexts. For instance, Ceylon was officially renamed Sri Lanka in 1972, but it took the nation nearly four decades to fully embrace and adopt its new identity across all aspects of governance and administration.
Furthermore, even to this day, there are thousands of individuals who continue to use the names Bombay and Madras, despite the name changes that occurred nearly three decades ago.
This raises the question of whether the transition from India to Bharat is indeed a good idea, after all.