Undertones: From India to Bharat, a decolonial rebrand or an erasure?

Illustration by Global Voices, using the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

Welcome back to Undertones, the newsletter where we delve into media narratives unfolding around the world. This week, we’ll cover the recent speculation about India changing its name to Bharat. I’m Snigdha Bansal, an Indian writer and journalist.

We’ll dive into the two names for the South Asian country that have so far coexisted, what they represent, and the dominant narratives that feed into the growing debate over the potential name switch. Over the years, the creation of the binary ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ has been seen as an effort to relegate non-Hindu minorities to an inferior position by some and a decolonial exercise by others.

Both names are part of the nation’s history. ‘India’ is believed to have come from Greek and Persian explorers, who named it after the Indus River as early as the fifth century BCE. ‘Bharat’, on the other hand, is found in ancient Hindu texts. The Constitution of 1948, adopted after British colonial rule ended, recognized both names as a nod to the country’s history and cultural diversity.

Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have pushed for Bharat to be the official name for decades. The RSS, the ideological parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), dreams of an ‘Akhand Bharat’, or an ‘undivided India’ with Hindu ideals, stretching from Afghanistan to Myanmar, encompassing Sri Lanka and the Himalayas. This vision is often repeated by BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Leaders in other countries such as Pakistan have labeled Akhand Bharat “a manifestation of a revisionist and expansionist mindset that seeks to subjugate the identity and culture of not only India’s neighboring countries but also its own religious minorities.”

Narratives about the Hindu nationalist preference for Bharat have ramped up since the BJP came to power in 2014. However, the recent debate was sparked in the run-up to the G20 summit hosted by India in September this year, when an official dinner invitation went out to 170 guests, including foreign leaders, from President Droupadi Murmu. In the letter, Murmu was referred to as the “President of Bharat”.

BJP leaders and supporters of the government assert India was a name given by the British, and thus changing India’s name to Bharat would be a decolonial exercise. This claim has been refuted by historians.

The opposition parties have accused the BJP of wanting to change the name to subvert an alliance of 26 opposing parties called the “Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance” (INDIA) ahead of the 2024 general election. Critics also claimed that the government was using the debate to divert attention from key issues such as corruption, rising poverty and unemployment. Some estimates point to over ₹ 1,40,000 million (~$172m) for a name change, an expensive rebrand.

Narrative: “Changing India's name to Bharat is a move towards decolonization

This is the strongest narrative in favour of ‘Bharat’, following what other countries, such as Sri Lanka and Eswatini, have done to change their colonial-era names. This narrative also fits with the BJP’s drive to rid the country of its colonial hangover.

Since coming to power, the BJP has changed the names of cities, landmarks, and laws in what it claims is a bid to decolonize India. Havelock Island has become Swaraj Dweep, and Raj Path, an important landmark in New Delhi that used to be King’s Way, has been changed to Kartavya Path. 

To those not well-versed in Indian society and politics, decolonial efforts might seem as a welcome move. However, for the Indian far right, the British were not the first to colonize the country, but Muslim “invaders” who arrived hundreds of years earlier. 

When the BJP speaks of decolonization, they are also referring to erasing India's Mughal history, which has become an important part of the country’s rich secular fabric. Muslim-sounding city names have been changed to Hindu names, such as Allahabad becoming Prayagraj, and Mughal history has been removed from textbooks. These changes also come at a time when violence against Muslims is becoming increasingly frequent, emboldened by the government’s complicity.

This erasure, coupled with BJP’s narrative favouring Hindus, has invited accusations from critics that the government is attempting to rewrite Indian history. 

Public figures in sports and entertainment share the decolonial narrative, as is the modus operandi of the BJP when it wants to influence national discourse in its favour. 

How this narrative moves online

Virender Sehwag is a former Indian cricketer who's known to support BJP’s narratives. 

In this tweet, he’s responding to his own tweet where he hashtagged a cricket match between India and Pakistan as “BHAvsPAK” instead of “INDvsPAK”. 

He claims that India is a name given by the British and requested the Indian cricket authorities to change the name of the country on players’ jerseys to Bharat in the upcoming cricket World Cup. He was trolled by Twitter users pointing out that cricket is also a colonial sport.

This item got a negative score of -1 out of -3 on our Civic Score Card, as it spreads misinformation by wrongly citing the origin of the name. It also appeals to nationalist emotions, especially within sports fans.

Narrative: “BJP's Hindutva agenda seeks to ‘other’ minorities

For many Indians, India is a wider term encompassing the country’s secular, multicultural nature, while Bharat comes from a Sanskrit term with religious undertones. They fear that choosing Bharat over India would lock Hindus in as the only rightful citizens of the country and further alienate minorities. 

India is a multiethnic country, home to 22 official languages and every major religion in the world. However, the idea of “othering” non-Hindus is pivotal in India’s far-right vision of Akhand Bharat and creating an ethno-religious state. 

This vision seeks to create a distinction between those who the BJP claims are the rightful citizens of the country and anyone who does not take part of this vision, such as Muslims, Christians, non-Brahmins, secularists, government critics, and so on. Anyone critical of the government’s intolerance is labeled “anti-national”. Many of them are being prosecuted.

By equating nationalist Hindus with Bharat and linking minorities and dissenters to India, this ‘othering’ exercise would attempt to make minorities second-class citizens.

How this narrative moves online 

This is a tweet by a fan account of journalist Ravish Kumar, who is known for dissenting from the BJP government and is very popular among Hindi-speaking people. 

The tweet points out that those who pit Hindus and Muslims against each other are now tearing apart the names ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ in the same fashion. The subtext of this tweet is a criticism of the government’s efforts to further divide the country.

Like any tweet against the BJP, this one received mixed responses. Many agree with the post, saying that Modi likes to make “Jumlas” or “sensational pledges”. A few comments label the tweet as “Hinduphobic”.

This item got a positive score of +1 out of +3 on our Civic Scorecard, as it cautions followers against the government’s subtle attempt to incite unrest in the country over these names as the way they incite unrest over religious differences.

What’s next

All eyes are on the next Indian general election in early 2024. While there has been no official rebranding by the government so far, BJP leaders and supporters continue to refer to the country as Bharat. It remains to be seen whether the ruling party brought up this topic simply to boost nationalist sentiment in their favour before the election, or if the government actually intends to act on it. However, even if the name does not change, we can expect ‘Bharat’ to be used increasingly in official communications, perhaps starting with school books.

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