09/07/2023 India (International Christian Concern) — As leaders from around the world gather in New Delhi for the annual G20 leaders’ summit this weekend, India’s BJP-led government is shifting toward a more nationalist stance on the country’s name.
In official correspondence this week, Indian President Droupadi Murmu referred to herself as the “President of Bharat” rather than the “President of India,” as convention would normally dictate for the English-language invitations that went to world leaders.
“Bharat” is the Hindi word for India and is commonly used in written correspondence in that language, but convention dictates that the more commonly known “India” be used in government correspondence in English. The change, then, suggests that the Indian government may be testing the waters for a rumored parliamentary push to change the name to “Bharat” altogether.
The government announced a surprise session of parliament just last week, to be held later this month. No agenda for the session was released, fueling widespread confusion and criticism from opposition political parties.
Though both words are valid ways of referring to the country, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its nationalist allies have attempted to create tension between the names in recent years, claiming that “India” was a name given the country by its British colonizers and should be abandoned in favor of “Bharat,” a name found in the Hindu scriptures.
By loading the names with ideological significance, the BJP has created a wedge where experts say there does not need to be one. The name “India” in fact predates the 1850s’ British colonizers by 2,000 years, stretching back to before the third century BC, according to historians who say that the name is a reference to the area’s Indus River.
Seen in historical context, then, the name India is a geographic designation while the name Bharat is integrally a religious one.
By insisting on using the name Bharat, the BJP is sending a signal domestically and abroad that India is a country of and for Hindus. Unfortunately, this message is just a continuation of a larger movement of Hindu nationalism across the country led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP party. With national elections looming in early 2024, the shift to “Bharat” may also be a play to the BJP’s radicalized Hindu nationalist voter base.
This is not the first time that Modi’s government has used name changes to advance its nationalist agenda. In 2018, the government renamed the city of Allahabad, in the country’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, Prayagraj. Allahabad was a name given the city by Muslim rulers in the 1500s, while the Prayagraj is a Hindu name that BJP officials said was designed to promote Hindu tourism to the area.
Modi’s revisionism often targets places of historical and religious significance to the country’s small Muslim population. In 2019, the government made international headlines for allowing a Hindu temple to be built on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was demolished by radical Hindus in 1992.
India under Modi’s leadership has steadily declined in democratic and religious freedom. A U.S. Department of State report on India from earlier this year found that “attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred in various states [across India] throughout the year.” Further, the report discussed the issue of state-level laws which criminalize minority religious activity and highlighted “numerous reports during the year of violence by law enforcement authorities against members of religious minorities in multiple states.”
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