Why a G20 invite calling India by its Sanskrit name is ruffling some feathers

By Manveena Suri and Helen Regan, CNN

New Delhi CNN  — 

Dinner invites referring to India by its Sanskrit name have fueled a political row and public debate over what the country should be called, its history and colonial legacy as New Delhi prepares to welcome world leaders for the G20 summit.

Invites issued by the “President of Bharat,” instead of the customary “President of India,” were sent to delegates from the world’s 20 top economies for a dinner to be hosted by Indian President Droupadi Murmu on Saturday, according to a source in her office.

Both India and Bharat are used officially in the nation of 1.4 billion people, which has more than 20 official languages.

“India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,” the country’s constitution states.

Bharat is also the Hindi word for India and is used interchangeably – both feature on Indian passports for example.

But its use on the invites marks a notable change in the naming convention used by the country on the international stage under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The G20 summit is a first for India as Modi aims to raise New Delhi’s global clout following nearly a decade-long tenure in power in which he has positioned himself as a leader intent on shedding the country’s colonial past – emphasizing the need to “liberate ourselves from the slavery mindset.”

Britain ruled India for about 200 years until it gained independence in 1947 and those who prefer Bharat say the name the country is best known by globally is a remnant of the colonial era.

The name India has been derived by ancient Western civilizations from the Sanskrit word for the Indus River – Sindhu – and was later adapted by the British Empire.

“The word ‘India’ is an abuse given to us by the British, whereas the word ‘Bharat’ is a symbol of our culture,” Harnath Singh Yadav, a BJP politician, told Indian broadcaster ANI.

Meanwhile, former India cricket star Virender Sehwag urged the sport’s officials to use Bharat on players’ shirts during the Men’s Cricket World Cup, which will be held in India this year.

“We are Bhartiyas, India is a name given by the British and it has been long overdue to get our original name ‘Bharat’ back officially,” he said on social media.

What’s in a name?

During its time in power, Modi’s government has made steps to steer the country away from what it has called “vestiges of British rule” and to free itself from its “colonial baggage.”

These efforts also include renaming roads and buildings related to both India’s Mughal as well as its colonial past.

For example, in 2022, the government renamed Rajpath, a 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) boulevard formerly known as Kingsway that runs through the heart of New Delhi. The new official name, Kartavya Path, would “remove any trace of colonial mindset,” the government said.

And in 2018, three Indian islands named after British rulers were renamed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to erase “these signs of slavery.”

But the use of “Bharat” on the G20 invites has raised eyebrows among opposition leaders.

“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,” Shashi Tharoor, a former diplomat and prominent lawmaker from the main opposition Congress party, said on social media.

Tharoor is also the author of “Inglorious Empire”, a work of non-fiction that excoriates colonial Britain’s rule of India.

In July, the leaders from 26 Indian opposition parties formed an alliance – known as INDIA (or the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) – in a bid to unseat Modi in the next general election.

Coined to evoke a sense of nationalism ahead of the 2024 polls, the INDIA alliance said its goal was upholding the country’s democratic institutions.

Modi’s government has come under scrutiny from rights groups and opposition lawmakers for its increasingly strident brand of Hindu nationalist politics, an ongoing crackdown on dissent, and a tightening grip on the country’s democratic institutions.

Modi has denied a crackdown, saying in a rare June press conference at the White House that when “there are no human rights, then it’s not a democracy,” and “there’s absolutely no space for discrimination” in the country.

Some opposition politicians said the government’s use of Bharat was a response to the formation of the INDIA alliance.

“How can the BJP strike down ‘INDIA’? The country doesn’t belong to a political party; it belongs to [all] Indians,” Aam Aadmi Party lawmaker Raghav Chadha, an alliance member, said on social media. “Our national identity is not the BJP’s personal property that it can modify on whims and fancies,”

But in an interview with ANI, India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar said India “is Bharat.”

“It is there in the constitution. I would invite everybody to read it,” he said.

“When you say Bharat,” it evokes a “sense, a meaning and a connotation,” he said.

“I think that is reflected in our constitution as well.”

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