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G20 invitations raise question dating back centuries: India or Bharat?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Leaders of the top 20 economic powers in the world gather soon in New Delhi in a country generally known around the world as India. But that name is now in question. Is it India or Bharat? This controversy, if that's what it is, started with English language invites to Saturday's state dinner, not from the leader of India, but from the president of Bharat - that's B-H-A-R-A-T - which is a Sanskrit and Hindi word for India. The word can also be found in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing nationalist BJP party. We turn now to Suhasini Haidar, who is diplomatic editor for one of India's major newspapers, The Hindu. Welcome to the program.

SUHASINI HAIDAR: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me on, and good morning to all your listeners.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you're with us. Other than just being a word from another language, is there some particular meaning or origin or significance of Bharat as a name for your country?

HAIDAR: Well, of course, it's possible to politicize everything, and I'll get to that. But the two names you used - Bharat and India - are both names used by most Indians in terms of the fact that India - that is, Bharat - is what is actually in the Indian constitution. So India has always had two names - from 1947, when it won its independence from the British, as well as from 1950, when it adopted its Indian constitution. Bharat actually refers to King Bharat, who was a monarch in mythical - mythological times. And, you know, so therefore, people of India were seen as the children of the King Bharat. Whereas India is, of course, seen as a term given to India by those from outside India. It comes actually from the use of the Indus River. And those to the west of India referred to the land to the east of India as in Indica or India. It goes back to Greek times when we had, you know, King Alexander come to India and others, and they referred to it as India.

INSKEEP: Is this, then, seen by some people in what we have called India - many people have called India - as a colonial name?

HAIDAR: Well, I think that's the point that the ruling party wants to make, that this is, in fact, a colonial imposition on India because it comes from outside. But colonial powers would refer to either Mughal invaders - who came 10 centuries ago - or to the British. But even long before they had come, India was already referred to as India by travelers, by others who came across the Indus, or at least up to it, as I said, from, you know, old, ancient, Greek travelers. Also, Alexander referred to it as India. When the British East India Company, for example, came to India, it had already recognized India as the land. So it wasn't a colonial thing at that time.

But it is, as you point out, being portrayed today as a political thing, that, in fact, those who want to use India are looking at a colonial construct as opposed to those who want Bharat. And that's why the government has chosen this point when the whole world is watching India and the G-20 is coming to India this weekend to make the point that we are no longer going to even refer to India. We say president of Bharat and prime minister of Bharat. It's a very sudden change. And, of course, if India actually - or if the government actually wants to make the change more formal, they will have to go to the United Nations, much the way Turkey's President, Erdogan, went and had his country's name changed to Turkiye.

INSKEEP: If the name has always been present, at least within India - and this is just in a few seconds - is there anyone in your country who's saying, wait a minute, I don't want this name change on the world stage?

HAIDAR: I think most people have expressed surprise at the need for the name change because we have lived for the last 75 years with both names quite interchangeably. You use India in English; you use Bharat in Hindi. So I think for most people, there's an element of surprise as to why we need to make this change at all. But I guess the government wants to make the point that they are seeing this as a colonial construct.

INSKEEP: Suhasini Haidar is diplomatic editor for The Hindu newspaper in Delhi. Thanks so much.

HAIDAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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