Within the legal framework of India, provisions exist to facilitate a transition, if necessary, from the usage of Bharat with India as is the case today to only Bharat with the complete exclusion of India. It is plausible for this transition to occur, but contingent entirely upon political resolve and a societal climate conducive to change.
All talk, till it converts into action, remains empty. The brouhaha raked, by the frenzied media, over the Narendra Modi-led government “likely to bring up a proposal to rename India as Bharat during the special session of Parliament from September 18 to September 22 2023” fizzled out and dispelled with it, also predictably, the empty talk.
The roots of “Bharat”, “Bharata”, or “Bharatvarsha” are traced back to Puranic literature, and to the epic Mahabharata. The Puranas describe Bharata as the land between the “sea in the south and the abode of snow in the north”.
Writing in January 1927, Jawaharlal Nehru alluded to the “fundamental unity of India” that has endured from “the remote past”: “a unity of a common faith and culture. India was Bharata, the holy land of the Hindus, and it is not without significance that the great places of Hindu pilgrimage are situated in the four corners of India — the extreme South overlooking Ceylon, the extreme West washed by the Arabian Sea, the East facing the Bay of Bengal and the North in the Himalayas.” (Selected Works Vol. 2)
By the time of the early Mughals (16th century), the name ‘Hindustan’ was used to describe the entire Indo-Gangetic plain. Historian Ian J Barrow in his article, ‘From Hindustan to India: Naming Change in Changing Names’ (Journal of South Asian Studies, 2003) wrote that “in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, Hindustan often referred to the territories of the Mughal emperor, which comprised much of South Asia”.
It is only from the late 18th century onwards, that British maps increasingly began to use the name ‘India’, and ‘Hindustan’ started to lose its association with all of South Asia. Part of the appeal of the term India may have been its Graeco-Roman associations, its long history of use in Europe, and its adoption by bureaucratic organisations such as the Survey of India.
The adoption of India suggests how colonial nomenclature signalled changes in perspectives and helped to usher in an understanding of the subcontinent as a single, bounded and British political territory.
During the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly on September 17, 1949, there emerged a division among members from the outset, with some advocating against the use of ‘India,’ viewing it as a vestige of colonial subjugation.
Various suggestions were proposed, including Hari Vishnu Kamath’s proposition that the first article read, “Bharat, or in the English language, India, shall be and such.”
Seth Govind Das, representing the Central Provinces and Berar, proposed: “Bharat known as India also in foreign countries.” Hargovind Pant, representing the hill districts of the United Provinces, asserted the preference of Northern India for “Bharatvarsha and nothing else.”
Pant contended: “So far as the word ‘India’ is concerned, the Members seem to have, and really I fail to understand why, some attachment for it. We must know that this name was given to our country by foreigners who, having heard of the riches of this land, were tempted towards it and had robbed us of our freedom in order to acquire the wealth of our country. If we, even then, cling to the word ‘India’, it would only show that we are not ashamed of having this insulting word which has been imposed on us by alien rulers.”
None of the suggestions found acceptance within the committee. Yet, they revealed divergent visions for the nascent nation.
India, that is Bharat was articulated in Article 1 of the Constitution of India and suggests that it can be used interchangeably.
In the realm of law, a definitive standpoint is evident. Numerous Public Interest Litigations (PILs) filed in the Supreme Court of India have spotlighted the matter of altering the nation’s nomenclature. The Apex Court consistently upholds the position that, given the dual usage option provided by the Constitution of India – ‘Bharat’ and ‘India’ – individuals are at liberty to choose their preference. Regarding any official name change, the onus lies with the legislature, not the judiciary.
To understand the context of the issue, it is imperative to briefly scrutinise the PILs submitted over the years, resolutions moved in legislature and thereby the stand of the political parties of the petitioners who initiated them; the views of the party in power when asked by the Supreme Court and the tendency of the judiciary to steer clear of an issue that is for the legislature to address in the first place.
Let us examine the PILs filed, and resolutions moved over the years:
• In the landmark case, Ashok Kumar v. Union of India (1978), the petitioner argued that the term ‘India’ should be replaced with ‘Bharat’, which is the Hindi name for India, in all official documents and names. The petitioner contended that this change would better represent the cultural and linguistic diversity of the nation. The Supreme Court, however, ruled against the petitioner, emphasising the importance of linguistic diversity while maintaining a unified national identity.
This case stands as a significant landmark in the legal discourse surrounding the official nomenclature of India. The petitioner, Ashok Kumar, sought a fundamental alteration in the name used to refer to the nation in official documents. Specifically, he advocated for replacing the term ‘India’ with ‘Bharat’, asserting that this change would more accurately represent the cultural and linguistic diversity of the nation.
Kumar contended that ‘Bharat’ was deeply embedded in the cultural and historical fabric of India. Advocating for linguistic inclusivity, he argued that the term ‘India’ primarily represented the English-speaking population, potentially marginalising non-English-speaking communities. Adopting ‘Bharat’, in his view, would better acknowledge and respect the linguistic diversity of the nation.
The petitioner emphasized the historical and nationalistic connotations associated with the term ‘Bharat’. He argued that ‘Bharat’ had ancient roots in Indian scriptures and epics, symbolizing the nation’s rich cultural heritage. By using this term, Ashok Kumar believed that India would establish a stronger connection to its historical legacy.
Ashok Kumar posited that adopting ‘Bharat’ as the official name would promote a sense of unity amidst diversity. He contended that it would encapsulate the collective identity of the nation, encompassing all its linguistic, cultural, and regional variations.
Supreme Court acknowledged the significance of the arguments put forth by Ashok Kumar. However, it ruled against the petitioner, emphasising the importance of linguistic diversity while maintaining a unified national identity. The Court underscored that while recognising the cultural and historical significance of ‘Bharat’, it was imperative to strike a balance between unity and diversity.
The Court reiterated that any substantial change in official nomenclature would necessitate a constitutional amendment, which falls under the legislative domain.
Although the Supreme Court ruled against the petitioner in this instance, Ashok Kumar v. Union of India remains a pivotal case in the ongoing dialogue about India’s national identity. It underscores the intricate interplay between linguistic diversity, historical legacy, and the need for a unified national identity.
While the term ‘India’ remains the widely accepted and recognised name for the nation, the case contributed to the broader conversation about how India chooses to represent itself and its diverse population on the national and international stage.
• In 2004, the-then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav moved a resolution in the state Assembly that proposed amending the Constitution to say “Bharat, that is India,” instead of “India, that is Bharat.” This resolution was unanimously adopted after the Opposition BJP staged a walkout before it was passed.
Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) had said in its manifesto before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections that “India should become Bharat”.
Today, Samajwadi Party is part of Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), a political coalition comprising 28 parties opposed to the supposed ‘renaming of India to Bharat’.
• In Shashi Tharoor v. Union of India (2006), Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a Member of Parliament and noted author, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court of India requesting the court to consider amending the Constitution to officially recognize ‘Bharat’ alongside ‘India’ as the names for the country. Dr. Tharoor argued that this dual nomenclature would be more inclusive and reflective of India’s linguistic plurality and cultural diversity. The Apex Court acknowledged the merit in the argument but left the decision to the legislative domain.
Dr. Tharoor contended that India’s linguistic diversity was one of its defining features and recognising ‘Bharat’ alongside ‘India’ would be a more inclusive representation of this plurality. He argued that by officially acknowledging both names, India would honour the multitude of languages and cultures that constitute the nation.
The petitioner emphasised the historical and cultural significance of the term ‘Bharat’ in the Indian context. ‘Bharat’ has deep-rooted cultural and historical connotations, tracing its origins to ancient Indian scriptures and epics. Dr. Tharoor argued that incorporating ‘Bharat’ would reconnect modern India with its ancient heritage.
Dr. Tharoor maintained that recognizing ‘Bharat’ would not fragment the nation, but rather enhance the sense of unity. By accommodating diverse linguistic and cultural identities, India would strengthen its identity as a united, yet diverse, nation.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the merit in Dr. Tharoor’s arguments. However, the Court ruled that while it recognised the significance of linguistic diversity and the historical importance of ‘Bharat’, the decision to implement such a change rested within the legislative domain.
The Court highlighted the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature, emphasizing that substantial changes in official nomenclature required a constitutional amendment, which falls under the purview of the Parliament.
While Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s PIL did not lead to an immediate change in official nomenclature, it contributed significantly to the ongoing discourse surrounding India’s national identity. The case prompted discussions in various forums about the importance of recognising linguistic diversity and the historical roots of the term ‘Bharat’.
Congress Party also belongs to Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.), a political coalition comprising 28 parties opposed to the supposed ‘renaming of India to Bharat.’
The subsequent introduction of the Constitution (One Hundred and First Amendment) Act in 2016, which recognised ‘Bharat’ as an alternative name for India in Hindi, can be seen as a legislative response that, in part, echoed the sentiment expressed in Dr. Tharoor’s PIL. The Gazette of India was called Bharat Ka Rajpatra.
In essence, the case serves as a pivotal moment in the broader conversation about how India defines and represents itself, acknowledging both its ancient heritage and its diverse, modern identity.
• In 2012, again, Congress’ Shantaram Naik moved a bill in Rajya Sabha on similar lines. “‘India’ denotes a territorial concept, whereas ‘Bharat’ signifies much more than the mere territories of India. When we praise our country we say, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and not “India ki Jai”,” he said at the time.
• In Nihal Singh Rathore v. Union of India (2014), the petitioner called for a constitutional amendment mandating the exclusive use of ‘Bharat’ instead of ‘India’ in all official documents. The petitioner cited historical and cultural reasons for this change. The Supreme Court, while acknowledging the petitioner’s perspective, reiterated that any such amendment would require legislative action.
The crux of Rathore’s petition was a call for a constitutional amendment to mandate the exclusive use of ‘Bharat’ instead of ‘India’ in all official documents and contexts. Rathore argued that such a change was essential to align the nation’s nomenclature with its historical and cultural identity.
Rathore contended that the term ‘Bharat’ carries deep historical and cultural significance. It has roots in ancient Indian scriptures and epics, symbolizing the rich heritage of the nation. Rathore argued that using ‘Bharat’ exclusively would foster a stronger connection between modern India and its ancient roots.
The petitioner believed that embracing ‘Bharat’ as the sole official name would strengthen the sense of national identity among citizens. Rathore asserted that this change would serve as a unifying force, emphasizing India’s shared history and values.
Rathore, like previous petitioners, highlighted the diverse linguistic and cultural landscape of India. He argued that adopting ‘Bharat’ as the official name would be more inclusive, acknowledging the various languages and cultures that form the fabric of the nation.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the historical and cultural significance of the term ‘Bharat’ presented by Rathore. However, it reiterated its stance that any substantive change in official nomenclature required a constitutional amendment, which falls within the legislative domain.
The Court emphasised the importance of maintaining a balance between recognizing linguistic diversity and preserving a unified national identity. It underlined that such decisions were best addressed through the democratic process within the Parliament.
Nihal Singh Rathore’s PIL, like others before it, contributed to the ongoing discourse regarding India’s national identity. While it did not lead to an immediate change in official nomenclature, it played a role in shaping the broader conversation about how India chooses to represent itself both nationally and internationally.
• What is being perceived as an all-Narendra Modi move to rename India to Bharat must be seen against the backdrop of events that occurred in 2015 when the Narendra Modi-led Central government rejected the need for renaming the country. In its response to the Supreme Court on a PIL that sought the name change, the Centre categorically said that there was “no change in circumstances since the Constituent Assembly debated the issue to warrant a review.”
The affidavit by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) pointed out that the Constituent Assembly broadly discussed the issues regarding the country’s name while drafting the Constitution and clauses in Article 1 were adopted unanimously. It also noted that the term ‘Bharat’ was not a part of the original draft of the Constitution. It was during the debates that the Constituent Assembly took into consideration different names such as Bharat, Bharatbhumi, Bharatvarsh, India that is Bharat, and Bharat that is India.
The Apex Court then refused to entertain the plea.
• In 2016, the matter of India’s renaming again reached the top court. A PIL was filed by Niranjan Bhatwal from Maharashtra seeking to use ‘Bharat’ instead of ‘India’ for all purposes. The-then Chief Justice of India (CJI) TS Thakur told Bhatwal that it was his choice to call the country India or Bharat, adding that no authority, state, or court had the power to tell the citizens what to call their own country.
“Bharat or India? If you want to call it Bharat, go right ahead. Someone wants to call it India, let him call it India,” said a bench of Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justice UU Lalit. Dismissing the PIL, the apex court said, “will not interfere”.
• In 2020, a PIL sought an amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution to retain only ‘Bharat’ and exclude India from country name. Hearing a PIL seeking to amend the Constitution and exclude India as the name of the country, Chief Justice of India S A Bobde said the Supreme Court can’t do it as “India is already called Bharat in the Constitution itself”.
The court, however, allowed the petitioner to make a representation to the government.
The PIL sought an amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution to retain only ‘Bharat’ and exclude India from the country name. The plea, filed by a Delhi-based man, claimed such an amendment will “ensure the citizens of this country to get over the colonial past”.
“The removal of the English name though appears symbolic, will instil a sense of pride in our own nationality, especially for the future generations to come.
In fact, the word India being replaced with Bharat would justify the hard-fought freedom by our ancestors,” the plea claimed. Referring to the 1948 Constituent Assembly debate on Article 1 of the-then draft constitution, the plea said even at that time there was a “strong wave” in favour of naming the country as ‘Bharat’ or ‘Hindustan’.
The Supreme Court dismissed the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) advocating for the removal of “India” from the Constitution, advocating instead for the sole usage of Bharat, with the aim to emancipate citizens from the vestiges of colonialism. The Court’s rationale was grounded in the assertion that “India is already called Bharat in the Constitution itself.”
‘Shift’ In India’s Policy?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the term ‘Bharat’ in a G20 invitation. This was a deviation from the traditional use of “President of India” and “Prime Minister of India” in an invitation to foreign leaders for a G20 dinner. The term ‘Bharat’ was also used on the country name placard at the G20 summit. This has sparked speculation about whether the Modi government is considering a change in the country’s official name.
The use of ‘Bharat’ marked a notable change in the naming convention used by the country on the international stage. Ironically, the issue has been raked following the convenient christening of The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, commonly known by its abbreviation I.N.D.I.A. The political alliance of 28 political parties in India led by the Indian National Congress plans to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
The Alliance held its first Opposition parties meeting in Patna, Bihar, chaired by Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar on 23 June 2023. The proposal for a new alliance was put on the table at this meeting, which was attended by 16 Opposition parties.
The second Opposition parties meeting was held in Bengaluru, Karnataka, chaired by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. At this meeting, the proposal for an alliance was accepted and ten more parties were added to the list. The alliance’s name was finalised and given the name Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.
The third Opposition parties meeting was held in Mumbai from 31 August to 1 September 2023. Over the two-day deliberations, the alliance discussed major electoral issues for the upcoming general elections, carved out the coordination committee, and passed a three-point resolution to fight 2024 Indian general elections together ‘as far as possible’.
The name ‘I.N.D.I.A.’ was proposed during a meeting in Bengaluru and was unanimously adopted by the participating parties. The Alliance, ironically, isn’t even united over the attribution of the suggestion of the name itself.
Some sources attribute the suggestion of the name to Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) others mention that it was suggested by Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo and chief minister of West Bengal.
So, the perception created in public was that the present-day government is set to bring about a change in the very name of India through legislative means. The onus of informing, educating and publicising facts rests upon the media which instead of tackling pertinent issues must bring to fore the fact that a change in name in legislation would entail colossal changes in all laws, escalated costs and may seem unwieldy at this point of time.
If a debate on this must be embarked upon, it will have to be done in Parliament and a Bill introduced instead of merely indulging in needless posturing and tokenism.
The media has been, as is its nature, sensationalising the issue by posing volatile queries to pertinent parties also keen on making their ‘stand’ on the issue clear. And the INDIA alliance went on to boycott 14 anchors across nine TV news channels for their “communal coverage” and deflection from issues of public interest.
The decision to boycott was taken after the alliance’s first coordination committee meeting on September 13, attended by 12 parties. So much for Freedom of Speech and Expression!
Not that it makes much difference either, as the perception game is now being played out by Alternate Media giants, Twitter now X, Facebook, OTT and other Social Media Platforms. Even WhatsApp has emerged as a potent player and an alternative news outlet, despite the debatable nature of its credibility. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the credibility of media sources remains a subjective matter but that it doesn’t matter in the least while convoluting facts to suit one’s personal agenda and mask it as public opinion is an objective fact.
As a practice, several institutions like RBI even Indian Railways have used Bharat in their official correspondence and in name. Why, the party in power to which the Prime Minister of India also belongs is the Bharatiya Janata Party and they have made no qualms about the usage of the word Bharat.
Many countries like Sri Lanka which has dumped its colonial name Ceylon do so with aplomb and there’s nothing wrong with it. Shedding colonial baggage isn’t an offence, it may seem like an ultranationalist move, and not one preferred by the liberal, but yet doesn’t comprise an offence. And there’s Australia who with an Indigenous history stretching back more than 60,000 years, was colonised in 1788 and, while politically independent, has remained part of the British monarchy. Under the current system, the monarch is represented in Australia by the governor-general who plays a largely ceremonial role.
However, governor-generals retain constitutional and statutory powers, swearing in ministers and acting as the commander-in-chief of Australia’s Defence Forces. Settled as a British colony in 1788, Australia has been an independent nation since its six states federated in 1901. But like many Commonwealth countries such as Canada and New Zealand, it still recognises the British monarch as its head of state.
Whether India chooses to stay loyal to its more recent British history and give it precedence over an older and richer Vedic history or not, rests upon India. For now, India has opted for convenience in the choice of nomenclature. The feverish pitch that the debate hit reveals the range of emotions that are associated with use of ‘Bharat’ as opposed to the use of ‘India’ that finds support mostly from an Opposition left without an issue to oppose.