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India By Any Other Name? Christians Braced for ‘Bharat’ or Not

Believers weigh what the latest postcolonial name change discussion would mean for religious freedom and pluralism in the Hindu-majority nation.
India By Any Other Name? Christians Braced for ‘Bharat’ or Not
Image: Yawar Nazir / Stringer / Getty
Bharat vs. India: A Kashmiri woman walks in front of a sign of this month's G20 summit.

This month’s G20 summit in New Delhi gave rise to a controversy about a possible name change for the host nation, after the Indian government denoted the country as “Bharat” instead of the usual “India” on official guest invitations.

This was a clear departure from political convention, and the ensuing debate focused on the need for a name change as well as the possible cost. The constitution of India, meanwhile, contains both names and uses them interchangeably.

While the opposition criticized the administration of prime minister Narendra Modi, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the presumptive move, with some declaring the name change as necessary to “come out of the colonial mindset,” saying that those opposing it “are free to leave the country.”

The possible adoption of the term Bharat over India closely aligns with the inclinations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organization of Modi’s BJP. Founders of both the RSS and BJP advocated for a stringent, Hindu-centric vision of India (which they called “Hindusthan,” land of Hindus), wherein religious minority groups, particularly Muslims and Christians, must live “wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”

“Our country is Bharat, and we will have to stop using the word India and start using Bharat in all practical fields—only then will change happen,” stated RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat on September 1.

Christianity Today spoke to Indian Christian leaders on the likelihood of the name change and their reactions. While some expressed concern about the possible impact on minorities, especially Christians, others dismissed it as a diversionary political tactic.

A divisive dinner

Two days after Bhagwat’s statement, dinner invitations sent to dignitaries attending the G20 Summit on September 9 and 10 introduced president Droupadi Murmu as the “president of Bharat” rather than the conventional “president of India.” Traditionally, invitations issued by Indian constitutional bodies have consistently used the name India in English texts and Bharat in Hindi texts.

This deviation from the norm raised questions about the intentions of the Modi government, which has ruled the country for more than nine years yet has shown no preference for Bharat in the past.

The controversy further escalated when a photo of an invitation to the formal G20 banquet, addressed from the “president of Bharat,” went viral on social media. The two booklets released and distributed to the G20 dignitaries by the Modi government included one titled Bharat: The Mother of Democracy, which claimed, “Bharat is the official name of the country. It is mentioned in the Constitution as also in the discussions of 1946–48.” The booklet also refers to Hindu religious texts, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and outlines “democratic ethos in Bharat over thousands of years.”

On the same day, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted that Modi was attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Indonesia as the “prime minister of Bharat.”

The development occurred just days after the Modi government’s surprise announcement of a five-day special session of Parliament held September 18–22. Since the government did not announce the agenda for the special session, unconfirmed reports emerged about the tabling of a resolution to change the name of the nation.

Speculations were put to rest after the government published the agenda before the session began this week, but the confusion still gave rise to a controversy. Concerns were raised about the government’s intent and the possibility of changing the name of India to Bharat, given Modi and his party’s commitment to right-wing ideology and their push for Hindi language.

A. C. Michael, former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, spoke to CT on the spread of right-wing ideology and the proposal of the name change. He expressed concern about religious fundamentalism and majoritarianism, which have adversely affected the “secular fabric” of the country.

“Religious minorities are already being treated as second-class citizens: no freedom to eat what we want, no freedom even to dress the way we like,” he said, citing local bans of Muslim headscarves in a Karnataka school. “Naming [India as] Bharat will be like a last nail on the coffin.”

Van Lalnghakthang, a professor of ethics and theology in Sielmat Bible College in Manipur and a pastor of the Independent Church of India, sees this proposal as an attempt “to promote a particular group, and alienate the minorities.”

What’s in a name?

Adding fuel to the already blazing fire, Modi opened the G20 Summit with a placard placed before him that read “Bharat” instead of “India.” Modi’s sudden preference for Bharat raised eyebrows.

“The possible name change … suggests an underlying objective, i.e., an attempt at changing India’s history,” Lalnghakthang said.

The renaming of cities in India predates Modi, with the most striking examples being the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai in 1995, when the regional political party Shiv Sena assumed power. This decision was motivated by the party’s desire to shed colonial associations and honor the city’s Maratha heritage, paying homage to the goddess Mumbadevi in the process.

Calcutta was changed to Kolkata to match its Bengali pronunciation in 2001, and Bangalore to Bengaluru in 2014. Since Modi’s arrival on the national scene in 2014, there have been many official initiatives to remove symbols of British rule and traces of the country’s Muslim history from India’s urban landscape, political institutions, and history books.

For instance, Allahabad, founded by Mughal emperor Akbar, became Prayagraj in 2018, reflecting its status as a Hindu pilgrimage site. However, some historical names, such as the Allahabad High Court, have not been changed.

In 2015, the new Modi government renamed New Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road. In 2016, Haryana’s BJP government renamed Gurgaon to Gurugram, after the mythological character Guru Dronacharya. In 2018, the Mughalsarai Junction Railway Station was renamed Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction, likely because of the word Mughal, a historic Muslim dynasty that ruled the subcontinent for hundreds of years, in its name.

Churches generally have not been affected by the name changes. While relatively newer churches are using the new names of their cities, such as Kolkata Christian Fellowship, which was founded in 2005, older Roman Catholic dioceses of Madras and Calcutta, as well as the Anglican dioceses of the Church of South India and the Church of North India, use the older names. The nearly 200-year-old historical educational institution in Chennai still goes by the name of Madras Christian College.

Changing names of institutions, churches, and organizations is not as simple as it may sound in India, say Christian leaders.

“There is a lot of paperwork, documentation, and legal hassle involved in changing to any name,” said Vijayesh Lal, the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). “Secondly, the names that have been in use for many years become ‘brand names,’ and nobody can take the risk of such a change.”

Bharat and beyond

The debate between India and Bharat is quite old. Although people who support calling the country Bharat argue that the name India was forced upon the nation by the British, historians say that the name has been in use for many centuries, even before the colonial period.

The term India came from the Indus River, a Greek pronunciation of the Sindhu River. Even before Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign in the third century B.C., travelers from distant lands referred to the region southeast of the Indus as “India.”

Bharat, on the other hand, comes allegedly from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, particularly from the mythological king Bharata. Another school of thought claims the term came from the Vedic tribe of Bharatas, mentioned in Hindu scriptures.

“We are a secular nation, and many cultures and languages exist in our nation,” Lalnghakthang said. “This may be a plot to remove secularism by renaming the nation on religious grounds. This may impact religious freedom for minorities, including Christians, in India.”

The preamble of the constitution begins with “We, the people of India.” Part one of the document in English states, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,” while in Hindi it states, “Bharat, that is India, shall be a Union of States.”

Changing India’s name to be only Bharat would involve a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament.

In 2015, the Modi administration had opposed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India that sought to change the name of the nation from India to Bharat. The government told the Supreme Court at the time that “there is no change in circumstances to consider any change.” Now, however, there seems to be a change in Modi’s stance.

Atul Aghamkar, national director of EFI’s National Center for Urban Transformation, said it was common for him and his peers while growing up to identify themselves as “Bharatiyas” (people of Bharat) in the Hindi and Marathi languages and as “Indians” in English.

Opinions have also been expressed that there may be other reasons for the government’s sudden preference of using Bharat over India, rather than just getting rid of the colonial baggage as claimed.

One of the allegations by the opposition is that the Modi government’s sudden shift in preference has come only after the formation of a new anti-BJP coalition called INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance). The coalition is made up of 26 parties and will contest elections in opposition to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Aghamkar also sees the decision as a political move. The INDIA coalition “has significant implications on the upcoming general elections, and the ruling party knows it,” he explained, “and that is why they and the prime minister seem to have given prominence to the word Bharat rather than India, so that the opposition may have no advantage.”

“Another more compelling reason for this preference change is to keep the Hindu right-wing happy and to divide the nation further on those who would accept this change and those who wouldn’t,” he said. “Given the contemporary sociopolitical climate in India, it is bound to impact the minorities adversely, who are already under tremendous stress.”

Michael Williams, president of the United Christian Forum, said he personally prefers the name India. “I have been raised an Indian and it is a vital part of my identity,” he said. “I see this action as yet another distractive move by the present leadership to hide their inability to provide solid governance.”

If in the future this change happens, as is the agenda of the RSS, Aghamkar said, it may not have any direct implications for the rights of Christians. But its interpretation, as well as certain aspects of its imposition, may affect the rights and privileges of the community.

“It is too early to think about how to respond to this,” he said, “but Christian leadership may need to be prepared to protect their place and freedom in the constitutional framework and stand firmly on it.”

Lal expressed concern that changing the name to Bharat only, which so far has been secular might identify the nation (and its government) with a particular religion.

Annie Samson Peters of the department of philosophy at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, points back to the Bible and reminds Christians of their duty to pray for the nation—whether India or Bharat.

“As Christians, our hope and trust are anchored in Christ Jesus, irrespective of the shifting political landscape or debates surrounding the nation’s name,” said Peters.

“God is sovereign and he has a purpose for his people, even in challenging circumstances. We are called to submit to earthly authorities and to demonstrate that through our prayers for our leaders and the nation,” she said. “Ultimately, it is the unwavering faith in God’s plans that is a source of peace and strength in these ongoing discussions.”

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