India: A Name Change Fraught With Meaning

September 14, 2023

Recent signals sent by Narendra Modi suggest that the country of the maharajas could soon change its name from India to Bharat – a term taken from Sanskrit. It is a measure which, if confirmed, is part of the vast enterprise of eliminating the country's colonial and Christian past started several years ago by the ruling party.

Now the most populous country in the world and with the highest growth, capable of safely arriving one of its devices on the Moon, the Indian Federation was quite naturally designated to host the G-20 on 9 and last September 10.

On the invitation card sent to foreign leaders by the Indian president to invite them to the summit of the richest countries, Droupadi Murmu – this is the name of the head of state – presents himself as the president of Bharat, and not from India. Bharat is in fact a term derived from Sanskrit whose use would be mentioned in the first texts of Indian literature.

It is a seemingly innocuous mention since the name of Bharat appears, alongside that of India, in the country's Constitution, but it seems to signal more profound changes: Narendra Modi himself generally uses it when he speaks of India. Similarly, members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling Hindu party, have also been campaigning for a long time against the use of the name India, on the grounds that they see it as a hated vestige of British colonization.

But the movement against the name India also shows hostility toward the West in general, because in fact, the term "India" has its roots in Western Antiquity. In the 4th century BC, the Greek geographer Megasthenes left one of the oldest descriptions of the country of the maharajas which he calls Indica. This was the term that was subsequently taken up during the "discovery" of the country by the Portuguese Vasco da Gama. The designation as the East Indies gained usage to refer to both modern India as well as all the lands of this Asian continent little known to the Europeans.

With the establishment of the Franciscans and then the Jesuits in Goa, on the west coast of the country, the “Indies” soon constituted the heart of Christian influence in Asia. A teaching order, the Society of Jesus would develop seminaries, set-up schools and universities, open hospitals, and build churches, each one richer and more impressive than the other.

A heritage that the BJP wants to erase in the name of Hindutva, an ideology which intends to eradicate from the country all the values and vestiges of a non-Hindu culture. Last June, the chief minister of the Goa region declared that “the time (had) come to erase all signs of the Portuguese presence in order to make a new start.” The position, if we take him at his word, implies razing the churches.

There should be no forgetting the acts of violence of which Christians are victims. United Christian Forum recorded four hundred between January and July 2023, compared to 274 the previous year over the same period. There are also anti-conversion laws or discriminatory measures that make Christians second-class citizens. However, with its almost two millennia of presence on Indian soil, not to mention its various achievements for the common good, Christianity has sufficiently shown that it is at home here, as elsewhere.