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India Eyes a New Identity
The government’s preoccupation with “Bharat” caps a nativist surge under Modi.
“In India I found a race of mortals living upon the earth, but not adhering to it. Inhabiting cities, but not being fixed to them. Possessing everything, but possessed by nothing.”
This is how the first-century Greek philosopher Apollonius Tyanaeus is claimed to have described India. On the surface, the imputed ethos of universalism was on show in the expansive slogan of “One Earth, One Family, One Future” for the mega G-20 summit, hosted by India, that ended last week. With a jazzed-up capital city, gaudy laser lighting, brand new public installations, and gold-plated tableware for the attendants, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big fat Indian G-20 meeting was a coming-out party of sorts for India as a world power. Modi’s eagerness is understandable—and not just because the next election is round the corner. India’s economy today is roughly the same size as China’s was in 2007, the year before it hosted its own coming out party, the Beijing Olympics.
But India’s self-belief as the country of the future is painfully at odds with its state-led obsession with the past. All the pomp and pageantry designed to project India’s new identity as a visvaguru (“teacher to the world,” in Modispeak) could not hide the many identity wars triggered by a surge of nativism in the country. If anything, they were spotlighted like never before by the G-20 event.
As Modi inaugurated the summit, he sat behind a placard that read “Bharat” rather than “India.” This came after days of frenetic speculation about whether the country would be renamed, which began when the official invite for a banquet hosted by President Droupadi Murmu referred to “President of Bharat” for the first time. A ruling party spokesman also flaunted a government note on Modi’s visit to Indonesia that described him as “Prime Minister of Bharat.” All eyes are on whether the government will make a move to change the country’s name during a surprise five-day parliamentary session that starts today.
Found in ancient Indian epics, the word Bharat (or Bharata) is a variant of the Sanskrit term Bharatavarsa, which the Hindu scriptures describe as a giant landmass between the “sea in the south and the abode of snow in the north.” “Bharata” is also the name of the ancient mythological emperor said to have conquered and ruled over the entire subcontinent, far beyond today’s borders. For India’s Hindu supremacists, the word evokes a glorious Hindu prehistoric past. Soon after the government started making noises about “Bharat,” celebrities declared their love for “Bharat,” a new film changed its title to replace “India” with “Bharat,” and top leaders of Modi’s ruling Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have issued statements on why indigenous “Bharat” should replace the foreign “India”—mistakenly declaring the latter to be a British term.
All of this feels out of place. The word “India” was actually coined by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, in reference to the Indus civilization (Ινδία) that peaked around 2500 BC. Modi has never really seemed to resent the term until now, despite his nativist politics. Dozens of his pet initiatives use the word India, such as “Make in India” and “Skill India.” The Indian constitution also provides for both, and uses “India” and “Bharat” interchangeably, as do Indians, so this never has been a political issue as such. Things only changed recently when an opposition alliance began calling itself by the acronym I.N.D.I.A. (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), triggering a campaign of disparagement by Hindu supremacists against “India” as a colonial relic unworthy of a proud nation.
An idealized past is an important part of any nativist politics, and Modi’s is no different. These naming wars are part of a much broader effort by Modi and his supporters to rewrite history. A pre-modern Hindu “golden age” before Muslim and Christian invasions is a common trope: Harping on the injustices meted out by the invaders serves to “other” today’s minorities as outsiders, and has been used to justify atrocities against them as a form of historical justice. The Mughals, who ruled much of India for over three centuries until the advent of the British, have been dropped from school textbooks.
Recent history is contested even more viciously. Since the Hindu right was a marginal force in India’s independence struggle in the 20th century, the heroes of that struggle are constantly disparaged. Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy is tarnished the most, often openly by members of Modi’s BJP party. Modi’s cult of personality projects him as the builder of a new, powerful Hindu-first India, in defiance of its modern secular roots, so there has also been a persistent campaign of diminishing his predecessors as poor administrators and traitors who sold out the Hindus for Muslim votes. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, credited with laying the country’s secular foundation upon its independence from the British in 1947, is another frequent troll target.
The result of all this is a national discourse that perpetually wallows in avenging past wrongs—real and constructed. Cities, roads and landmarks are being renamed to cleanse them of Muslim association. Even Taj Mahal, the most famous of Mughal monuments, is not immune to demands for name change, even destruction, by Hindu extremists. Bollywood is making period pieces reinterpreting history, including glorifying Gandhi’s killer.
Meanwhile, the substantive challenges facing the country—global warming, AI, rising inequality, the jobs crisis—are rarely to be found in front-page headlines or primetime TV debates. Surveys routinely show that the most important issues for voters are jobs, the cost of living, health, and education, but ahead of next year’s election Modi is racing to complete a Hindu temple being built at the site where Hindu zealots razed a 16th century Mughal mosque.
Most of my time on WhatsApp these days is spent arguing with friends and family about fake claims on historical events circulated by Modi’s cyber army. Apollonius Tyanaeus has been popping up a lot in these typing wars lately, as has Herodotus, the fifth-century Greek geographer in whose works 2,400 years ago the word “India” is first believed to have appeared. And I’m left wondering whether a country this bogged down in battling its past can ever truly hope to win the future.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism.
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