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(October 21st, 2023)

NEW DELHI. India wants to rename itself Bharat: it’s only the latest case of a country that, having got independence, wants to change its name.

In Africa, several postcolonial states, at more or less different times, have assumed other names, compared to the time in which they were subjected to the European powers: in Asia, the change of name has so far been less frequent, but there are equally different changes.

After all, we know that name, flag, anthem and currency are the calling card of a State and not infrequently the term with which it is called recalls glorious moments of the past, sometimes mythologized.

Today’s Mali, Ghana and Benin, once French Sudan, the Gold Coast and Dahomey, take their name from ancient African empires which reached great splendor in the Middle Ages; Zimbabwe, once Rhodesia, is ideally connected with the kingdom that centuries ago bore the same name and which was flourishing before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century.

In an era of rebirth of nationalism it is a not always innocent way of affirming one’s own identity, perhaps at the expense of an ethnic-religious minority that one would like to marginalize.

Rather than making a list of countries that in recent decades have taken a different name from the one inherited from the times of colonial empires, we prefer to propose some cases: some eccentric, some more serious.



when Congo became independent on June 30th, 1960, it took its name from the river that runs through it. In reality, in Africa, there are two Congos: there is the former Belgian one, very large, and the former French one, small in size: the border between the two is the river. The two capitals are facing each other: to the south, Léopoldville, to the north, Brazzaville.

Not infrequently, those who want to escape the frequent wars that devastate one of the two countries, cross it on pirogues to seek refuge on the other shore.

Having got independence, we were saying, the Congo, which was Belgian, at a certain point embraced the doctrine of autenticité at the behest of Mobutu Seseseko.

In 1972 he forced the Congolese to give up their Western first names [1], he himself stopped calling himself Joseph Désiré, he wanted people to wear traditional clothes and he changed the names of all the cities. Léopoldville becomes Kinshasa; Stanleyville, Lubumbashi…

The state is also renamed: instead of Congo, it will be called Zaire:

«Mobutu – David Van Reybrouck writes[2] found [this name] more authentic than the colonial indication “Congo”. The Father of the Revolution had based himself on one of the oldest written documents: a sixteenth-century Portuguese map. There the wide river that meandered through his land was referred to as “Zaire.” But, shortly after, he discovered that it had been stupid: Zaire was the crooked spelling of the word nzadi, which in the Kongo language means “river”. When, near the mouth,the Portuguese asked the natives what that large, swirling mass of water was called, they simply replied “river”: nzadi, they repeated. Zaire, the Portuguese understood. [That land, therefore] owed its name to the approximate phonetics of a Portuguese cartographer of four centuries ago.”

Once Mobutu was overthroned (1997), the country resumed its ancient name: Laurent Désiré Kabila added “Democratic Republic”, certainly to distinguish it from the other Congo, the one north of the river and which has its capital in Brazzaville.



Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as we said, would like India to take on the name bharat, a Sanskrit term taken from scriptures dating back around 2,000 years ago.

In fact, in recent decades several large Indian cities have already changed their names: Calcutta has become Kolkata, Madras, Chennai; Bombay, Mumbai.

Until now, however, no one had thought of changing name of the entire state.

«At the recent G20 summit which was held in New Delhi on 9th and 10th September. narrates Alessandro Michelucci[3] – Narendra Modi presented himself as the “prime minister of Bharat”. Not only that, but he wants this to become the official name of India. At first glance this may seem like just an image move, but it’s most likely functional to the leading role that the Asian country wants to play within the Brics (the group made up of China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil, now expanding from 5 countries to at least 11), while strengthening trade relations with the European Union. In other words, it is about erasing the image of a marginal India, instead conveying a feeling of novelty  and power.

The term Bharat, which is already used by many Indian officials, has in fact a strong identity charge. Moreover, Modi is an exponent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), an expression of an often intolerant Hindu nationalism, which wants to affirm the superiority of this religion over others. It’s above all Muslims (14% of the population) who are periodically targeted by the prime minister’s verbal attacks, but Christians have also often been subjected to discrimination and violence by extremists.”



To remain in Asia, Burma also changed the name of the state and many cities in 1989, at the behest of the military junta that had governed it since 1962, erasing the colonial legacy.

Burma became Myanmar and the former capital, Rangoon, renamed Yangon.

«The name of the country – it reads on en.wikipedia[4] – has been the subject of controversy and disagreement, particularly at the beginning of the 21st century, focusing mainly on the political legitimacy of those who used the expression Myanmar and those who preferred pronounce the word Burma.

Both names derive from the earlier Burmese Mranma or Mramma,ethnonym of the majority Burmese ethnic group, of uncertain etymology. The terms are commonly believed to derive from the Sanskrit Brahma Desha, “land of Brahma”.



In 2018, the absolute king of Swaziland, a southern African state completely surrounded by South Africa, decided that the name of his country was no longer suitable: for Mswati the 3rd, in fact, it sounded too much like Switzerland, so he ordered that from then onwards it took the name eSwatini.



There are countries that lately, due to their particular needs, want to be called in the same way by members of the entire international community:

• Ivory Coast, for example, would like everyone to call it Cóte d’Ivoire, instead of Costa de Marfil (Spanish), Ivory Coast (English)…

• Turkey, which this year celebrates one hundred years since the foundation of the Republic following the Ottoman Empire, which was dismembered after the First World War, would love for everyone to call it Türkiye;

• Persia and Siam at different times became Iran and Thailand, while the Chinese changed the name of the provinces of Turkestan and Tibet because they were inhabited by ethnic-religious minorities not liked by Beijing;



Each people gave different places a name that in some way coincided with their own language.

• Germany is a nation whose name often changes: in German it is Deutschland, in French, Allemagne;

• we all say that Charles III is King of England and that Amsterdam is in Holland, but those countries are called Great Britain and the Netherlands;

• For us Athens is the capital of Greece which becomes Elas in their language;

• the Hungarians, finally, live in Magyar and the Norwegians in Norge…

We could go on almost indefinitely: however, Germans, English, Greeks, Dutch, Hungarians and Norwegians, for the moment, don’t force others to use their respective languages to define them, as Ivory Coast and Turkey absolutely want.




[1] Mobutu’s wife, when he ordered everyone to stop using Western-style first names, is said to have told him:

«My name is Antoinette and I won’t change my name at all!»
[2] D. Van Reybrouck, Congo, Feltrinelli,
Milano, 2014;
[3] A. Michelucci, Why India now wants to become Bharat,, 19 October 2023;
[4] Myanmar,

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