Naming beyond categories


Present-day secularists are far from being the first or only people to identify the name as a problem or to mark it as clear matter of concern and questioning.

What we might call transcategorial onomastics – practices of naming beyond categories — is both varied and has existed for a long time, from the Sikh guru Guru Gobind Singh’s hailing of three Shudras, a Brahmin and a Kshatriya as ‘Singhs’ in forming the Sikh khalsa, to present-day deaf Indians’ denial of social class or religious names in favour of ones representing a particular bodily feature, from the use of generics such as ‘Kumar’ to characters in twentieth-century Hindi novels going by single names only as a means of helping readers identify with them whatever the reader’s background, as well as the many characters in Hindi film who have been surnameless and so regionless, casteless, and ethnically non-identifiable.

I suggest it is not a coincidence that surnameless characters in Hindi fiction and films were common in an era of patriotic nation-building in which caste and religious differences were downplayed in many circumstances in favour of pan-Indian generics. This could take the form of suppression of caste identifying names as in the case of the maternal uncle of a middle-aged teacher friend of mine in Delhi who, a communist party member, had in the 1960s given up the caste surname Gupta and adopted Bharti (Indian) ‘because he wanted a casteless society,’ or of nationalist boundary-crossing names as in the famous case of revolutionary fighter Udham Singh who, when arrested for the murder of Michael O’Dwyer, who had been lieutenant-governor of the Punjab in 1919 when the Jalianwala Bagh massacre took place, gave the boundary-crossing nationalist name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, a name that invoked the three major religious communities of the Punjab—Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh—as well as his anticolonial sentiment (azad means ‘free’).

In present times, Dalit migrants to the city may, for obvious reasons, take the opportunity migration affords to discard surnames that are often stigmatising—a practice that remains controversial both within and outside Dalit communities. Though many Dalits actively retain stigmatising caste surnames as acts of assertion and positive revaluation, Dalit and rationalist naming practices frequently overlap, sharing what might be termed a commitment to confusion. A north Delhi-based Dalit activist who uses a single name only—leaving a question mark where the usual caste title surname would be—put it to me like this: through naming practices such as his there will be ‘So, so much confusion. Then the whole thing [that is, caste discrimination] will go away.’ The expression he used was the Urdu ‘ghaflat ho gayi.’ Though in the following quotation—from a Christian Dalit acquaintance who retains his Christian forename having changed his surname to a perfectly ambiguous Hindu one that connotes different castes in different regions—the Hindi expression used was bhram: ‘Some think I am Brahmin, some Kshatriya, some OBC, some Hindu, and those who know me know I am a Christian. It is good to confuse people. The upper castes have been befooling (bevakuf bana rahe hain) SCs for centuries, so if they are confused by the new Shuklas and Sharmas [i.e. Dalits taking on upper caste names] that is good’ (emphasis added).

The intentional production of categorical uncertainty is thus not the preserve of rationalist activists. Much more could be said on the matter of a wider transcategorial onomastics not specific to rationalist activists, and its class basis—for instance, the kind of boundary-crossing names employed by upwardly mobile urban parents that signifies their sophisticated cosmopolitanism. The glossy Mumbai-based Mother and Baby magazine presents interviews with ‘society’ figures who do exactly this—Muslim actors whose new-born babies bear Hindu or Christian names and vice versa—and its founder-editor Priya Pathiyan told me about Hindu Sindhi friends of hers who live in south Delhi whose new-born they named Zyaan: global citizens, ‘they are comfortable giving their baby a name that has roots in Arabic, ignoring older family members who ask “why a Muslim name?”’

Contemporary secular naming practices sometimes reflect both this class dimension (many —though certainly not all—activists belong to ‘respectable’ professions such as medicine and academia) and that of nationalism—for instance, the son of a Punjabi rationalist leader is named Vishav Bharti (World Indian), and I shall describe similar instances of boundary-crossing names to that of Udham Singh in later blog posts—which begs the question: are their naming acts mere remnants of a waning Nehruvian-era nationalist identity (i.e. a kind of onomastic ‘national integration’)? Is there anything vital or ‘contemporary’ about them or are such names teetering objects of nostalgia—without import in the so-called ‘new India’?

The question becomes more pressing still in light of the way in which the politics of unrecognition, or reverse identity politics, I am concerned with here would seem quite at odds with the post Indian nationalist tendency toward differentiation as identified in influential works that have charted the rise of caste-based political formations in the country consequent on the years preceding the 1975–77 Emergency when the Congress’s populist goals had come to be expressed in terms which signaled the importance of caste classifications to anyone who could be thought of as aggrieved or deprived. My suggestion is that it is precisely because the dominant analytical narrative has focused on heightenings of difference that we should take seriously secular naming innovations as containing the possibility of delineating a countervailing trend towards more broad-based national or non-particularising identities—a trend that risks neglect given the existing scholarly emphasis on differentiated particularities. It is not just that a transcategorial imaginary still exists, but that it is evolving in new and interesting ways and onomastics are at its heart.

There is a further reason we should pay attention here. Activists’ rationalism is frequently 
dismissed as the basis of hypocritical scorn for the less well educated and their superstitions, with activists themselves accused of being nothing other than Macauley’s grandchildren (a stance shared by the Hindu right and many scholars). The material presented here allows us to progress beyond such stereotypes. The colonial regime—whose mantle activists are said to have inherited—famously inaugurated the governmentalisation of difference with massive continuing ramifications to this day, and scholars have been active in pointing out the role of enumeration in formalizing what had previously been ‘fuzzy’ communities and how the competition between these newly identifiable interest groups resulted in a direct and singular equation between enumeration on the one hand and division on the other. The reverse identity politics of ‘Macauley’s grandchildren’ is therefore of note. In their politics of unrecognition we might discern a name-based method of instilling hope of a caste-free future, or prefigurative politics of the name. Omvedt, in 2010, wrote movingly of ‘Waiting for an India when caste names will have lost their meaning’: ‘Perhaps [such] names might remain—after all, the US and England have Smiths, Carpenters, Potters—but in India, as there, no one would remember that they mean anything.’ The activists discussed here refuse to wait. Seeking to produce the transcategorial in specific local instances, activists prefigure and foreshadow a future they simultaneously help to bring into being—a prefigurative politics of the name.


Secular names: how and why?

In this post I want to look a little more closely at how some Indian secular activists – that is, proponents of secularism who belong to rationalist, humanist, and atheist organisations – have been experimenting with strategies to scramble and mix up the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names, and also why they might want to do this.

Interestingly, some secular names carry a kind of educational message – which is to say that part of their purpose, in being given as names, is to encourage people to reflect on them, and their operation. Names that withhold the information usually associated with them, in a sense, call attention to themselves, possibly provoking reflection (on the part of the person encountering them) on the arbitrariness, changeability, and role of names in forming the very community distinctions they signify.

But is not to say they always succeed in this, but rather to suggest that this is where some users of such names locate the value in them. I employ the term ‘meta-name’ to call attention to this educational function of the name in certain instances of secular experiments with names.

I suggest that there are two main strategies used by secular activists to create ‘secular names’: (1) purification of the caste and religious connotations of names, and (2) multiplication of those connotations in the giving of boundary-crossing names. (Though we’ll see in later weeks that the strategies can sometimes overlap). What both strategies seek to do is to break the association between name and pigeonholed identity.

Before going any further it is important to note that the association between personal name and demographic background wasn’t always there. Historians and anthropologists of India have shown how group boundaries were solidified both by their interactions with the state and with various kinds of reform movements, caste associations, and other mechanisms for removing any ambiguity with regard to the straightforward identification of name with the social group.

One way of thinking about what has been occurring is this: if prior state and reformist separation of communities used a kind of logic of either/or, the two strategies pursued by activists operate according to logics of, one the one hand, both/and (boundary-crossing names), and on the other, neither/nor (purified names). Certainly, not all or even a majority of activists engage in such experimentation, but every rationalist is able to point to examples from within their circle of 
activism, and there are rationalist associations where naming innovations are absolutely normal and indeed required. For Punjab’s dynamic and influential Tarksheel organisation, for instance, dropping one’s caste surname is a condition of membership.

Let us now consider why they are experimenting in these ways.

I suggest there are three principal reasons.

First, activists take up a position that sees the obvious associations and the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names as leading to the restriction of human flourishing. For the French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, names ‘inaugurate the actor’s identity and inform him in an authoritative manner of what he is and what he must be,’ and this can equally describe the rationalists’ view. Rationalist activists seek to avoid the ought self imposed on a person by their name; to release themselves and others from its contraints.

Second, activists need to show consistency. Anti-caste activism is part of the Indian rationalist worldview. Activists conduct high-profile anti-superstition and miracle demonstration campaigns, and many activists describe caste as the biggest superstition of all. Keeping for themselves a caste surname leaves activists open to being labeled hypocrites (similar to the recent accusations levelled at novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy who, after the publication of her new introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, was challenged on her own continued use of a caste surname).

Third, and most important, is activists’ awareness of the role of names in enabling discrimination.

In 2004 the economists Bertrand and Mullainathan published a pioneering study which revealed how employers in Boston and Chicago discriminate against equally qualified candidates based solely on whether their names are considered to be typically ‘white’ or ‘black’. A few years later, in 2010, Bertrand and Mullainathan’s study was replicated in Indian contexts to very revealing effect. What Thorat and Attewell did was to respond to private sector job adverts with CVs demonstrating equal qualifications, but with names indicating different caste and religious backgrounds, finding that applicants with obviously Dalit, low caste or Muslim-sounding names were far less likely than those with high caste ones to hear back from employers. Since caste and religious discrimination is an everyday reality for millions of Indians, the findings are not that much of a surprise. But the research is nonetheless very valuable for vividly displaying the socio-economic stakes of personal names in the region, and for showing how deluded much of the rhetoric is that celebrates the supposed ‘post-caste’ egalitarianism of the liberalised Indian economy. The demographic baggage of names evidently plays a key role in everyday discrimination, from the notorious difficulties faced by people with low-caste or Islamic names in finding properties for rent, to obtaining jobs, and so on.

So we can see that secular activists’ naming experiments address a particular social problem. In future posts on this website I want to unpack in greater detail the differing strategies employed by activists to response to the problem of the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names. It is not all plain sailing for secular activists. Acts of renaming, and ‘unusual’ names as such, can be and are contested. Ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin noted of performative utterances that, if they are not enacted in ordinary circumstances but, for instance, on the stage, out of earshot, or in a language the hearer does not understand, will be simply ‘hollow or void’. Secular naming practices by their very nature are extraordinary—this is how they gain their power but it also leaves them open to being ignored, ridiculed or classed as illegitimate, especially by those who seek to preserve community boundaries. Such a focus on debates and criticisms both within and outside the movement about the worth and validity of particular naming strategies is key for clarifying what is at stake in the domain of secular naming practices, for instance in seeking to work out whether naming innovations can directly challenge inequality and discrimination or the opposite.