Purified names?

Previous posts have discussed how some secular activists practice and promote personal naming innovations as a way of producing categorical uncertainty, thereby challenging inequality and discrimination. Following from this the focus of this post is on one of the main strategies they have experimented with for this purpose. We can call this strategy purificatory, for it seeks to remove caste and religious connotations from the names activists themselves bear or that they give to their children. Omvedt, as noted previously, hopes that the caste connotations of many Indian surnames will be forgotten and become what have been called ‘sterilized words.’ Activists, however, seek to accelerate the process of ‘name sterilization’ through actively removing such connotations.

The findings shared here are based on ethnographic research that I began 2009, when I first commenced spending time amongst rationalist and secular organizations in India. However, I only began specifically focusing on personal names – those of activists and others’ – in 2013, with several research visits since, including in 2017. As with rationalist organizations globally, there is an unequal representation of the sexes in the Indian movement. Roughly, active women constitute less than a quarter of the group’s membership. The caste make-up of activists is quite diverse, but the movement’s leaders tend to hail from upper-caste and class backgrounds.

Given their anti-caste convictions it is unsurprising that the removal of caste surnames is a common practice amongst them. Sometimes, as was mentioned previously, dropping a caste surname is a condition of membership of local rationalist organizations. Activists may dispense with a surname altogether, use their place of origin as a surname, or adopt a ‘place-holder’ name such as Kumar or Singh (such largely identity-neutral names have been described by Professor Prasannanshu as akin to the letter ‘X’ in Malcolm X’s name). The founder of Tarksheel, the main Punjab rationalist society, changed his surname from Mittal, a caste title, to Mitter, meaning friend, a technique that retains an aural memory of the disavowed, ideologically unsound name.

An activist from central India, insisted to me that ‘We should not expose religion in [our children’s] names… Though I am from a Hindu background, I am not a Hindu—only a human being. My wife, who is also an activist, is from a Christian background, but she is not a Christian. We thought about it carefully and we called our elder son Lyric, and our younger son is called Sonnet.’

The use of English words as names allows parents to avoid an association with Sanskrit-derived names, for even if a Sanskrit name has no explicit religious reference point, the Hindu background of a person may be gauged by its Sanskrit origin (as with, for instance, Akash [sky]—not an explicitly ‘religious’ name but nonetheless typically revealing its bearer to be Hindu, or perhaps Jain or Sikh). This is similar to the situation of Muslims in Tamil Nadu: it is not that they do not see themselves as Tamils yet the association between Tamil and Hinduism causes them to choose non-Tamil names, as the anthropologist Francis Britto has explained.

The drawback of this strategy, for secular-rationalist activists, is that it is at odds with their attempts to emphasise that their project is one deeply embedded in Indian history as a counter to the Hindu right (and indeed scholarly) charge that they are inheritors of the colonial mantle. However, if the words are themselves ‘un-Indian,’ use of the related words Lyric and Sonnet does reflect the not uncommon north Indian practice of naming siblings in poetically similar ways, as in, for instance, calling three brothers Rachin, Sachin and Nitin.

Families associated with Vijayawada’s Atheist Centre provide further examples of the method of purification. This is what its literature has to say about rationalist naming practices:

Birth of a child, irrespective of gender, is a happy occasion for atheists and they share joy with others. They name their children as per the events in history, current and international affairs, social and political changes or reflecting the beauty of nature. In order to break the barriers of caste and religion, atheists name their children in a secular manner, connoting a meaning relevant to the time or an event which has no religious connotation. Taking the case of children in Atheist Centre, Samaram (II World War), Niyanta (dictator), Lavanam (Salt, was born on the eve of Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha), Vijayam (Victory. First success of Congress in General Elections), Vidya (Education) and the younger generation with unique names such as Sanketh (Information), Vidwat (Knowledge), Saujas (Redoubled Vigour and Youthfulness), Saaras & Tejas (Indigenous manned aeroplanes developed by India), Olos (Olympics Los Angeles) to mention a few. Many atheists are making the next generation secular and post religious. Atheists also stress on the need for birth registration, which is neglected in India. When they admit their children in educational institutions, in the application forms they mention in the caste and religion column as ‘nil’.

The examples provided here of names intended to ‘break the barriers of caste and religion’ are both international and national(ist) in outlook, with references to the Second World War, the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Gandhi’s salt march and the development of ‘indigenous’ airplanes. Replacing caste and religious connotations with nationalist ones is a well-worn integrative move—it recalls, for instance, the ‘Meri Jaati Hindustani’ (My Caste is Indian) movement, which encourages Indians to write ‘Hindustani’ as their caste at census time, and the very publicly visible use of ‘Bharti’ and ‘Swaraj’ as nationalist surnames. And as with Lyric and Sonnet, the pattern of naming enacted here is simultaneously innovative and conventional: Olos, for instance, is certainly unique, yet follows the classic Indian template of context- sensitive naming, wherein children are named after the day on which they were born (Itvari, Manglu etc.) and former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife Babri ‘named their first daughter Misa after the 1973 Maintenance of Internal Security Act that [Indira] Gandhi used to quell all opposition during the Emergency’. These, then, are attempts—partial but meaningful—at purifying names; secular innovations that nonetheless emerge from and reflect existing naming conventions.

There are multiple ways in which rationalists across time and space have sought to purify selves, spaces and events of religious iconography—in present-day England, for instance, Humanists celebrants, when they arrive at the chapel to conduct a funeral, take away or have covered any religious symbols that may be present—and the giving of names that seek to avoid religious connotations is on the face of it a variant of the practice. Moreover, naming purification can take many different forms and arise from quite different motivations. Restricting ourselves to South Asia, there is the case of the Viduthalai Ciruthaigal Katchi (VCK—Liberation Panther Party)—the largest Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu—whose embrace of Tamil nationalism has involved a mass campaign to de-Sanskritise personal names, while Pakistan is seeing an increasingly purist attitude towards Islamic naming, with Wahabi- influenced moves to ban nicknames, names determined by numerology and even names ‘implying that the prophet or saints bestow a child’. While some of this logic is no doubt exhibited in the case of Indian rationalists who in other contexts certainly make it their business to expunge religious symbolism, a critical difference is that in this case purification concerns less a move toward secular or rationalist piety or virtue than a move towards productive not-knowing and disidentification. Our use of the term ‘purification’ must therefore be nuanced. Unlike the Hindu social worker in Steinberg’s essay on Delhi street children who removes Azeez from the child runaway Akhil-Azeez’s hitherto ambiguous and situationally changeable name because ‘she did not want to give him a Muslim name,’ or schoolteachers in the Sunderbans who have been reported to Hinduise the Islamic inflections of pupils’ ambiguous boundary-crossing names in class registers, the strategy in this case is not one of either/or, or even both/and, but neither/nor. Which is to say that here purification and commitment to confusion go together, with purification not aimed at narrowing down to a singular association but at the removal of all associations.

Since this is purification in the service of an ‘open’ name—open in the sense of seeking to pre-empt the way in which a name can pre-empt identity; keeping a child’s options ‘open’ so to speak—this is a very particular kind of purification. Anthropologist Veena Das has referred to the ‘open texture’ of certain names and of names ‘pregnant with future possibilities,’ and the purified names given by rationalists similarly are an attempt to keep open a child’s future possibilities. This is by no means a preoccupation unique to Indian secularists. For instance, George Holyoake remarks in his book English Secularism: A Confession of Belief, published in 1896: ‘In naming children it is well to avoid names whose associations pledge the child, without its consent, to some line of action it may have no mind to, or capacity for, when grown up’. What is perhaps different about the Indian case is the thought that has gone into avoiding such associations.

But there is a problem. Activists who do not go the route of purified names do not so much disapprove of such names as simply point out that many of them would be listed in Indian baby name books unambiguously under the ‘Hindu’ section. Consider the names Vikas (development), given since the boy was born during the First World Atheist Conference in 1972 which aimed to spread secular and atheist thought, and Sahasra (a new beginning), given in connection with the Arab Spring and what seemed then to be the burgeoning spirit of democracy in the Arab world. While they do not disclose the person’s caste or necessarily refer to gods or Hindu concepts, their Sanskrit-derivation means they are nonetheless strongly indicative of this tradition. Activists work toward a function of names correlative with John Stuart Mill’s (1843) sense of them as being ‘meaningless marks set upon things [or persons] to distinguish them from one another’. The problem (for such activists) is that particular communities are frequently associated with particular languages, whatever the lexical meanings of the words used as names, and whether or not such an association has to some extent been formed via appropriative strategies on the part of such communities. We will consider in future posts some possible solutions to this problem.


To change a name, and to obtain a name: From Hirani’s PK to Donald Trump and back again

Lecture given at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, 1/3/2017. Chaired by Professor Asha Sarangi.


Abstract: This lecture explores instructional functions of (personal) names. Names have a special place in scenes of instruction: children, in learning the names for things, also learn what a name is. However, names can also be given with the express intention of encouraging new understandings, or reconsiderations of positions. Techniques employed to achieve this can include unexpected usage, but also unexpected juxtaposition and intentional production of crises of reference. Cases considered in this lecture include the role of names in the film PK and online algorithms with the capability of substituting one name for another.