Names and Numbers

We previously looked at attempts made by secular activists in India to purify names of caste and religious associations and pointed out the problem that even when names seem to be free of such associations, the very language of the name can ‘give away’ one’s background and identity. Purified names may not be as pure as we first thought. In this post I want to briefly examine some possible responses to that problem.

We begin with a television advertisement, first aired in 2008, for the Indian mobile phone company Idea Cellular, which featured film actor Abhishek Bachchan, son of Bollywood icon Amitabh.


Set in an unspecified part of rural India it depicts caste-based strife between two fictitious village communities, the Thumihars and the Purmis. Then an idea strikes. ‘The sarpanch [head] of the village, played by Abhishek […], declares that, henceforth, no one will be known as a Purmi or a Thumihar. Everyone will be known by a number. The ad goes on to show every person being known by a nine-digit number that starts with 9 and it stops the 
fighting in the village as people forget their caste identities’ (India Today, 16 Nov. 2008).

Firstly, the ad shows that attempts to go beyond categories revealed – or ascribed – by personal names are not restricted to secular activists. Second, it is interesting to note that the solution the ad proposes is to move beyond words and language; i.e. to ‘purely’ denote through use of number.

We can compare it with the Aadhaar biometric identity card scheme in which every citizen in India is assigned a 12-digit individual identification number to serve as proof of identity. As anthropologist Lawrence Cohen pointed out in a talk he gave in 2012, part of the promise of the number is that it might produce ‘de-territorialised identities’, free of biography: finger prints, eye photos and indeed numbers rather than names: freedom from identity.

But of course, and for good reason, reduction to a number is usually seen as being something that is acutely negative. Prisoner tattoos in late nineteenth century India inscribed a number made up of the prisoner’s date of conviction and a serial number, and there are of course many other notorious instances of reductive and troubling numeric inscription from the century after.

People have, then, tended to see the replacement of names by numbers as in a negative light. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau complained about the replacement of local street names—a world of folklore, stories and legends that nurtures our collective memory—by numbers, just as ‘on the telephone, one no longer dials Opera, but 073.’ The purging of stories and legends by arbitrary numeric combinations causes the city to become a ‘suspended symbolic order’, and for de Certeau this understandably represents a loss.

However, if that symbolic order upholds a structure of discrimination and domination, it is not difficult to see why activists and those affected might actively wish for (and seek) its suspension and even view substitution by numbers as a very positive thing indeed.