Multiplying names

The last post looked at imaginings of numbers as names. This week we turn to number of names, and the way that what we can call ‘boundary-crossing names’ can multiply associations. If secular activists’ strategy of purifying associations possesses a logic of neither/nor, or disidentification, the logic of the strategy of boundary-crossing names is that of both/and, or multiplied identification.

Both strategies aim for a kind of categorial undecideability, with activists seeking to problematise conventional classifications in accordance with their ideal of human flourishing beyond categories. But as we shall see, the second strategy, like the first (purification), raises several problems.

While many Christian-origin rationalists belong to secular and rationalist organisations in the south and Muslim-origin activists have been central in the twentieth-century history of the rationalist movement, most activists are from Hindu or Sikh backgrounds, and it is notable how many of them give their children recognisably Islamic names.

Medical doctor Narendra Dabholkar, the founder of the main rationalist society in Maharashtra and staunch secular campaigner whose murder in 2013 was internationally reported, gave his son the Islamic name Hamid—probably in honour of Hamid Dalwai, who in 1977 founded the Indian Secular Society. From a Brahmin background, Narendra Dabholkar had already replaced his original caste title surname with one indicating his place of origin. His son’s name, then, was doubly transcategorial. Dabholkar’s fellow Maharashtrian rationalist and Marathi film actor Shriram Lagoo gave his son the Islamic name Tanveer, while a Hindu-origin Keralan activist, and his wife, named their son Shameel. As this activist put it, ‘I was born as a Hindu but I am not a Hindu—I am a human. I want to make a confusion so they can’t identify a person’s religion by their name. Only then will it go away. I say to [my son], use both names—[Hindu] Amit as well as [Islamic] Shameel. Then no-one will know what you are, everyone will be confused.’

There are places, times and communities in which boundary-crossing names are quite conventional and do not form statements of secularism or participate in a project to problematise conventional categories. The intentional hybridity of the secular boundary-crossing name is consequent on prior acts of naming purification that constitute this brand of secular naming as the act of bringing the separated categories into relation. My sense, from travelling with activists from town to town in Bihar, Karnataka and Maharashtra on science education campaigns, is that boundary-crossing names have a higher capacity than purified names to surprise those who encounter them. Surprise is produced through unexpected juxtaposition of associations. If surprise is often an occasion for generating new concepts, here it is a technique for disrupting older ones.


In this sense, the capacity of boundary-crossing names to enact a ‘pedagogy of the name’ is more pronounced than those characteristic of the strategy of purification. In part this is because rationalists share the latter strategy with many non-rationalists who practice it for other (most commonly caste-obviating) reasons, whereas boundary-crossing names are more particular to rationalists. Similarly, though a significant minority of activists has adopted boundary-crossing names for either themselves or their children, such names are not as frequently used as purified ones.

Though the logics informing them overlap, there are obvious tensions between the two strategies considered thus far. In particular, purifiers may be disparaging about the boundary-crossing strategy of naming in such a way that retains religious connotations. As one Punjabi activist put it to me, ‘Changing one religious name to another religious name is not a solution to the problem.’ Such naming practices might produce helpful confusion but they do not move one away from ‘religion’ per se. The purifiers, as we know, seek out names without religious connotations, though boundary-crossers are quick to point out that they rarely achieve this. Sahasra, for instance, may not refer explicitly to a religious concept, but is categorised as a Hindu name in Indian baby name guides.

The two strategies seem to reflect a tension between varieties of secularism: Purified names seem to reflect the separatist agenda of rationalist umbrella organization the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) which campaigns on a national level for a stricter separation between state and religion. On the other hand, boundary-crossing names would seem to reflect the ‘other’ secularism —the accommodative, liberal pluralist one still widely viewed as having its roots in ‘Hindu tolerance’ and whose three salient principles have been described as: ‘religious freedom, celebratory neutrality and reformatory justice’.

Indeed, the two strategies do, I think, reflect wider tensions in the interpretation and implementation of ‘secularism’ both within and outside the rationalist fold. But for such a claim to be satisfactory it requires qualification. An analytic of ‘reflection’ does not do justice to the intentions of namers for the names they give to produce effects in the world. The transcategorialism of secular names is meant to transform the world rather than simply reflect abstract rival doctrines of political thought. Such names do represent two key ways of conceptualizing secularism, but they are also acts of definition in anthropologist Martin Holbraad’s sense.

Such a sense of the capacity of names to produce effects in the world marks the act of naming as the staging of an intervention. Rationalist uses of boundary-crossing names define a space where the rather abstract political precepts of accommodative liberal pluralism meet the everyday intimacy of domestic usage, in which a name’s repetition seems at once to dilute and concentrate its associations, which is to say that such repetition makes those associations ordinary (at least according to the namer’s intentions). Naming, in such instances, can arise from an intention of making a relation to the other ordinary, or, to use the words of linguistic anthropologist Duranti, be informed by reflection on ‘the notion of the possibility of being in the place where the Other is’. So again, secular names do not simply reflect an ideology but are designed to iteratively produce a particular kind of intersubjective sensibility.

Consider the case described by Mukulika Banerjee in her book Muslim Portraits of Hindu parents giving their child an Islamic name. Informing the parents’ decision was a desire to force themselves to use these names with love rather than with hate. Having themselves been profoundly affected by communal violence, the parents named their child in a way that served as a prophylactic against the lure of othering. Here the pedagogy of the name is directed as much at the name-giver as a reminder as it is to strangers, and differs from the meta-name in operating through repetition rather than through calling attention to itself as a name (though boundary-crossing names can do this, too, as we have seen). The Hindu-background activists I know who have given Islamic or Christian names to their children, which perforce are subject to continual repetition, did so as a kind of secular technology of the self to avoid othering a community that their political opponents have no compunction about de-humanizing and as recognition of its temptation. As one activist put it to me, ‘Everyday and many times I say it. The [Islamic] name reminds us [the child’s parents]: we should not follow the media and others and scapegoat this community for votes; we’re all Indians.’

It is important and necessary to recognise parents’ intentions here, and the nuanced reflections that inform their acts of naming. But what are the effects of such names? What kind of responses do such names engender? These are some of the questions we will discuss in the next post.