Appropriative names?

Given the Hindu background of most of the secular activists we have been discussing, it might seem that boundary-crossing names operate (ironically) through a classical Hindu mode of laying claim to, and incorporating, otherness.

We might ask: what makes the other available for incorporation in this way? What sorts of power relations are at play? Are Muslims in a position to object?

I do not mean to imply that they would object if only given the chance, but it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the structure of possibilities here. Hindus may happily go to a church and light candles (and this may be seen as a testament to the greatness and inclusiveness of Hinduism). But such inclusiveness also constructs religion as such in a certain way, one that may be just as dogmatic and imperial as more exclusive forms of worship. Are syncretic names, then, what Gauri Viswanathan calls ‘code word[s] for the incorporation and assimilation of “minority” cultures into the culture of the dominant group’?

We need to both take seriously activists’ professed aims in employing such names—which as we have seen, primarily concern the desirability of confusion and dis-identity and of making a relation to the other ordinary—and thereby avoid reducing their naming experiments to the status of mere symptom of a Hindu rationalism (which would be to dismiss activists’ own sense of their actions, and pay heed to the possibility that this is how others may perceive such usages and to the recognition that certain kinds of (not necessarily rationalist) boundary-crossing name may indeed form part of the semiotics of an imposed ‘order of unity’.

Certainly, boundary-crossing names are markedly diverse. Consider, for instance, the multiple associations of the name of contemporary north Indian guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan—this is a name that enfolds; being suggestive both of the devotional (bhakti) universalism his movement promotes and of the guru as embodied confluence of different religious traditions.


It is not a straightforward matter to discern how ‘everyday Muslims’—as if such a category were stable and meaningful across a range of disparate situations, regions and discourses—view such uses of ‘their’ names by Hindu-background rationalists. The Muslim-background activists encountered during the research either shrugged or applauded, which is unsurprising given their affiliation with the movement. A few themselves possess boundary-crossing names (which, notably, in several cases include a Christian first name and ‘Singh’—a generic, but with Rajput and/or Sikh connotations). In the limited instances in which I have been able to observe Muslim-strangers’ first encounters with secular activist boundary-crossing names—for instance, when signing in at a guesthouse or in conversation in a train carriage—a certain puzzlement and/or suspicion that that name is false resulted. In one case, in a busy carriage on Mumbai’s Central Line, on learning the name of the activist I was accompanying the Muslim passenger politely enquired about the rationalist’s parents: had they belonged to the nationalist movement? (Freedom fighter Udham Singh’s boundary-crossing name was referred to in an earlier post, but consider also the great Bengali literary icon, Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose patriotic songs and poems advocated communal harmony. His children’s names—Krishna Mohammad, Arindam Khaled, Kazi Sabyasachi and Kazi Aniruddha—were a tapestry of Arabic and Sanskrit, Hindu and Islamic connotations).

Another common response upon hearing a boundary-crossing name, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is to enquire—and the level of discretion here varies widely!—as to whether the bearer’s parents had a love-match (i.e. an inter-religious marriage). As the anthropologist Mattison Mines has noted, the offspring of inter-faith marriages in Tamil Nadu frequently bear boundary-crossing names reflecting the different religious backgrounds of their parents. This is also witnessed in the names borne by the children of Bollywood icon Shahrukh and Gauri Khan, which we will discuss in the next post.