Renaming: Mere Symbolism?

So far this blog has tried to shed light on secular naming innovations through exploring two key strategies used by secular activists to neutralize the automatic categorisation of the name, and the problems they have faced in doing so. The two naming strategies—of purification on the one hand and boundary crossing on the other—aim to achieve similar ends, but pursue different means.

In this post I want to point to a further way in which some secular names have been considered to be problematic.

‘We Indians love the renaming concept…’ This scathing remark may be found in the comments section below an online newspaper report on the efforts of an NGO in Maharashtra to rename en masse the hundreds of girls in the state who had reportedly been named by their parents Nakusa (unwanted). The remark takes its place in a long line of commentary— from colonial times, through to the mid twentieth-century and beyond—that has sought to diagnose an Indian proneness to show and drama and fondness for symbolic action over that which is practical and effective. The comment suggests that little will change for these rural girls as a result of their renaming: if they were unwanted before, they will likely remain so after.

Similarly, when it was reported that thousands of Pakistani children were unable to access a state welfare scheme due to unknown parentage, and former president Asif Ali Zardari had offered them his own name for use in the otherwise empty father’s name box, online commenters ridiculed the gesture: ‘Can the children object?’ ‘Haven’t the kids suffered enough?’ ‘He is screwing the whole country […] he might as well lend his name to some of the children of the country that don’t have names already.’ It was ridiculed, in other words, because what these children really needed was not offered, only that which could be given without the giver giving anything up: ‘If his “kids” can get a share of his property, then why not?’ ‘Is it only name, or education and other facilities same as his own children’s […] Surely he can afford it.’

This seems to beg the question of the kind of symbolism that a boundary-crossing name does and does not embody. Are they empty gestures? Can such a name really pay attention to the concrete specificity of the other or is the other more of an abstract, theoretical presence? In previous posts we have seen that boundary- crossing names are often given with an intention of making a relation to the other ordinary. I do not claim that a family’s repetition of the name of the other as the name of its own is the same thing as participation in everyday networks of encounter, but that such naming practices do intertwine the ordinary (through a name’s everyday repetition) and the attempt to aspire to a ‘higher ideal’ through disrupting of a naming order in which a name unproblematically defines its bearer.

In the next blog we will look at the connected matter of downplaying caste in surnames.