On not naming caste

The last post discussed whether secular naming might be an empty gesture: are secular names an example of a fondness for symbolic action over that which is practical and effective? We briefly examined the examples of the name Nakusa and a media episode concerning the former Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari. Connected to this is the matter of caste names. ‘The nationalist project,’ writes Sharmila Rege, ‘mobilised modernity and [the] nation to make the public expression of caste illegitimate. As caste became the “other” of the modern, the modern secular Indian came to be imagined as one who publicly and politically disavowed caste.’ And arguably the simplest way to do this is to drop the caste surname. Many examples could be offered: consider how on many Indian campuses it is politically correct for students to substitute caste surnames with generics, and also very recent headlines that have focused on popular novelist Amish’s decision to drop his caste surname, and the Himachal Pradesh police force decree that all its officers must do the same, and so on. In the light of analyses that view such moves as part of an urban middle class strategy to stop caste coming into the public sphere and thereby having to negotiate over its own position, the question again arises as to whether purified names partake of what Nicholas Dirks has called ‘the embarrassment of caste’—public denial of its significance (figured here by the absence of a caste surname) going hand in hand in the domestic sphere with persistence of caste-based marriages, and a multitude of other caste logics. Do rationalist naming practices enact a comparable covering over of the matter, a self-serving ‘abolition by denial’ such that structures of discrimination are left in place but simply no longer talked about (named)?

The arguments of Sharmila Rege, and others such as Satish Deshpande, are I think applicable to many of the name-based purifications engaged in by secular-aligned individuals and organisations. But we must be careful. Consider the criticisms, mentioned in an earlier post, directed at campaigner-author Arundhati Roy in the wake of her new introduction to Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste. Damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, she is criticised for retaining a caste surname; yet if she were to drop it she would likely be excoriated for covering it over—abolition by denial!

People can have reasons for not naming caste other than self-serving ones arising from bad faith. In the case of secualr activists, there are several reasons why their actions are not continuous with the middle class (and upper caste) strategy of stopping caste coming into public view.

First, there is the pedagogy of the name – discussed in earlier posts — whereby names become explicit objects of reflection; second, their reaching, via the name, towards categorial undecideability is explicitly a means to combat automatic categorisation and the many forms of discrimination this results in and an attempt to reclaim an ‘open texture’ of the name so that it does not pre-empt a child’s identity; and third, at its most ambitious it is a project of unravelling the knot of caste: rather than passively wait for people to forget the connotations of caste names, they enact a generative, active un-remembering of caste.

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