To change a name, and to obtain a name: From Hirani’s PK to Donald Trump and back again

Lecture given at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, 1/3/2017. Chaired by Professor Asha Sarangi.

Abstract: This lecture explores instructional functions of (personal) names. Names have a special place in scenes of instruction: children, in learning the names for things, also learn what a name is. However, names can also be given with the express intention of encouraging new understandings, or reconsiderations of positions. Techniques employed to achieve this can include unexpected usage, but also unexpected juxtaposition and intentional production of crises of reference. Cases considered in this lecture include the role of names in the film PK and online algorithms with the capability of substituting one name for another.


On the origins of Sikh naming practices (1)

Having focused in the previous post on controversies concerning the name ‘Insan’, and on how this controversy links with Sikh naming practices, I turn in this post to provide some contextual details about how Sikh names (are understood to have) obtained their particular character.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh’s fascinating book The Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-Memory of Sikh Identity (2005) is, we might say, rather orthodox on the question of caste, but much less so on matters of gender; yet to be clear, in the ‘theologically correct’ Sikh view, to be orthodox on caste is precisely to hold a radically egalitarian position on it. Not a work of history in any conventional sense, the book elaborates and meditates on the foundation of the khalsa in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh. One of the book’s key arguments is that the revolutionary gender implications of the founding events have been historically marginalised; and the work is inventive and exciting in recovering lost feminist potentials in both the main body of Sikh holy texts and the specificities of the panth’s formation. It is N-G. K. Singh’s intention to show that the egalitarianism characteristic of the foundational attitude to caste is just as applicable to the question of gender, and that you cannot sensibly have one without the other. Names, as we shall see, are central to each dimension. Addressing gender in later posts, I begin by focusing on the book’s reflections on caste and names as a guide to ‘official’ Sikh positions on these matters.

The historical event in 1699 of the birth of the khalsa, invented and stage-managed by Guru Gobind Singh, condenses a great amount that is important to contemporary Sikhs. It was then, in Anandpur, that the guru, ‘through a dramatic hoax, demanded the ultimate test of loyalty to his person as a holy man’ (Gold 1987: 21). Asking for volunteers to offer him their heads in a test of faith, he secretly substituted goats for the five disciples who stood up ready to sacrifice their lives. It was here also that the famous five distinctive symbols that identify Sikhs as Sikhs were adopted — kesha (long hair), kara (bracelet), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), and kacha (underwear) – and the names ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ bestowed. N-G. K. Singh (2005: 55) cites the narrative poet Koer Singh’s Gurbilas Patshahi 10 (1968). After the five volunteers have been given amrit, Guru Gobind Singh, despite him and his audience of beloved Sikhs already knowing them well, asks them their names and origins, for the congregation is now exhorted ‘to follow their example of identity construction’ (Singh 2005: 55).

First they told their name and residence,

then the invincible guru repeated with them.

“I am from Lahore, your kindness,

my name is Daya Singh, the Compassionate One’s slave.

In a previous birth I was Lau from the Sobti Khatri clan.”

Then the second one said, “I am Nihchal Singh resident of Dwarka.

I was formerly Namdev from calico-printer’s class.”

The third was called Sahib Singh from the town of Bidar.

He was formerly Sain, the barber, from the caste known as barbers.

The fourth was the immortal Dharam Singh, who was from Hastinapur.

Saint Dhanna in a former birth, he was even now Jat by caste and color.

Then the tenacious Himmat Singh sang that he was from Jagannath: in a

previous birth he was a bird-catcher from the comfort-loving jhivar caste.

These five who had been companions in the ancient golden age

Now came together as the guru’s companions.

(Koer Singh, 9:28–34)

As the passage poetically declaims, each of the disciples abandons his family and community (caste) name in favour of ‘Singh’; females, meanwhile, will use ‘Kaur’. ‘Distinctions of caste, class, and family profession are therewith abolished’, says N-G. K. Singh (ibid: 56); ‘a new egalitarian and kindred identity is announced in the new family name of Singh’. The drinking of amrit from the common bowl, re-enacted daily in gurudwaras in the community meal (langar), coupled with the taking of a common family name, ‘shattered traditional social and religious structures by which people were divided and stratified’ (ibid: 93). Or as Khushwant Singh (1959: 38) put it, ‘Since an individual’s caste could be ascertained by his family name, with its abolition the “Singhs” became one family’.

But there is an ambiguity here, for as has been widely noted, the pre-existing association between the title ‘Singh’ and Kshatriyas/Rajputs makes it possible to view the initial baptism ceremony as being less a move towards putative castelessness than one towards martial ‘Kshatriyaisation’. An educational tract on ‘Sikh Castes’ explains that the convention by which Sikh men take on the name Singh and women Kaur ‘is an extension of the Hindu Rajput or Kshatriya tradition into Sikhism in addition to some other aspects of Rajput martial culture like “Jhatka”, “Shastar Tilak”, etc. which are preserved in the traditions of Nihang and Hazoori Sikhs to this day’ (Singh ‘Panthi’ n.d.). But even so, the same tract goes on to explain, this was not to devalue the other three varnas — entrants into Guru Gobind Singh’s new khalsa order were to embody idealized versions of all four of them – but since ‘fighting for both one’s life and faith was the greatest need in era of Gurus…the Kshatriya part of Sikh’s identity got more highlighted in Sikh society’ (ibid). Obviously, embodying the best aspects of each varna suggests less the annihilation of caste than a kind of enfolding sublation of it, and historians and Sikh thinkers continue to weigh up whether the correct Sikh attitude to caste is to adopt the position that castes do exist but are equal (casteism should not exist), or alternately that castes are not to be recognized at all and therefore all caste markers must be removed (caste itself should not exist). Moreover, the association, already mentioned, between ‘Singh’ and Rajputs, lends Sikhism an air of Kshatriyaism, notwithstanding the diversity of the ‘real’ caste makeup of adherents. I point to these different understandings simply to show that prior to present-day debates about the use of caste names by Sikhs there were already ambiguities in respect of Sikh approaches to caste, not least in respect of the name ‘Singh’; the very name which some see as levelling caste has been viewed by others as a marker of Kshatriya-isation.

In future posts I will expand on these themes to consider further ways in which ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’ are central to Sikh self-understanding and presentation, and also some debates about their proper and improper usesinghking.


In this and the following posts I am going to change tack slightly to look at Sikh personal names. Like in the previous posts, however, the relation between caste and names remains central.

I am going to start by considering the name of a controversial guru: the spiritual leader, now in prison, of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) devotional order, which is based in Sirsa, Haryana state. When I first became interested in the DSS in 2004 the guru’s official name was Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, though devotees would also call him Hazoor Maharaj or simply Pita Ji. As Santosh Singh explains, ‘Deras such as Sacha Sauda and Dera Satlok of Baba Rampal in Hisar [Haryana], and many others in the region, actually organise around a father figure with an inflated narcissistic streak. It is not without reason that Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh wanted his followers to call him pitaji’.

His name had already been expanded from plain Gurmeet Singh; the insertion of ‘Ram’ and ‘Rahim’ acting to ‘brighten the halo around his syncretic claims, with an eye at perhaps broadening the base of his clientele from varied religious affiliations’. That is, the guru’s official title, in combining names from Sikhism (Gurmeet), Hinduism (Ram) and Islam (Rahim), advertised the movement’s professed secularism, and also the guru’s claim to be the embodied confluence of all those faiths.

But the already spacious name wouldn’t stay still or contained. By 2015, when he began to star in feature films (which he was also said to have written and directed), his name was recorded in the credits as Doctor Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan. It was also around this time that he acquired the nicknames MSG (Messenger of God, after the film series he starred in), and guru of bling (after his fabulous jewellery and costumes).


Much could be said about all these names and nicknames, but it is the addition of ‘Insan’ that interests me most here – an addition that is of a different order to the others since, though it is, like the others, his own innovation, it is one that is not only borne by him: ever since the order devised its initiation ceremony in 2007, which is contentious because it is so closely resembles that of orthodox Sikhism, all baptised devotees of the Dera Sacha Sauda have been expected to shun their family names, taking instead the name ‘Insan’ – ‘Human’.

Though the newly devised DSS initiation was controversial for a number of different reasons, each of them related to the movement’s relationship with Sikhism. The dehdari, or living, guru was proscribed by Guru Gobind Singh, the final living Sikh guru (according to the orthodox tradition), in 1708. But the injunction ‘No more gurus’ is experienced as being perpetually under threat, not least because there are a host of devotional orders, predominantly in the sant tradition, whose turbaned spiritual masters appear ‘as if’ Sikhs and, indeed, frequently hail from Sikh backgrounds.

One such guru is Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who was born into a Jat Sikh family. So, given sensitivities concerning the dehdari guru, the DSS movement was already contentious prior to the newly devised initiation. But when in May 2007 pictures began circulating of the guru dressed as Guru Gobind Singh while performing the new ceremony, the effect was explosive, with sustained civil unrest in areas of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi lasting for nearly two months, with the loss of several lives. In 2008 there was even an attempt to assassinate the DSS guru. But the imitation wasn’t only sartorial: in the pictures the guru is seen distributing a pink liquid substance (said to be a mixture of water, milk and Rooh Afza sharbat) to devotees in an action strikingly similar to the distribution of amrit (baptismal nectar) at the Sikh baptism ceremony, though the substance is tellingly renamed ‘Jaam-e-Insaan’ (‘Wine of Humanity’) in the DSS appropriation; and, as I mentioned, initiates were to take the name ‘Insan’.

If it was the photographs that incited the initial eruption of Sikh anger – a dehdari guru of highly dubious character attempting to claim the mantle of one of the most revered of all Sikh figures – the distribution of baptismal liquid and the granting of ‘Insan’ also formed critical, if slightly more subtle, imitative pressure points.

In what way is ‘Insan’ a copy? Just as the Sikh baptism ceremony requires the substitution of ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ for family names connoting caste identity, the reworked DSS version substitutes ‘Insan’.

Why is it contentious? The answer lies in the peculiarly barbed nature of the copy. The suggestion of this imitative reworking seems to be that the original has failed. The intention of Guru Gobind Singh might have been to mix the four castes into one through drinking from a common bowl and taking a common name, but ‘Singh’ (for men) and ‘Kaur’ (for women) no longer – if they ever did – stamp out the initiand’s caste identity. As one Sikh Internet discussant, responding to the 2007 events, put it: ‘when I was growing up, my Sikh friends were just Singhs or Kaurs. Today, everyone seems to be an Aurora, or a Sahni’.

DSS3‘Insan’ is not merely a copy, then – it suggests the insufficiency of, and thereby critiques, the original. It is a copy that corrects. The suggestion is that the DSS seeks, in its act of corrective imitation, to revitalize the neglected ideal and thereby become better Sikhs than Sikhs themselves. In this light the highly agitated mainstream Sikh response to the imitative ritual tableaux shouldn’t be surprising at all. As I have argued elsewhere, while the response may have been partly connected with caste imperatives and vote bank politics, these were certainly not the only salient factors.

I have begun by describing this instance of name imitation, which is also at the same time an instance of name correction, because how the DSS usage came to form a critical commentary on the persistence of caste identities and discrimination in Sikhism in fact takes us to the heart of issues to do with Sikh names.

We can think here of computer erasure protocols: that the double erasure of ‘Insan’ is considered necessary speaks to the failure of the first attempt to erase the hard drive (i.e. ‘Singh’ and ‘Kaur’). In the Derridean sense, comprehensive erasure is always deferred. But not only that, steps previously taken towards the destruction (erasure) of caste seem to reformers and others actively to be being undone, leading to criticism not only from the outside (here in the form of the DSS) but also internally within the Sikh panth.

Having set up the question, then, in future blog posts we will consider the Sikh history of personal names, and also recent and present-day criticisms of Sikh naming practices from both within and outwith the Sikh community.

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.

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.

Shriram Lagoo’s name (part 2)

(This is a continuation of a prior post that can be found here.)

The Hindu right activists who threatened Lagoo seem to consider his mere continuing to bear a name that he did not choose for himself an active appropriation of it. From such an angle, his name may indeed be construed as boundary crossing: a rationalist, he nonetheless bears a notably Hindu name. The celebrated French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously noted how ‘Some societies jealously watch over their names,’ and countless ethnographic examples could be given that show how names are frequently understood as items of property. Part of the problem, of course, is that Shriram is not just a Hindu-identifying name but a god’s name—and one that the Hindu right has expended a large amount of energy defending in recent decades. Moreover, in certain bhakti schools there is considerable slippage between the name and deity, with mantras inseparable from the gods whose names they speak. So as with the lesbian character Sita in the film Fire (1998) whose name was changed to Nita in response to violent Hindu right protests, ‘defence’ of the name seems to constitute defence of the god him or herself. If, as Veena Das has suggested, ‘stories told about objects of use belong to their aura’, we might say that in seeking to hinder the attachment of Lagoo’s rationalist crusading to the name object he carries Hindu activists seek copyright protection of the (Hindu) name’s aura. They are seeking to manage (and contain) the name’s associations—a delimiting that mirrors rationalist activists’ own attempts to generate expulsive or purified names.

Notwithstanding powerful arguments concerning the learned, or instrumental, nature of Hindutva’s ‘taking offence,’ it is possible to perceive why a person with the name Shriram proclaiming the need to ‘retire the god’ might be construed as incongruous for some. Of course, as with brand names (see the fascinating work of William Mazzarella on this subject), accruing improper associations is a risk built into the very existence of personal names. Just as ‘brand jacking’ demonstrates that a product is ‘never able to legislate its own intelligibility completely’, intentionally incongruous name uses can be taken up as a form of political assertion.

Consider the case of controversial right-wing Slovenian politician and former prime minister, Janez Janša, whose statement in 2007 that ‘the more there will be of us [i.e. Slovenians as opposed to immigrants] the sooner we shall reach the goal’ was responded to with ironic literalism when three Slovenian performance artists legally renamed themselves Janez Janša. The artists’ subsequent engagement in activities incongruous with the names they bore constituted an indirect but potent form of political critique; for example, a headline ‘Janez Janša Dances in Berlin,’ which referred to an artistic performance by one of the three artists, had a double-meaning, since it could be interpreted as the Prime Minister being servile to German interests.

This is not to suggest that such a logic animated Lagoo’s retention of the name Shriram—no renaming took place, and his name is a matter of concern for Hindu right activists, not him. Yet the episode at the station in Sangli in which the actor-activist proclaimed ‘Jai Shri Ram…Lagoo’ certainly seemed to play on the gap between name and named and was evidently comical for Dabholkar and his colleagues. In his analysis of Bentham’s ‘auto-icon’—the philosopher’s bequeathal of his own stuffed corpse to University College, London in 1832—David Collings sees in the gesture a ‘delicious profanation’ and ‘a kind of sly joke against contemporary prejudice and outraged opinion’ that calls upon ‘the libidinal resources of debasement and traditional inversion rituals.’ Is there something of this wilful transgression and inversion of convention in some rationalist acts of naming? Many activists take delight in staging their weddings on inauspicious days, feasting during eclipses, and consuming substances such as meat and alcohol that in many contexts are shunned as impure. The hinted at sense of wilful transgression —not frequently present, but perhaps animating the laughter at Sangli station—is suggestive of pleasurable incongruity, and of taking possession for ironic effect in a manner that contains parallels with the case of Janez Janša. Rather than brand jacking, it could be termed (or, more to the point, experienced by certain Hindu right activists as) ‘name jacking.’

Shriram Lagoo’s name (part 1)

The Maharashtrian rationalist journal Thought & Action records that in the early 2000s, the famous film actor and rationalist Shriram Lagoo ‘was harassed by the hooligans of [the] RSS [a right-wing Hindu organization] who insisted that he should change his first name because Shriram is God’s name [but] he is an atheist.’ The anthropologists Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn have noted the remarkable consistency of the preoccupation across global contexts of a commitment to finding the proper ‘fit’ between person and name. Here it was the perceived lack of a fit that was at issue.

The origins of the controversy lie in Lagoo having written a piece called ‘Retire the god’ that served as the introduction to a new book on the noted Keralan/Sri Lankan rationalist Abraham Kavoor. It went further than Narendra Dabholkar’s organisation was itself willing to go, at least publicly, on the question of the existence of God and the article inspired considerable public debate. Dabholkar and Lagoo then began a program they named Vivek Jagar (Knowledge Awakening) in which they staged debates across Maharashtra. In another issue of Thought & Action Dabholkar reported details of a specific confrontation between the actor and Hindu right activists that occurred immediately after a Vivek Jagar program at Sangli:

“Dr. Lagoo wanted to go to Mumbai by night train. We, all the organizers, were at station to see him off. The train was late. During that period we saw a group of young people rushing towards Dr. Lagoo. At first we thought that the group may be fans of Doctor who also is a famous film actor… Within no time they surrounded us and started shouting slogans like Jai [i.e. victory to] Bhavani, Jai Shivaji; Sanatan Hindu Dharm ki Jai… They started asking questions like, Why do you speak against Hindu religion?… One of them suggested that Dr. Lagoo should shout Jai Shri Ram. Dr. Lagoo was not afraid at all. He must have thought himself and with a smile on his face he said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and after a pause added ‘Lagoo’ to it. The slogan became ‘Jai Shri Ram Lagoo.’ Even in those strenuous moments we could not help laughing. All these angry young men were confused. At that moment the train entered the platform and Dr. Lagoo boarded the train. Thus further confrontation was avoided.” 

Lagoo’s forename Shriram presents a paradox, since his use of it is at odds with both of the strategies we have considered in earlier posts: neither purified nor boundary-crossing, the name Shriram Lagoo unambiguously encodes its bearer’s Hindu background. No change, or renaming, has taken place to cause offence—it is his continued use of the name that seems to be the problem. (Indeed, as the examples given in earlier posts indicate, the objects of the majority of rationalists’ naming innovations are their children, as with Lagoo’s son Tanveer).

If his own name became a matter of concern due to his very public atheism, part of Lagoo’s rationale for preserving it is sentimental: ‘As a child I…was not [in] a position to oppose my parents not to give God’s name to me. They were very pious parents and as such they might have chosen the God’s name for their beloved child. They have given me name with their love and affection’. There are also practical concerns: ‘Atheists do not like to be called by God’s name, [but] there is no simple and easy escape route for them,’ one activist told me. Another stated: ‘More than 10 million people have gods in their names. Some are Bhagwan or Paramatma Singh, even Ram—there are so many. But I have not chosen my name. My parents gave me my name. I became a rationalist later on in life. So how can I change it?’

Disapproving Names

As anthropologists have described, children of inter-faith marriages bearing boundary-crossing names may be teased by schoolteachers who disapprove of their parents’ union, and secular activists’ children bearing this kind of name can be met with similar responses. Such names might be given with worthy pedagogical intentions, but cause those who perforce bear them some misery and embarrassment. The son of famous anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar, called Hamid, is said to have ‘suffered a lot in college because of his name. Everyone asked him, “What is your caste? What is your caste?”’ While in the case referred to in an earlier blog post in which avowedly secular parents gave a Hindu boy an Islamic name, the child later demanded to be given a new, unambiguously Hindu name due to teasing at school.

The problem is that naming acts are often felicitous only when the context is in place and our trust in conventions is secure. The absence of these factors in respect of unconventional, or extraordinary, acts of naming such as these disrupts their efficacy. The boundary-crossing name is in part interventionist—intended to generate the disidentity it itself embodies—but also normative in depicting what transcategorialism ideally should be like (and as such at odds with ordinary naming conventions). But similar to philosophical writings that create a normative base for discussing what various phenomena ideally should be like, with often little attempt to account for their ordinary forms, boundary-crossing names will sometimes not fare well within the scenes of utterance into which they are inserted.


In addition to the teasing of those who bear them, there is the even blunter instrument of simply refusing to use such names. A Kolkata-based, Hindu-background activist described to me how her non-rationalist family members do exactly this in respect of her daughter: that is, they ignore the Islamic name given to her by her parents, having between them—and quite independently of her parents—decided on a Hindu name for her that they would use. The activist is fearful that they may even have consulted a pandit for the purpose. Since, as John Searle has argued, making something the case by representing or declaring it as such only succeeds if the status of the actor performing the function is to some degree collectively recognised, one can see why rationalist acts of naming may fail to ‘take’ in families in which the tradition is to consult a pandit rather than leave the act of naming solely with the parents.

Refusals to acknowledge and/or scorning of boundary-crossing names thus form one of the major problems generated by rationalists’ attempts to realign the problem of names and automatic categorisation. But the problems they face are not discrete and may overlap, which is precisely what we find in the case of the name of the film actor Shriram Lagoo – which we will discuss in the next post.


Inter-marriages and inter-names

We have been clueless over the fact that why did SRK [Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan] choose to write his son AbRam’s name in such a different manner and here’s what the actor has explained. ‘His name is based on a variation of Prophet Abraham. And I liked the connotation that it’s…a secular name. We are a Hindu-Muslim family… and I want my children to grow up without any difference of opinion in the name. It’s nice this way and has more universal appeal’ […] Shahrukh Khan already has two kids with wife Gauri Khan. His son named Aryan Khan is 15 years old, while his daughter Suhana is 12 years old. (Filmibeat, 21 August 2013)


Talking about boundary-crossing names in the last post, I mentioned the eye-catching nature of the names borne by the children of Bollywood icon Shahrukh and Gauri Khan.

This is an interesting case for several reasons: like the names of other offspring of ‘love-matches’ the names Aryan and Suhana Khan bear a trace of the ‘modern’ conjugal production of the child as the joint achievement of both parents in which they see an objectification of their love , coded here in the ‘nextness’ of names that indicate their different religious backgrounds: ‘We are a Hindu-Muslim family,’ Shahrukh Khan notes. But he also calls attention to the ‘secularism’ of the name of his most recent child: ‘I liked the connotation that [AbRam’s]…a secular name.’

This points towards the common understanding that all inter-faith marriages are to some degree ‘secular’ in signifying an ability to transcend conventional divisions, and it is worth noting that most Indian rationalist organisations claim to offer financial and legal support to couples who have performed them in the face of familial opposition.

The offers of assistance made by rationalist groups show their sympathy for inter-faith marriages, but of course the majority of such marriages do not arise from anything so grand as an ideological position on secularism taken up by the couple. Though less widespread than it once was, some incoming brides in north India change (or have changed for them) their forename as well as surname to mark their new circumstances. Inter-faith or -caste marriages, too, may occasion the bride changing her name to efface the boundary crossing the relationship embodied in a kind of post-hoc imposition of propriety.

In light of this, we come to understand the critical role of the boundary-crossing name: a child’s inter-name, in making the inter-marriage explicit, retroactively causes the inter-marriage to form a secular statement. The inter-name of the ‘love-match,’ then, may be indicative of secularism in a lower key, and rationalists indeed encounter inter-faith marriages as a form of lived secularism. If and when couples, too, come to understand their own conjugal trajectories in such a way, their children’s names may signify both the complex unity of their ‘separate’ identities within the child and a kind of statement that reflects back on the ‘secularism’ of the union it emerges from.

Shahrukh Khan is himself well aware of the capacity of personal names to effect automatic categorisation. A recent film of his on the racial profiling of Muslims after the 9/11 attacks on New York foregrounded the highly suggestive statement, ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist,’ and at an airport in New York to promote the same film, right on cue, the star was detained for questioning for two hours ‘because his name came up on a computer alert list.’ ‘“I was really hassled—perhaps because of my name being Khan,” he said in a text message to reporters in India. “These guys just wouldn’t let me through.”’

This episode, and the detentions that he (like so many others with Islamic names) has been subjected to before and since, adds poignancy to the name he and Gauri Khan gave to their most recent child: AbRam. A particularly innovative ‘intername’ in the way it crosses boundaries within the forename itself, and also remarkable for the public debate it generated, I dwell for a moment on the way in which it mobilises the figure of Abraham in reference to a Hindu god.

A report titled ‘Secularism Shows in the Name of “AbRam,”’ quotes the actor: ‘“As we all know my wife Gauri is from Hindu family and me Muslim, by this so many issues arose but we are far from those issues now. We decided that our baby’s name should show secularism so we have decided to give the name to [our] new-born baby “AbRam”. Here “Ab” stands for our Prophet “Huzoor Abraham Alai-His-Salam” and “Ram” stands for as we all know Bhagwan “Ram.”’

Abraham is a kind of go-to figure of promise for progressive faith commentators for whom, as the root of the Abrahamic faiths, he stands for the possibility of healing and accord between the religions he ‘fathered.’ For Jacques Derrida, the ‘serial multiplicity of the “more than one [plus d’un]” inscribed itself upon the very name of Abraham,’ and it is in meditating upon the iconic progenitor’s name that he produces an analytic of ‘fidélité à plus d’un [faithfulness to more than one or: collective faithfulness]’ and of what we might call names that afford hospitality. One can see the attraction for Derrida of a figure that seems quite in tune with his own ‘reasoned distrust toward borders and oppositional distinctions (whether conceptual or not)’. Indeed, Abraham is equated by Derrida with ‘the endurance of the undecideable’, just as we have been exploring in these blog posts an onomastics of undecideability as a counter to automatic categorization. AbRam is, of course, just such an undecideable, even hospitable, name. Its audacity lies in onomastic extension of the lineage, with the ‘Ab’ brought together with ‘Ram,’ the name of a Hindu god. Thus is non-Abrahamic Hinduism integrated into an imagined Abrahamic secularism.

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.

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.