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Names and Numbers

We previously looked at attempts made by secular activists in India to purify names of caste and religious associations and pointed out the problem that even when names seem to be free of such associations, the very language of the name can ‘give away’ one’s background and identity. Purified names may not be as pure as we first thought. In this post I want to briefly examine some possible responses to that problem.

We begin with a television advertisement, first aired in 2008, for the Indian mobile phone company Idea Cellular, which featured film actor Abhishek Bachchan, son of Bollywood icon Amitabh.

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Set in an unspecified part of rural India it depicts caste-based strife between two fictitious village communities, the Thumihars and the Purmis. Then an idea strikes. ‘The sarpanch [head] of the village, played by Abhishek […], declares that, henceforth, no one will be known as a Purmi or a Thumihar. Everyone will be known by a number. The ad goes on to show every person being known by a nine-digit number that starts with 9 and it stops the 
fighting in the village as people forget their caste identities’ (India Today, 16 Nov. 2008).

Firstly, the ad shows that attempts to go beyond categories revealed – or ascribed – by personal names are not restricted to secular activists. Second, it is interesting to note that the solution the ad proposes is to move beyond words and language; i.e. to ‘purely’ denote through use of number.

We can compare it with the Aadhaar biometric identity card scheme in which every citizen in India is assigned a 12-digit individual identification number to serve as proof of identity. As anthropologist Lawrence Cohen pointed out in a talk he gave in 2012, part of the promise of the number is that it might produce ‘de-territorialised identities’, free of biography: finger prints, eye photos and indeed numbers rather than names: freedom from identity.

But of course, and for good reason, reduction to a number is usually seen as being something that is acutely negative. Prisoner tattoos in late nineteenth century India inscribed a number made up of the prisoner’s date of conviction and a serial number, and there are of course many other notorious instances of reductive and troubling numeric inscription from the century after.

People have, then, tended to see the replacement of names by numbers as in a negative light. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau complained about the replacement of local street names—a world of folklore, stories and legends that nurtures our collective memory—by numbers, just as ‘on the telephone, one no longer dials Opera, but 073.’ The purging of stories and legends by arbitrary numeric combinations causes the city to become a ‘suspended symbolic order’, and for de Certeau this understandably represents a loss.

However, if that symbolic order upholds a structure of discrimination and domination, it is not difficult to see why activists and those affected might actively wish for (and seek) its suspension and even view substitution by numbers as a very positive thing indeed.

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Purified names?

Previous posts have discussed how some secular activists practice and promote personal naming innovations as a way of producing categorical uncertainty, thereby challenging inequality and discrimination. Following from this the focus of this post is on one of the main strategies they have experimented with for this purpose. We can call this strategy purificatory, for it seeks to remove caste and religious connotations from the names activists themselves bear or that they give to their children. Omvedt, as noted previously, hopes that the caste connotations of many Indian surnames will be forgotten and become what have been called ‘sterilized words.’ Activists, however, seek to accelerate the process of ‘name sterilization’ through actively removing such connotations.

The findings shared here are based on ethnographic research that I began 2009, when I first commenced spending time amongst rationalist and secular organizations in India. However, I only began specifically focusing on personal names – those of activists and others’ – in 2013, with several research visits since, including in 2017. As with rationalist organizations globally, there is an unequal representation of the sexes in the Indian movement. Roughly, active women constitute less than a quarter of the group’s membership. The caste make-up of activists is quite diverse, but the movement’s leaders tend to hail from upper-caste and class backgrounds.

Given their anti-caste convictions it is unsurprising that the removal of caste surnames is a common practice amongst them. Sometimes, as was mentioned previously, dropping a caste surname is a condition of membership of local rationalist organizations. Activists may dispense with a surname altogether, use their place of origin as a surname, or adopt a ‘place-holder’ name such as Kumar or Singh (such largely identity-neutral names have been described by Professor Prasannanshu as akin to the letter ‘X’ in Malcolm X’s name). The founder of Tarksheel, the main Punjab rationalist society, changed his surname from Mittal, a caste title, to Mitter, meaning friend, a technique that retains an aural memory of the disavowed, ideologically unsound name.

An activist from central India, insisted to me that ‘We should not expose religion in [our children’s] names… Though I am from a Hindu background, I am not a Hindu—only a human being. My wife, who is also an activist, is from a Christian background, but she is not a Christian. We thought about it carefully and we called our elder son Lyric, and our younger son is called Sonnet.’

The use of English words as names allows parents to avoid an association with Sanskrit-derived names, for even if a Sanskrit name has no explicit religious reference point, the Hindu background of a person may be gauged by its Sanskrit origin (as with, for instance, Akash [sky]—not an explicitly ‘religious’ name but nonetheless typically revealing its bearer to be Hindu, or perhaps Jain or Sikh). This is similar to the situation of Muslims in Tamil Nadu: it is not that they do not see themselves as Tamils yet the association between Tamil and Hinduism causes them to choose non-Tamil names, as the anthropologist Francis Britto has explained.

The drawback of this strategy, for secular-rationalist activists, is that it is at odds with their attempts to emphasise that their project is one deeply embedded in Indian history as a counter to the Hindu right (and indeed scholarly) charge that they are inheritors of the colonial mantle. However, if the words are themselves ‘un-Indian,’ use of the related words Lyric and Sonnet does reflect the not uncommon north Indian practice of naming siblings in poetically similar ways, as in, for instance, calling three brothers Rachin, Sachin and Nitin.

Families associated with Vijayawada’s Atheist Centre provide further examples of the method of purification. This is what its literature has to say about rationalist naming practices:

Birth of a child, irrespective of gender, is a happy occasion for atheists and they share joy with others. They name their children as per the events in history, current and international affairs, social and political changes or reflecting the beauty of nature. In order to break the barriers of caste and religion, atheists name their children in a secular manner, connoting a meaning relevant to the time or an event which has no religious connotation. Taking the case of children in Atheist Centre, Samaram (II World War), Niyanta (dictator), Lavanam (Salt, was born on the eve of Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha), Vijayam (Victory. First success of Congress in General Elections), Vidya (Education) and the younger generation with unique names such as Sanketh (Information), Vidwat (Knowledge), Saujas (Redoubled Vigour and Youthfulness), Saaras & Tejas (Indigenous manned aeroplanes developed by India), Olos (Olympics Los Angeles) to mention a few. Many atheists are making the next generation secular and post religious. Atheists also stress on the need for birth registration, which is neglected in India. When they admit their children in educational institutions, in the application forms they mention in the caste and religion column as ‘nil’.

The examples provided here of names intended to ‘break the barriers of caste and religion’ are both international and national(ist) in outlook, with references to the Second World War, the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Gandhi’s salt march and the development of ‘indigenous’ airplanes. Replacing caste and religious connotations with nationalist ones is a well-worn integrative move—it recalls, for instance, the ‘Meri Jaati Hindustani’ (My Caste is Indian) movement, which encourages Indians to write ‘Hindustani’ as their caste at census time, and the very publicly visible use of ‘Bharti’ and ‘Swaraj’ as nationalist surnames. And as with Lyric and Sonnet, the pattern of naming enacted here is simultaneously innovative and conventional: Olos, for instance, is certainly unique, yet follows the classic Indian template of context- sensitive naming, wherein children are named after the day on which they were born (Itvari, Manglu etc.) and former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife Babri ‘named their first daughter Misa after the 1973 Maintenance of Internal Security Act that [Indira] Gandhi used to quell all opposition during the Emergency’. These, then, are attempts—partial but meaningful—at purifying names; secular innovations that nonetheless emerge from and reflect existing naming conventions.

There are multiple ways in which rationalists across time and space have sought to purify selves, spaces and events of religious iconography—in present-day England, for instance, Humanists celebrants, when they arrive at the chapel to conduct a funeral, take away or have covered any religious symbols that may be present—and the giving of names that seek to avoid religious connotations is on the face of it a variant of the practice. Moreover, naming purification can take many different forms and arise from quite different motivations. Restricting ourselves to South Asia, there is the case of the Viduthalai Ciruthaigal Katchi (VCK—Liberation Panther Party)—the largest Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu—whose embrace of Tamil nationalism has involved a mass campaign to de-Sanskritise personal names, while Pakistan is seeing an increasingly purist attitude towards Islamic naming, with Wahabi- influenced moves to ban nicknames, names determined by numerology and even names ‘implying that the prophet or saints bestow a child’. While some of this logic is no doubt exhibited in the case of Indian rationalists who in other contexts certainly make it their business to expunge religious symbolism, a critical difference is that in this case purification concerns less a move toward secular or rationalist piety or virtue than a move towards productive not-knowing and disidentification. Our use of the term ‘purification’ must therefore be nuanced. Unlike the Hindu social worker in Steinberg’s essay on Delhi street children who removes Azeez from the child runaway Akhil-Azeez’s hitherto ambiguous and situationally changeable name because ‘she did not want to give him a Muslim name,’ or schoolteachers in the Sunderbans who have been reported to Hinduise the Islamic inflections of pupils’ ambiguous boundary-crossing names in class registers, the strategy in this case is not one of either/or, or even both/and, but neither/nor. Which is to say that here purification and commitment to confusion go together, with purification not aimed at narrowing down to a singular association but at the removal of all associations.

Since this is purification in the service of an ‘open’ name—open in the sense of seeking to pre-empt the way in which a name can pre-empt identity; keeping a child’s options ‘open’ so to speak—this is a very particular kind of purification. Anthropologist Veena Das has referred to the ‘open texture’ of certain names and of names ‘pregnant with future possibilities,’ and the purified names given by rationalists similarly are an attempt to keep open a child’s future possibilities. This is by no means a preoccupation unique to Indian secularists. For instance, George Holyoake remarks in his book English Secularism: A Confession of Belief, published in 1896: ‘In naming children it is well to avoid names whose associations pledge the child, without its consent, to some line of action it may have no mind to, or capacity for, when grown up’. What is perhaps different about the Indian case is the thought that has gone into avoiding such associations.

But there is a problem. Activists who do not go the route of purified names do not so much disapprove of such names as simply point out that many of them would be listed in Indian baby name books unambiguously under the ‘Hindu’ section. Consider the names Vikas (development), given since the boy was born during the First World Atheist Conference in 1972 which aimed to spread secular and atheist thought, and Sahasra (a new beginning), given in connection with the Arab Spring and what seemed then to be the burgeoning spirit of democracy in the Arab world. While they do not disclose the person’s caste or necessarily refer to gods or Hindu concepts, their Sanskrit-derivation means they are nonetheless strongly indicative of this tradition. Activists work toward a function of names correlative with John Stuart Mill’s (1843) sense of them as being ‘meaningless marks set upon things [or persons] to distinguish them from one another’. The problem (for such activists) is that particular communities are frequently associated with particular languages, whatever the lexical meanings of the words used as names, and whether or not such an association has to some extent been formed via appropriative strategies on the part of such communities. We will consider in future posts some possible solutions to this problem.

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.

https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/t/1_rh8v4jcg

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.

Naming beyond categories

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Present-day secularists are far from being the first or only people to identify the name as a problem or to mark it as clear matter of concern and questioning.

What we might call transcategorial onomastics – practices of naming beyond categories — is both varied and has existed for a long time, from the Sikh guru Guru Gobind Singh’s hailing of three Shudras, a Brahmin and a Kshatriya as ‘Singhs’ in forming the Sikh khalsa, to present-day deaf Indians’ denial of social class or religious names in favour of ones representing a particular bodily feature, from the use of generics such as ‘Kumar’ to characters in twentieth-century Hindi novels going by single names only as a means of helping readers identify with them whatever the reader’s background, as well as the many characters in Hindi film who have been surnameless and so regionless, casteless, and ethnically non-identifiable.

I suggest it is not a coincidence that surnameless characters in Hindi fiction and films were common in an era of patriotic nation-building in which caste and religious differences were downplayed in many circumstances in favour of pan-Indian generics. This could take the form of suppression of caste identifying names as in the case of the maternal uncle of a middle-aged teacher friend of mine in Delhi who, a communist party member, had in the 1960s given up the caste surname Gupta and adopted Bharti (Indian) ‘because he wanted a casteless society,’ or of nationalist boundary-crossing names as in the famous case of revolutionary fighter Udham Singh who, when arrested for the murder of Michael O’Dwyer, who had been lieutenant-governor of the Punjab in 1919 when the Jalianwala Bagh massacre took place, gave the boundary-crossing nationalist name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, a name that invoked the three major religious communities of the Punjab—Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh—as well as his anticolonial sentiment (azad means ‘free’).

In present times, Dalit migrants to the city may, for obvious reasons, take the opportunity migration affords to discard surnames that are often stigmatising—a practice that remains controversial both within and outside Dalit communities. Though many Dalits actively retain stigmatising caste surnames as acts of assertion and positive revaluation, Dalit and rationalist naming practices frequently overlap, sharing what might be termed a commitment to confusion. A north Delhi-based Dalit activist who uses a single name only—leaving a question mark where the usual caste title surname would be—put it to me like this: through naming practices such as his there will be ‘So, so much confusion. Then the whole thing [that is, caste discrimination] will go away.’ The expression he used was the Urdu ‘ghaflat ho gayi.’ Though in the following quotation—from a Christian Dalit acquaintance who retains his Christian forename having changed his surname to a perfectly ambiguous Hindu one that connotes different castes in different regions—the Hindi expression used was bhram: ‘Some think I am Brahmin, some Kshatriya, some OBC, some Hindu, and those who know me know I am a Christian. It is good to confuse people. The upper castes have been befooling (bevakuf bana rahe hain) SCs for centuries, so if they are confused by the new Shuklas and Sharmas [i.e. Dalits taking on upper caste names] that is good’ (emphasis added).

The intentional production of categorical uncertainty is thus not the preserve of rationalist activists. Much more could be said on the matter of a wider transcategorial onomastics not specific to rationalist activists, and its class basis—for instance, the kind of boundary-crossing names employed by upwardly mobile urban parents that signifies their sophisticated cosmopolitanism. The glossy Mumbai-based Mother and Baby magazine presents interviews with ‘society’ figures who do exactly this—Muslim actors whose new-born babies bear Hindu or Christian names and vice versa—and its founder-editor Priya Pathiyan told me about Hindu Sindhi friends of hers who live in south Delhi whose new-born they named Zyaan: global citizens, ‘they are comfortable giving their baby a name that has roots in Arabic, ignoring older family members who ask “why a Muslim name?”’

Contemporary secular naming practices sometimes reflect both this class dimension (many —though certainly not all—activists belong to ‘respectable’ professions such as medicine and academia) and that of nationalism—for instance, the son of a Punjabi rationalist leader is named Vishav Bharti (World Indian), and I shall describe similar instances of boundary-crossing names to that of Udham Singh in later blog posts—which begs the question: are their naming acts mere remnants of a waning Nehruvian-era nationalist identity (i.e. a kind of onomastic ‘national integration’)? Is there anything vital or ‘contemporary’ about them or are such names teetering objects of nostalgia—without import in the so-called ‘new India’?

The question becomes more pressing still in light of the way in which the politics of unrecognition, or reverse identity politics, I am concerned with here would seem quite at odds with the post Indian nationalist tendency toward differentiation as identified in influential works that have charted the rise of caste-based political formations in the country consequent on the years preceding the 1975–77 Emergency when the Congress’s populist goals had come to be expressed in terms which signaled the importance of caste classifications to anyone who could be thought of as aggrieved or deprived. My suggestion is that it is precisely because the dominant analytical narrative has focused on heightenings of difference that we should take seriously secular naming innovations as containing the possibility of delineating a countervailing trend towards more broad-based national or non-particularising identities—a trend that risks neglect given the existing scholarly emphasis on differentiated particularities. It is not just that a transcategorial imaginary still exists, but that it is evolving in new and interesting ways and onomastics are at its heart.

There is a further reason we should pay attention here. Activists’ rationalism is frequently 
dismissed as the basis of hypocritical scorn for the less well educated and their superstitions, with activists themselves accused of being nothing other than Macauley’s grandchildren (a stance shared by the Hindu right and many scholars). The material presented here allows us to progress beyond such stereotypes. The colonial regime—whose mantle activists are said to have inherited—famously inaugurated the governmentalisation of difference with massive continuing ramifications to this day, and scholars have been active in pointing out the role of enumeration in formalizing what had previously been ‘fuzzy’ communities and how the competition between these newly identifiable interest groups resulted in a direct and singular equation between enumeration on the one hand and division on the other. The reverse identity politics of ‘Macauley’s grandchildren’ is therefore of note. In their politics of unrecognition we might discern a name-based method of instilling hope of a caste-free future, or prefigurative politics of the name. Omvedt, in 2010, wrote movingly of ‘Waiting for an India when caste names will have lost their meaning’: ‘Perhaps [such] names might remain—after all, the US and England have Smiths, Carpenters, Potters—but in India, as there, no one would remember that they mean anything.’ The activists discussed here refuse to wait. Seeking to produce the transcategorial in specific local instances, activists prefigure and foreshadow a future they simultaneously help to bring into being—a prefigurative politics of the name.

Secular names: how and why?

In this post I want to look a little more closely at how some Indian secular activists – that is, proponents of secularism who belong to rationalist, humanist, and atheist organisations – have been experimenting with strategies to scramble and mix up the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names, and also why they might want to do this.

Interestingly, some secular names carry a kind of educational message – which is to say that part of their purpose, in being given as names, is to encourage people to reflect on them, and their operation. Names that withhold the information usually associated with them, in a sense, call attention to themselves, possibly provoking reflection (on the part of the person encountering them) on the arbitrariness, changeability, and role of names in forming the very community distinctions they signify.

But is not to say they always succeed in this, but rather to suggest that this is where some users of such names locate the value in them. I employ the term ‘meta-name’ to call attention to this educational function of the name in certain instances of secular experiments with names.

I suggest that there are two main strategies used by secular activists to create ‘secular names’: (1) purification of the caste and religious connotations of names, and (2) multiplication of those connotations in the giving of boundary-crossing names. (Though we’ll see in later weeks that the strategies can sometimes overlap). What both strategies seek to do is to break the association between name and pigeonholed identity.

Before going any further it is important to note that the association between personal name and demographic background wasn’t always there. Historians and anthropologists of India have shown how group boundaries were solidified both by their interactions with the state and with various kinds of reform movements, caste associations, and other mechanisms for removing any ambiguity with regard to the straightforward identification of name with the social group.

One way of thinking about what has been occurring is this: if prior state and reformist separation of communities used a kind of logic of either/or, the two strategies pursued by activists operate according to logics of, one the one hand, both/and (boundary-crossing names), and on the other, neither/nor (purified names). Certainly, not all or even a majority of activists engage in such experimentation, but every rationalist is able to point to examples from within their circle of 
activism, and there are rationalist associations where naming innovations are absolutely normal and indeed required. For Punjab’s dynamic and influential Tarksheel organisation, for instance, dropping one’s caste surname is a condition of membership.

Let us now consider why they are experimenting in these ways.

I suggest there are three principal reasons.

First, activists take up a position that sees the obvious associations and the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names as leading to the restriction of human flourishing. For the French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, names ‘inaugurate the actor’s identity and inform him in an authoritative manner of what he is and what he must be,’ and this can equally describe the rationalists’ view. Rationalist activists seek to avoid the ought self imposed on a person by their name; to release themselves and others from its contraints.

Second, activists need to show consistency. Anti-caste activism is part of the Indian rationalist worldview. Activists conduct high-profile anti-superstition and miracle demonstration campaigns, and many activists describe caste as the biggest superstition of all. Keeping for themselves a caste surname leaves activists open to being labeled hypocrites (similar to the recent accusations levelled at novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy who, after the publication of her new introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, was challenged on her own continued use of a caste surname).

Third, and most important, is activists’ awareness of the role of names in enabling discrimination.

In 2004 the economists Bertrand and Mullainathan published a pioneering study which revealed how employers in Boston and Chicago discriminate against equally qualified candidates based solely on whether their names are considered to be typically ‘white’ or ‘black’. A few years later, in 2010, Bertrand and Mullainathan’s study was replicated in Indian contexts to very revealing effect. What Thorat and Attewell did was to respond to private sector job adverts with CVs demonstrating equal qualifications, but with names indicating different caste and religious backgrounds, finding that applicants with obviously Dalit, low caste or Muslim-sounding names were far less likely than those with high caste ones to hear back from employers. Since caste and religious discrimination is an everyday reality for millions of Indians, the findings are not that much of a surprise. But the research is nonetheless very valuable for vividly displaying the socio-economic stakes of personal names in the region, and for showing how deluded much of the rhetoric is that celebrates the supposed ‘post-caste’ egalitarianism of the liberalised Indian economy. The demographic baggage of names evidently plays a key role in everyday discrimination, from the notorious difficulties faced by people with low-caste or Islamic names in finding properties for rent, to obtaining jobs, and so on.

So we can see that secular activists’ naming experiments address a particular social problem. In future posts on this website I want to unpack in greater detail the differing strategies employed by activists to response to the problem of the automatic separation and labeling function of personal names. It is not all plain sailing for secular activists. Acts of renaming, and ‘unusual’ names as such, can be and are contested. Ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin noted of performative utterances that, if they are not enacted in ordinary circumstances but, for instance, on the stage, out of earshot, or in a language the hearer does not understand, will be simply ‘hollow or void’. Secular naming practices by their very nature are extraordinary—this is how they gain their power but it also leaves them open to being ignored, ridiculed or classed as illegitimate, especially by those who seek to preserve community boundaries. Such a focus on debates and criticisms both within and outside the movement about the worth and validity of particular naming strategies is key for clarifying what is at stake in the domain of secular naming practices, for instance in seeking to work out whether naming innovations can directly challenge inequality and discrimination or the opposite.

Introducing ‘secular names’

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In [Martin Amis’s] book, Experience, he describes asking his father what it’s like to be anti- Semitic: ‘If I’m watching the end of some new arts programme I might notice the Jewish names in the credits and think, Ah, there’s another one. Or: Oh I see. There’s another one,’ Amis Sr. replies. (The Guardian, 7 November 2014)]

A person’s name is likely to bring across a good deal of information about them. Ordinary rules tied to the names ‘Gurpreet’ and ‘Muhammad’ mean that when someone sees or hears those names, they will probably assume that they name people from Sikh and Muslim backgrounds. Personal names, in fact, come with a large amount of biographical information, often acting as vehicles for the automatic separation and labeling of their bearers and the seeing of the category before the person (as seen in the quote from the Guardian newspaper above).

This is true in most places, but particularly so in India where the names of an individual are expected to reflect their gender, caste and religion. The idea that there is a relationship between personal name and caste and/or religion has led to attempts to harness the information brought across in South Asian names for governmental and biopolitical ends: for instance, the development by UK doctors of name-recognition algorithms to identify not only British South Asians but the regional, ethnic and language-based subgroups within this larger category–the purpose being to add to existing datasets used in research on ethnic differences in health with more accurate information on subjects’ ethnicity. Recently, a political anthropologist has explored the potential of a computer algorithm’s use of local name registers in Uttar Pradesh to provide information about the religious communities the bearers belong to. The aim there was to understand the workings of group-based inequalities, and develop policies to alleviate them.

But such algorithms could never be 100% accurate. They can provide ‘probabilistic inference’ of a bearer’s religious background or ethnicity, but there are plenty of cases where it would be impossible for an algorithm to determine a bearer’s community identity – for instance, some Indian names cross community boundaries. An example would be the boundary-crossing names used by the north Indian Meo community (e.g. Ram Khan, Shankar Khan), which cannot be reduced to the religious either/or that such algorithms demand (not unlike the colonial state’s requirement of binary legibility). In addition, surname-titles such as ‘Chaudhary’ may belong to a Hindu, Muslim or another community besides, and a variety of ‘neutral’ names exist, such as Kumar and Singh, that usually are not caste-specific, while a caste surname that strongly signifies a particular 
community in one region of the country is liable to signify a different one elsewhere (e.g. Nayak).

Nevertheless, personal names usually do provide telling understanding of the community backgrounds of their bearers, and answers to the everyday question ‘What is your name?’ are forever fed into a kind of social algorithm for the calculation of identity. But what if South Asian names stopped being capable of providing such ‘data’– and in fact served to mix up any attempt at automatic separation and labeling? It is that question that I am interested in here. There are, as one would expect, many ways in which people bring across information about themselves other than through their names—e.g. through face-to-face interaction –but as the sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out, of all the markers of identity personal names are maybe the easiest to tamper with.’

What I call ‘secular names’ are, by and large, names that have been ‘tampered with’ through acts of renaming to downplay or extinguish demographic (i.e. caste and religious) markers that are also, of course, markers of belonging. My recent research has been done amongst proponents of secularism in India, namely rationalist, humanist, and atheist organisations and their members. Here I want to provide an initial reflection on ways in which they have been seeking to secularise the personal names they use for themselves and/or their children. I am also interested to explore moves to ‘secularise’ names made by people and institutions who would not necessarily identify as rationalist but probably would describe themselves as secular.

The great anthropologist of India M. N. Srinivas used the term ‘secular names’ to refer to a move amongst Karnataka’s urban elites away from naming children after deities. Among the examples he gives are the names Ashok, Sanjay and Ravi, names which, because of their Sanskrit origin, in fact continue to show their bearers’ (probable) Hindu backgrounds. In some cases, amongst secular activists, this is where their attempts to employ a secular name end. However, I want to include in my definition of secular naming practices the giving of names that go further than ceasing to name deities and seek to cloak – even entirely obscure — a person’s religious and/or caste background.

It is the ways in which secular activists do this that I aim to explore in my first few posts on this website, before later moving onto other aspects of Indian names.