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.