What is in a name?

Public dialogue or deliberations on the ‘C' word, albeit ‘Caste', are never a straightforward exercise. The word ‘Caste', with its various connotations and social implications, is cast about regularly, to every imaginable extent possible within the social, legal, political, academic and economic ambit. Never has a word been bandied about with as much fervour or aversion as ‘Caste'.

Social division and discrimination are not unique to India, nor is the practice restricted to any part of the globe. In any given society, people are invariably divided along social, religious, communal and economic parameters. Karl Marx divided society into two classes — the bourgeois (the wealthy class) and the proletariat (labourers/working class people). The slave system, the clan system, the class system are no different or less venomous than our own caste prejudices. But caste is the longest and most formidable of all forms of oppression still prevalent in the history of mankind.

The word caste derives from the Portugese ‘casta' meaning race, breed or kind. In India, it is popularly referred to as ‘jati' or ‘jaadhi'. The original purpose of the caste system was social stratification according to occupation so that society could function in harmony. But gradually it became exploitative, giving rise to social injustices and inequality among the people.

Caste is a mantle or membership we acquire by birth. As we all know, we not only inherit our genes from our parents but also our caste from our forefathers. How then do we eliminate caste from the mainstream of our society? It would be naive to think we can just wish it away.

A lot has been said and written about the vagaries of the caste system. I am particularly perturbed by one of the commonest forms of discrimination that has been largely ignored at the least and denied at the worst — that is the practice of tagging caste or clan suffixes to given names like Sharma, Verma, Nair, Iyer, etc.

The effect of a name should never be underestimated. What is in a name, one may wonder? Well, what isn't? The first thing we learn about a person after greeting him or her is his or her name. Names not only reflect our personality but also give us the first inkling of the religion, race or community we belong to. We are named after our ancestors, family members, after popular icons, clan, occupation, religion or even the locality we are from. There is a confusing array of names, surnames, middle names, nicknames, given names. You name it, it is there. But what concerns me most are the adhesive caste names the so-called intellectuals go by while vociferously demanding that casteism be abolished.

I am deeply intrigued when Mani Iyer or Ravi Verma or Rahul Shashtri talks or writes about a casteless society, or labels others as being caste fanatics. Their intellectual posturing is exposed when they stubbornly refuse to let go of these commonly used suffixes which are purely caste, sub-caste or sect names. Their blatant flaunting of their caste is indeed ironic in itself and most devious simply because it is so subtle, and on the surface unapparent.

There have been numerous instances in the education and job sectors where examiners and interviewers have been favourable to candidates of their own community by just glancing at the caste suffix names or vindictive to candidates whose community they loathe. This name-dropping has the tacit connivance of the teaching faculty which poses a challenge to the concept of equal opportunity.

It is, however, not my contention that for a casteless society, we need a nameless one (however tempting is the notion of Abhishek Bachchan's ‘Idea Cellular' phone advertisement putting forth identification by numbers instead of names ). My only request is that names should be just generic.

My great-grandfather's name is Aanai Gounder, my grandfather's name is Sanjeevaraya Gounder, where ‘Gounder' denotes a caste name. My father's name is S. Ramadoss, while mine is Anbumani Ramadoss, which is just a patronymic, generic name.

This social revolution of eliminating caste names began two generations ago in Tamil Nadu. The dropping of the caste tags of Mudaliar, Nadar, Gounder, Thevar, Iyer, Pillai, Vanniyar, etc, in the last 30 years or so is a great social change that needs to be acknowledged and followed in all parts of the country.

In the West, the earliest names were related to a physical attribute of the person or circumstance of birth. Today, many of these survive as surnames. Then came family names for purposes of identification (i.e. Robert becoming Robertson — son of Robert). Names often reflected what the individual did for a living (e.g. Potter, Baker, etc.) The majority of European surnames or family names originate from a geographical location, occupation or appearance. The Scotts are also famous for their clan names (i.e. Mac Donald).

In India we have names according to different States, languages, castes, etc. Kerala: Menon, Nair, Nambiar; Karnataka: Gowda, Shetty, Hegde, Rai; Andhra Pradesh: Reddy, Naidu, Rao; Orissa: Patnaik, Hota, Panda; Maharashtra: Naik, Shinde; Gujarat: Patel, Shah, Desai; West Bengal: Chatterjee, Mukerjee, Bannerjee, Sen, Das, Roy. In the BIMARU States, the names are endless — Sharma, Verma, Bhat, Shastri, Chauhan, Mishra, Dayal, Choudhary, Gupta, Thakur, Sinha, Singh, Dutta, Yadav, Paswan, Meena. These are all invariably caste, sub-caste, clan or sect names. The minority religions are a different matter altogether.

Some of India's founding fathers like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Moraji Desai also had names which subscribed to caste or community. Caste names are an impediment to social justice and to the holistic development of India. A welcome trend in recent times is the increasing adoption of neutral generic names that do not pertain to any religion or caste.

It would be naive to assume that dispensing with caste names will lead to a casteless society. Caste names are only part of the problem rather than the solution. There is no pat solution for this dilemma. The adoption of generic names would be a small but definite step towards eradicating caste from this society.

To bring about a caste-free society, not only caste (brand names) but also the mindset of the developed sections towards their less fortunate brethren should change. Social justice can be achieved only when all sections of society have a level playing-field socially, educationally and economically. To bring about this change, we need to acknowledge the centuries of discrimination faced by the oppressed sections. For significant progress to be made, in our quest for social equality, the developed class should cease looking on in amused contempt of and derision towards its less developed counterparts.

It is easy enough to dismiss a name or rather the implications of a name as being unimportant and preposterous. But let us not be ostrich-like.

A debate on caste has been democratic, hysterical, one-sided, vulgar, tainted, insane or simply inane.

People say they should be judged by their character not by caste; merit, not reservation. Is it not true of caste names too? The democratic pretensions of the so-called intellectuals (India's who's who list) would be exposed as being hollow when you catch a glimpse of the fascinating array of caste names trailing them.

There should be a healthy discussion on caste names around the country with Karan Thapar, Barkha Dutt, Prannoy Roy, Rajdeep Sardesai, Shekhar Gupta, Arnab Goswami along with all my other friends in the media who have these suffixes taking part.

I know I will be rubbing a lot of sensitive people up the wrong side with my opinion. On the one hand I will be perceived as offering advice on how to tackle the complexity of caste issues, and on the other, as a politician I will be perceived as bolstering my arguments for social justice. I am aware of the irony of this subject I have chosen.

I am also aware there is an increased chance of misunderstanding by one or the other. This article is not meant to be abrasive or hurt other's sentiments but only for people to introspect on what can be a possible, positive step towards a caste-free future.

If Tamil Nadu can do it, why not the rest of India? The Eskimos had nearly 52 names for snow because it was so important to them. What importance do these innumerable caste names have for us?

Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things; Poetry is the art of giving different names to the same thing. Let us not guise caste into an art, should we?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I am sure all you intellectuals out there would agree with me and tweet.

( Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss is former Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare.)

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 10:53:33 AM |

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