All in your name: on caste titles and privilege

Caste titles as names are undoubtedly markers of privilege

Updated - October 12, 2018 07:59 pm IST

Published - March 09, 2018 12:15 am IST

Alphabetized organizing filing system, close-up. Shot in studio with Phase One.

Alphabetized organizing filing system, close-up. Shot in studio with Phase One.

In the Tamil weekly Kudiarasu dated December 25, 1927, the name of its editor was published as E.V. Ramasamy. Periyar, as he would come to be known in his later years, had consciously dropped his caste title, which was also his surname, “Naicker”, from the masthead of the weekly. Subsequent editions carried forward this tradition of not referring to a caste title and thus was born one of the most significant, yet understated, symbolic battles in Tamil Nadu’s long war of social justice.

Not until the first Self-Respect Conference on February 17-18, 1929, which was held at Chengalpattu, did we see a more intensified organisational effort to drop caste titles. A resolution passed at the Chengalpattu Conference, and reported in the Kudiarasu dated February 24, 1929, reads: “The necessity of the resolution to drop caste titles is strengthened because of the practice of discriminating persons on the basis of their names without knowing anything about their character, ability or intelligence. The demand that such discriminatory caste titles and religion-markers are abolished will appeal to all those in favour of unity and equality.”

The editorial was accompanied by an announcement that persons who had renounced caste titles such as Naicker, Naidu, Chettiyar, and Mudhaliyar, as well as any religious indicators such as vibhuti or naamam (holy ash) or poonal (sacred thread), would send their names and addresses to Kudiarasu for publication of the same. It was also stated that any mention of Periyar or correspondence to Periyar would not use “Naicker” hereafter.

In the contemporary Indian context, research by Sukhdeo Thorat and Paul Atwell in 2007 revealed the extent of name-based caste discrimination prevalent in the urban labour market. The study submitted job applications for males with similar education qualifications and experience but with clearly distinguishable caste and religious names. For every 10 upper caste Hindu applicants selected for interview, only six Dalits and three Muslims were chosen.

It is a common argument against reservations that caste-based discrimination is a thing of the past. But Thorat and Atwell’s study showed that caste titles as names are undoubtedly markers of privilege and therefore continue to be inherently discriminatory. By removing such caste titles from names, caste differences may not vanish, but the outward propagation of such differences will start to blur. For example, Tamilians have eschewed caste titles and instead stuck to an initial that typically signifies the first letter of the father’s name, or used the father’s name as the surname.

The need to do away with caste titles has never been greater. Yet it might not even suffice to have an initial or name derived from the father alone: gender equality dictates that names of mothers must be used too. Only thus might we hope that names would ultimately tend towards being caste-neutral, religion-agnostic and gender-equal.

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an advocate and spokesperson of the DMK

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.