The Name Of The Game

Even as I write this piece, a lion-lioness pair in a national park in Tripura is going through a severe identity crisis: named Akbar and Sita respectively, they have now to be given new names as per an order of the state High Court. Apparently, a VHP outfit had objected to the names, though it is not clear whether their refined sensibilities had been offended by the naming of an animal after a goddess, or whether it was the pairing with a Mughal name which made them see red (or saffron, in this case). We also do not know whether they disapproved of the inter-faith relationship or the live-in arrangements. Taking no chances, however, the High Court has directed that they be renamed and that animals should not be named after prominent people or deities. The Chief Wildlife Warden of Tripura is now facing a crisis of his own-an existential one this time-for he has been suspended, presumably for setting too much store by Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name…”

When I was growing up (in prehistoric times, I must admit, given my advancing years) naming a person or place was great fun, a family occasion, like an “antakshree” game, where the biological parents had little say. The final word was usually that of the family pundit or presiding matriarch- what they suggested was generally accepted by everyone, and all concerned thereafter repaired happily to the nearest “theka” to celebrate. Notwithstanding this casual-and usually politically incorrect by today’s Woke standards-approach, however, the conferred name left nothing to the imagination and was a perfect description. In my ancestral village, if a guy had a limp he was named Langru, if he was one-eyed he was naturally called Kana, the younger brother was invariably Chotu, a sharp and intelligent child had to be Chakku, the youngest kid in the family could be no other than Nanhe, a cute little girl was always named Gudiya. See what I mean?-No probing questions were needed when you met the guy or gal for the first time, no Google search was necessary, the name was the bio-data.

It was the same with place names, which got their moniker from the person who founded it, or from the local deity or religious structure, or some natural feature, or a local tradition, or some historical titbit. For example, my present village in Himachal is called Purani Koti, which means Old Koti. It used to be, in pre-independence days, an unknown hamlet of a couple of houses and part of the Koti kingdom. That kingdom is long gone now, but there are plenty of other Kotis scattered all over the place, which have no connection with the erstwhile kingdom. So, in order to retain its historical roots and show the parvenus their place, the natives decided to name this hamlet as Purani Koti. No fuss, no controversy, history respected, and the world has moved on.

No more, in Naya Bharat. The name has now been weaponised in support of a particular ideology: towns and cities are now being renamed faster than Mr. Modi changes his clothes. Of course, after Independence states, districts and towns have been frequently renamed- more than 100 cities have been renamed, 10 in the last five years alone. But whereas earlier the renaming was generally in the nature of phonetic transliteration (to align with local, indigenous pronunciation, i.e from Calcutta to Kolkatta, or from Simla to Shimla), or to replace the Romanized spelling with Indian English (eg. Jubblepore to Jabalpur, or Cawnpore to Kanpur), today this process has acquired a hyper nationalistic, Hindutva driven character. More often than not it is places with Muslim names which are being targeted, an exercise of revenge against past atrocities, real and imagined, the rewriting and redaction of history. The concerned governments are not bothered about the loss of cultural authenticity or the erasure of history this entails, for place names are one of the building blocks of history, and removing any of them leaves permanent holes in our past. But perhaps this is precisely what our present rulers want-simply delete those phases or events in our past which do not suit the current majoritarian narrative.

This weaponisation of names has acquired an even more sinister character and purpose when it comes to names of individuals. Since names indicate religion and ethnicity they have increasingly become a tool for the targeting and persecution of minorities. RWAs will not admit residents with Muslim names and stout Hindus will not employ staff with Muslim names: in my Society every second maid or cook belongs to the minority community, but they all give Hindu names in order to secure a job. Orders are rejected if the delivery boy happens to have such a name, and in some reported instances the poor chaps have even been beaten up for this supposed crime. There are reports that in some states minority names are deleted from voters’ lists on a large scale. There are occasional calls to boycott shops with Muslim names; in order to circumvent this, shops belonging to this community often adopt and display Hindu names, but this does not work: when payment is made through the QR code, the shopkeeper’s name and identity gets revealed, leading to commotion, scuffles and subsequent boycotts.

This last example shows how even something secular like a digital innovation can inadvertently result in making one’s life difficult, even without the religious under-pinning. If there is a mis-match in your name in the Aadhaar card and your bank account, PAN card, ration card, EPIC (voter card)-even if it’s just a spelling error- you can spend the rest of your life trying to get it fixed, and in the meantime you will get no rations, lose access to your bank account, be unable to file your ITRs and be fined as a consequence by the Income Tax department, will not be allowed to vote, cannot get a driving license. The error or mismatch in your name will mean that you will effectively cease to exist as a living entity, you will be part of the living dead. Your name may as well be Dracula.

Never in the past have names been such a serious issue: they used to be simple markers of identity. Now they have become complex instruments of surveillance, persecution, harassment, digital black holes, stigmatas- in short, a bloody nuisance we can do without. We need to move to a less exploitable system of identification, like a PIN instead of a name. That would truly be secular paradise, what? No one will be able to, well, pin you down to a particular caste, religion or community, and peace and harmony shall prevail. And who wouldn’t want to be known as 007 instead of Banchoddas Chanchad, Soumya Bum, Pornika Sircar or Valentine Mirchi ?

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