What’s in a Name? Seemingly Everything
We saw entire resumes full of achievements fall flat in the face of last names
Twenty years ago, my great-grandfather, a scholar of Persian, wouldn’t have dreamt of a political climate wherein seventy five years after Independence, your first name itself would lead you to being targeted, discriminated against, and ‘othered’. Perhaps then, his great-grandchildren wouldn’t have been named the sort of names they were, thoughtfully chosen from his extensive knowledge and love of Persian.
As a possible extension of the same, my social media mononym of ‘Sanah’ would not have been used as an instinctive counter in any sort of political debate or conversation that I unthinkingly partake in online from time to time. Despite belonging to a proud military background where my forefathers have unflinchingly devoted themselves to the Armed Forces, my patriotism towards the country has been repeatedly questioned, simply for having contrarian opinions.
In a Twitter conversation on the issue of schoolchildren and college students being denied education for wearing a hijab, I was harshly reprimanded about what ‘my community’ understood about either peace or equality by Twitter accounts proudly bearing the Indian flag in their username. Other equally unsavoury retorts to social media users with evidently Islamic names include ‘Pehle apne kaagaz dikhao’ (Show me your papers first), a reference to the controversial National Register of Citizens implemented by the government in Assam, and perhaps in future nationwide.
What possibly could such a taunt convey besides an ‘othering’ and ‘un-belonging’ towards certain communities?
In a country where last names are often single-handedly the most crucial markers of one’s positioning in society, one’s religion or caste, it is evident that names can be used to encapsulate entire identities in one word. No amount of fluency in English, appearance of wealth, or educational or career achievements, which are the traditional markers of one’s socioeconomic identity in some countries - amount to anything approaching the significance of one’s name in India.
Having extensively researched the conditions of caste and identity in the private sector, with a university professor, we uncovered countless studies establishing the fact that individuals bearing an evidently raised-caste Hindu last name were being chosen over their counterparts with a lowered-caste or Muslim last name despite equivalent credentials and academic backgrounds. We saw the significance of entire resumes full of achievements and potential fall flat in the face of last names, unravelling centuries of perceived histories that seemed to matter more to private institutions committed to maintaining ‘equal and diverse’ workplaces.
In the wake of the CAA/NRC protests which university students including myself joined in wide numbers, I found myself in the midst of endless conversations on who to ‘include and exclude as being Indian’ by friends, relatives, and most of immediate society. Your name didn’t just dictate your career, housing or positioning in society or any other hardships that those minoritised in the country routinely endure, but the very fact that you belonged to the country itself.
I can never forget a prophetic remark an elderly Sikh gentleman, my grandfather’s friend, once made in the middle of a divisive conversation following the protests: You think they aren’t coming for Sikhs next? This was merely months before the farmers’ protest started where the demands of the mass of farmers belonging to the Punjab region, the majority of them being Sikhs, were recklessly dismissed as coming from ‘Khalistanis’, and therefore conveniently, anti-national.
In a recent interview, long-imprisoned activist Sudha Bharadwaj now out on bail noted that the most difficult allegation to counter was that of being an ‘anti-national’ under the terms of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Her own credentials as a lawyer were unable to help her successfully plead her case, or avail the right of bail on three occasions, in two different prisons. So who will come to the rescue of the millions of Indian citizens, bereft of the ‘right’ surnames, who are branded as anti-nationals, the others, the un-Indians simply on account of presumed identity?
I am neither a Sikh, nor a Muslim. Despite my contrarian views and opinions, I hide behind the safety cloak of an evidently Hindu raised-caste last name. My own ordeals of being ‘Sanah’ during the CAA protests, or a ‘Singh’ during the farmers protests, are mere trivialities compared to the immense hardships those who do not have a raised-caste majority-religion surname to hide behind. While I can’t, and should not, attempt to speak on behalf of either the Sikh or Muslim community, I speak to those that do belong to mine, the majority, who turn a blind eye towards this social dynamic. Would empathy and sensitivity towards our own citizens not amount to far greater patriotism than these flagrant acts of jingoism that differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’?
The key learning here is not just protecting ‘our’ interests and safety but genuine empathy for all those victimised and targeted, understanding that what hurts them hurts us too, and ensuring that we do not bow down in submission to cowardice or brazenness, before it is too late.
To the Twitter user who thought I was a Muslim and asked me what my community knew about peace or equality, I would say I wholeheartedly agree. Where is the supposed Upper Caste Hindu Rage when Indians of different communities, castes and religions are harassed and discriminated against? What then, do we truly know about peace and equality?
Also read ‘Are You Fit for Political Power?’ by B.R Ambedkar