Haryana khap panchayat’s directive against using caste surnames will do precious little to end discrimination
Recently, a decision was taken in the Khera Khap of Haryana’s Jind district to not use caste names as surnames. The Times of India quoted Satbir Pahalwan, the head of the Khera Khap, as saying, “For some years now, caste has been inflaming hatred and the society seems divided. Therefore, we have decided that no one from these 24 villages would use caste as a surname. If people want, they could use their village name instead of caste.”
This news appeared at a time when headlines about khap panchayats are often centred around their regressive rulings, such as banning jeans, blaming chowmein for rapes and issuing a diktat to rape and parade two Dalit women naked.
The Khera Khap’s decision was hailed by many ‘liberal’ voices on social media. On the other hand, it came as a surprise to many like me. After all, the very formation of khap panchayats is on the basis of caste.
Changing or removing surnames is not a solution to India’s caste problem. Such attempts may blur caste lines and caste differences, but the caste system or caste discrimination will not disappear. There is no historical evidence that this would save people from atrocities motivated by caste.
Haryana khap panchayats directive against using caste surnames will do precious little to end discrimination
My surname “Attri” is most common among Brahmins in north India. Attri is one of the seven great Vedic sages in the Hindu tradition, and the one most mentioned in Rigveda. I am a Dalit and I am not sure about how I acquired this surname. Perhaps an earlier generation of my family changed it to escape caste discrimination. However, such discrimination did not stop following me. Even Indian living abroad ask me what my full name is, trying to find my location in the caste hierarchy from my surname. While I do not hide my Dalit identity, I do get some benefits due to my Brahmim surname. It is a similar story for so-called upper caste people, for whom it is much more difficult to leave aside the caste surname, as it brings privileges, status, authority and caste capital.
The fascination for changing or dropping surnames is not new among Dalits and so-called upper caste liberals. Dalits mostly change their surnames to escape discrimination, but it follows them even if they immigrate to other countries. A Rajya Sabha MP, Narendra Jadhav, was even contemplating introducing a private member’s bill to ban surnames to end casteism. To “outcaste the entire caste system”, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi changed his caste-depicting surname and replaced it with Satyarthi, meaning,”‘seeker of truth.” However, this is a naïve view of the caste system and how the whole caste structure operates in India. This structure is much more nuanced than it appears.
Babasaheb Ambedkar’s original surname was “Ambavadekar” (derived from the name of his native village ‘Ambavade’ in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra) and was changed to Ambedkar by his Brahmin teacher. But did that Brahmin surname prevent the discrimination that Ambedkar faced?
The Khera Khap is essentially trying to do what Periyar did in Tamil Nadu 50 years ago. In 1927, EV Ramasamy Periyar dropped his surname “Naicker”. At the first Self-Respect Conference held on 17-18 February, 1929 at Chengalpattu, a resolution was passed and later reported in Kudi Arasu (a Tamil weekly magazine published by Periyar). The magazine’s article read, “The necessity of the resolution to drop caste titles is strengthened because of the practice of discriminating (against) 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.”
But the caste battle never ended in Tamil Nadu, and discrimination is still rampant. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that a significant number of crimes against Scheduled Castes continues to be reported.
Returning to the matter involving the Khera Khap, what is its plan to do away with caste? A person’s lived social reality does not depend only on his or her surname. What good will changing or dropping surnames do to the majority of the Dalits who live in villages? After all, in villages, everyone knows everyone else, and dropping or changing a surname cannot bring any change. Such an idea would find favour only with people who have limited knowledge about caste realities.
Why must one have to change his or her identity by changing the surname? Why can society not treat humans as human?
Whenever anyone claims to be unaware of their caste and propagate dropping of surnames, it is almost certain that such a person comes from an upper caste. After all, society does not leave any chance to remind so-called lower castes about their position in society. Surnames constitute just one of the multiple key identifiers of the person’s caste. Even if one abandons caste surnames, there could still be several socio-economic cultural markers that could easily reveal your caste. From caste duties to religious symbols, and from food habits to clothing — all of it is part of a secret “caste codebook”. People’s jobs — such as those of priests and manual scavengers — easily give away your caste. Other indicators of caste are the location of the house in a village, or the observance of certain caste-specific rituals, such as upanayana for Brahmins.
If one wishes to cut a tree, one must cut the roots, and not the leaves. The same holds true for caste. If one is serious about wishing to eradicate caste, one must destroy the institution, not just drop surnames. Ambedkar in his book Annihilation of Caste notes, “Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind…. it must be recognised that the Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed. They observe caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy you must grapple with is not the people who observe caste, but the shastras which teach them this religion of caste. Criticising and ridiculing people for not inter-dining or inter-marrying, or occasionally holding inter-caste dinners and celebrating inter-caste marriages, is a futile method of achieving the desired end. The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the shastras. How do you expect to succeed, if you allow the shastras to continue to mould the beliefs and opinions of the people? Not to question the authority of the shastras—to permit the people to believe in their sanctity and their sanctions, and then to blame the people and to criticise them for their acts as being irrational and inhuman—is an incongruous way of carrying on social reform.”
Ambedkar also wrote, “If you wish to bring about a breach in the system, then you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the religion of the shrutis and the smritis. Nothing else will avail.”
Caste is not just reflected in surnames but also first names. In Chapter 2, Manusmriti advises on name giving in society,
Verse 31. Let (the first part of) a Brahmana’s name (denote something) auspicious, a Kshatriya’s be connected with power, and a Vaisya’s with wealth, but a Sudra’s (express something) contemptible.
Verse 32. (The second part of) a Brahmana’s (name) shall be (a word) implying happiness, of a Kshatriya (a word) implying protection, of a Vaisya (a term) expressive of thriving, and of a Sudra (an expression) denoting service.
It is thus not surprising that names of Dalits, especially those from earlier generations, are derogatory in nature, such as Manga (beggar), Jalah (one who does not know anything) and Kachra (Garbage). The last one was the name of a character in the movie Lagaan. Yet, there is sometimes a backlash if Dalits name their children in a way that is not “acceptable” to society. In fact, some Dalits have been killed for having the same names as upper-caste people.
So, removing a caste surname, while staying deeply religious and believing in the authority of the shastras, is a mere eyewash. Dropping the caste surname might sound like an attractive idea, but it will not work in the long run to solve the issue of caste discrimination. One must tackle the root cause, and dismantle the most brilliantly managed scam (caste system) in the history of mankind.