Sunday, July 03, 2016

What’s Not in a Name?

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah’s insistence on using English surnames must be taken seriously by those who wish to create an egalitarian nation

Noted author and public intellectual, Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, formerly professor of political science in Osmania University, Hyderabad, in a recent article on a news portal announced that he has changed his name. He shall now be known as Kancha Ilaiah “Shepherd”, the addition signifying his traditional caste and family occupation.

Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
Some might dismiss it as a gimmick, but Prof. Ilaiah Shepherd sees this as a crucial move in his battle against the behemoth of caste in India. This is not an entirely new strategy. In the 19th century, Savitribai Phule advocated English language for social emancipation of India’s lowered castes. The chorus has only swelled in our 21st century. However, Prof. Shepherd is unique in asking English to be made part of one’s identity and not just an added skill set in “languages known” column of one’s résumé. 

Castes and names in India have been almost synonymous. If someone insists on knowing your full name, be sure he or she wants to know what caste you belong to. It may even determine how we treat our colleagues, neighbours, fellow students, clients, etc., etc. In short, it shapes our attitude towards fellow countrymen.

In a highly graded culture that we have in India, giving a name to a child is meant to fix his position in social hierarchy. I once heard an elderly anti-caste activist from Rajasthan explaining to a group the unwritten rules of the ancient system of Indian christening. His description was more colourful than the turban he was wearing. In his inimitable Rajasthani accent he explained how a Brahmin’s son would be called Vidyapati, Gyanendrapati, Saraswatichandra—names depicting his relation with
A Rajasthani Turban. Image:
knowledge and education. A Kshatriya boy would be called Randhir Singh or Ranvijay or Veer Pratap signifying the qualities of a warrior. A Baniya child would be called Dhanpat, Lakshmichandra, etc.; names that tie him to earning of wealth and riches. When a Shudra father takes his son to the village priest, the latter would ask, “When was this little imp born?” “On Buddhwar, Wednesday, sir,” the father would reply with his hands folded. “Name him buddhu (stupid), what else?” the priest would be grinning. So boys born on Monday would be Somus, those born on Tuesday would be Manglus, and so on.

The direction in which Prof. Shepherd is going seems to suggest that it is not enough for a Shudra or an outcaste father to rename his son Someshwar or Manglesh or Buddhadev and thus move up the ladder in the hierarchical Sanskritic tradition. He is asking such fathers to take pride in their own identities as manual labourers and learn from the Western counterparts where surnames like Smiths and Potters are no longer looked down upon. As a matter of fact, no one notices them or reads anything into them.

Prof. Shepherd opens himself to a lot of criticism from all quarters—even from sympathetic colleagues. Many would say that he is giving undue importance to the power of English language to bring emancipation to India’s lowered castes. They would argue that imposition of English by British colonialists is the root of all social evil we have in today’s India. But no one could deny the power of this pragmatic stance of Prof. Ilaiah Shepherd’s. Any person who could steer away from the identity imposed on him or her by the Sanskritic tradition does become the master of his or her individuality. And, no one can deny that the ability to fluently use English language does give one the social recognition that was denied him or her for generations.

However, Prof. Shepherd’s advocacy of English names and English language is not merely posturing or even some practical strategy. Behind his seemingly quixotic vision is the profound cultural understanding.  Languages in any culture are not merely means of communication, but also repository of cultural capital. They not only help us communicate, but make available to us all the philosophic and spiritual resources contained in that language. Prof. Ilaiah Shepherd wants us to look beyond Sanskritic traditions to forge a national identity.

In calling the lowered castes of India to add new English surnames to their given names, Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is changing the terms of discourse. He is introducing the new “language” that we urgently need to discuss our existence and future as a nation. The name calling that we saw in recent times in the name of nationalism can be countered rather effectively, it seems, by a change in name.