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What’s in a surname!


Mr. Kajal Chatterjee should be thanked for his feedback to the article, ‘Surnames that discriminate’ ( ST, January 5, 2016) and for his identifying the caste system as ‘the greatest evil’ in his letter. ‘Its more than just surnames!’ (ST, January 6, 2016). He has put forward an exceptional instance of his Brahmin cousin being mocked at school for having an uncommon surname ‘Malkhandi’. This leads him to conclude that ‘mocking certain person by exploiting their surnames has no relationship with the caste system’. I hope his Brahmin cousin ( Mr. Malkhandi)  must have completed his school unlike my dalit classmate ( Mr. Mal) who had to drop out of school to save himself from the ignominy of surname that channelled all the insults towards his parents and the family occupation. However, his Malkhandi point shows that if there is a ban on the use of surnames, it will even save the day for some Brahmins as well who have exceptionally uncommon surnames. It is true as Mr. Chatterjee has, rightly, pointed out that apart from surnames there are other sticks to beat a person with like the name of one’s village etc. However, we can easily see that a surname is the biggest stick as it identifies a person and his or her caste 24×7. Besides, surnames route offenders’ acid spitting towards victims’ parents and family occupation.

In India, the caste system is hell bent on making the status of blue collar workers as lesser animals. If Mr. Kajal has a surname of a very important occupation say Chamar (cobbler) or Dom ( worker in a burning ghat) or Paramanik ( barber) instead of Chatterjee (Brahmin priest), he could not have said, ‘mocking certain persons by exploiting their surnames has no relationship with the caste system’ as the words ‘chamar’ and ‘dom’ have, frequently, been used to call somebody names in common parlance. Unfortunately, Indians are yet to respect such valuable professions. I can feel the pain as I, myself, am carrying a half pariah surname that announces my belonging to other backward castes. In fact, pariahs are in a quandary about what to do with their surnames. It is difficult to live with it. It is also hard to drop it as in that case people will say you are cheating at your surname.  Only a blanket ban can redress a pariah’s plight. Mr. Chatterjee asks if it is necessary to hide one’s ethnic and religious identity as well along with one’s surname and to identify ourselves as Mr. Blue etc to avoid nepotism. Though the question is asked in lighter vain, it needs to be followed in interviews to hide as far as practicable the caste, race and religious identity of interviewees to arrest nepotism. Instead of Mr. Sky Blue etc, certain number can easily act as an identity of an interviewee.

According to Mr. Chatterjee the problem of surname in a marriage is immaterial and there are instances of happy wives with wiped parental surnames and unhappy wives having original surnames. I wonder even in those cases if wives’ surname changing has been made an issue or condition for conjugal happiness. Mr. Chatterjee rightly says that mutual affection and sacrifice are necessary in a marriage since it is a noble relationship. When he himself is calling for mutual sacrifice, I cannot understand why he fights shy of the idea of mutual sacrifice of surname. Let both life partners drop what Mr. Chatterjee describes as only an immaterial thing.

However, no one can deny Mr. Chatterjee’s view that ‘all depends upon the mindset of people’ and  ‘people should learn to rise above narrow mindsets’. This is indeed the real panacea. When our mindsets become humane, we will strive for cooperation instead of conflict. There will not be existence of any crime or punishment. But it is still miles to go to reach to that stage. Education is the most effective apparatus to get to the ideal society.  As Pratichi Trust report on primary education reveals that some teachers themselves are using sticks to touch a dalit, such a dream society seems to be a far cry at least as of now. At present, the monster of prejudice is  making people dance to his tunes and killing one’s own children in the name of honour (!) killing. According to statistics from the United Nations one in five cases of ‘honour killing’ internationally every year comes from India. The cases of honour killing have been on the rise in India. This leads to a proposal that India badly needs a legislation on ‘honour killing’. This is enough to show that there is no question of sitting idle in the hope of changing the mindset of people to have a permanent solution. It is time to attack all the pockets of prejudice such as surnames, khap panchayats (kangaroo courts), public display of contempt towards any caste or accepted profession from all front- legislation as well as education and surveillance.

Yours etc.,

Sujit De,

Via email

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