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Wednesday , November 23 , 2016
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Lots in a Name

- Can a legal bar on caste surnames end discrimination? V. Kumara Swamy examines the fledgling move

MARKED: National Crime Records Bureau figures state that there has been a rise in atrocities 
on Dalits and tribals in recent years    

Since Independence, India has enacted several laws in a bid to end discrimination against Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. These include a ban on the age-old practice of untouchability under Article 17 of the Constitution, the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Despite the laws, discrimination and atrocities against Dalits and tribal people continue. To deal with this, a section of decision-makers has been advocating doing away with surnames that identify castes. That, says member of Parliament Narendra Jadhav, is one way of battling discrimination. “Caste is ingrained in the minds of the people,” says the Rajya Sabha MP.

Jadhav is likely to table a private member’s bill in the Upper House proposing a ban on caste surnames. He argues that dropping surnames — which lead to a “caste consciousness” — may bring down discrimination at every level.

The MP is not the first to call for such a change. Former Union minister Jagjivan Ram had advocated giving up surnames voluntarily and encouraged inter-caste marriages to battle caste-based discrimination.

“My father believed that Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s solution of changing one’s religion to Buddhism as a revolt against the Hindu caste system wasn’t the way forward. He suggested giving up surnames,” says Ram’s daughter, Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker.

Supporting Jadhav’s move, Kumar says that it needs to be taken up because of increasing violence and discrimination against Dalits and tribals in recent years.

Figures back Kumar’s assertion on the increase in cases of violence. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 45,003 cases were registered last year for crimes against Scheduled Castes, a sharp rise from 33,719 cases in 2011.

“We have the laws in place to take care of atrocities, but what we also need are incremental changes to bring down intolerance towards Dalits. A surname is the very first thing people notice,” Kumar says.

If the government could do away with the  official recognition of titles such as Raja and Maharaja — used by the rulers of former princely states — why can’t it do away with caste surnames which are also, in a way, titles, argues N. Paul Divakar, general secretary of the Delhi-based National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights.

“A caste surname is an enforced identity. Dalits have been stuck with negative identities given to them by the upper castes. It would help if there is a ban on the usage of caste surnames,” Divakar says.  

But can this debate actually lead to change? Some believe that this is not going to happen because caste is too deeply entrenched in society.

“You cannot expect people to agree to such a large-scale change,” says Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader and treasurer Ambeth Rajan. He points out that even among castes, there are hierarchies. “There is one-upmanship among the Brahmin sub-castes, for instance. The Chaturvedis feel superior to the Trivedis, who feel they are better than the Dwivedis and so on.”

Rajan quotes Ambedkar to stress that change will come only when mindsets change. “When the state of the mind remains the same, how can you expect change,” he asks.

Some upper caste organisations have already come out in opposition to any move to ban caste surnames. “For Kshatriyas, it is not just a surname, but an identity. Every surname has its unique history. Giving it up is like beheading ourselves,” says Amar Singh Bhadauria, president, Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Sabha, which claims a membership of around 1.5 crore.
Bhadauria believes that Dalits are “the most privileged class” in India. “Every government goes out of its way to woo them. They have reservation in jobs, there are laws to protect them, and every politician speaks for them. But I would advise politicians to stay away from robbing us of our identity. 

It will have very negative consequences” he warns.

There are also those who argue that even if surnames are removed by law, not much will change. Political analyst Anand Teltumbde, who is a professor in the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, believes that a law of this kind would make “some superficial differences” in urban areas, but nothing beyond that.

“In rural settings, it will not make any damn difference,” he says, calling it a “puerile” move. “The real manifestation of caste is in depriving Dalits of their dues and ultimately in atrocities. Such moves [the proposal] will not make any difference to this.”

P.L. Punia, chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, agrees. “Even if it is a noble idea, it’s unlikely to have an impact in rural areas as locals can recognise you even if you do not have a caste surname. In fact, Dalits in many parts of Uttar Pradesh face this reality every day,” Punia says.

To battle caste, many argue that there has to be access to justice and a strict implementation of laws. Action against those who indulge in crimes against Dalits would bring in a greater change than the mere banning of surnames, they hold.

“The conviction rate for atrocities against Scheduled Castes in Gujarat is as low as 3 per cent. Upper caste goondas are not scared of killing or maiming Dalits. That is the most important issue confronting us, not the banning of surnames. But I am not against the move if we Dalits give up our caste surnames voluntarily rather than wait for a law,” Gujarat’s Dalit youth leader Jignesh Mevani holds.

Punia says instead of “cosmetic changes”, what is needed is a movement that can have a lasting impact and better the lives of Dalits. Kumar, however, emphasises that doing away with surnames is a “real and incremental” change. 

“I just hope that every right thinking person in Parliament supports this bill whenever it is introduced,” she says.

That’s easier said than done, for private members’ bills seldom bear fruit. Only a few bills have been passed in the last 65 years. The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill passed last year was the first private member’s bill to get Rajya Sabha approval in 45 years. 

The task for Jadhav is clearly an uphill one.

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