Caste-based area names to be changed across Indian state to ‘increase unity’

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Millions of people in Maharashtra to have neighbourhoods renamed but critics say plan means little without behavioural change

By Amrit Dhillon in Delhi

The names of neighbourhoods in the Indian state of Maharashtra based on the caste of people who have traditionally lived there are to be be changed, to reflect the country’s evolving attitudes.

In the same way Indian surnames reveal the caste to which a person belongs, neighbourhoods have acquired names based on the caste of the community that predominates.

For centuries, villages have been organised on the basis of caste, with strict segregation that confines the lower castes to the fringes. Some towns, too, have certain areas inhabited by the members of a particular community.

https://91e7f9b298ae41e76ae7610921a4023c.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?n=0 The Maharashtra government has decided that, for a country that keeps promising to eliminate the caste system, to have neighbourhoods and roads named after a particular caste is undesirable.

“Keeping that in mind and to maintain social harmony and goodwill in the state to increase national unity, all caste-based names of areas and localities in rural and urban parts of the state will be changed,” said the state’s social justice minister, Dhananjay Munde earlier this month.

Places in Maharashtra, home to 125 million people, will be renamed after well-known social workers or local activists so that no caste is indicated.

But columnist Chandra Bhan Prasad, who writes on caste issues, is unimpressed. “Without a change in people’s consciousness and behaviour, this is just a childish antic. Changing the names of places is only of value as a minor media story, nothing else,” he said.

Despite efforts to erase the caste system, it remains resilient. Earlier this month, a dalit (formerly known as an untouchable) youth in Gujarat was assaulted after being asked his caste by co-workers, and giving the name of a higher caste. His other “offence” was wearing his shirt unbuttoned. Trying to look fashionable if you are a dalit is a crime in the eyes of some upper-caste Hindus.

The question of surnames is something everyone is aware of. Upper-caste Hindus who do not know someone’s caste, and know that it is politically incorrect to ask directly, will try to find out a person’s surname so they can “place them” in society.

Some people from lower castes have abandoned their surnames, going only by their first name, as a gesture of rebellion against being instantly branded the moment they utter their surname.

In 2015, senior civil servant Narendra Jadhav said he had considered bringing a private member’s bill to parliament outlawing surnames altogether, leaving Indians with one-name identities as a way of defeating caste. However, he failed to pursue the idea.

Last year the elected councils of 24 villages in Haryana state near the Indian capital decided that no one could use their surname. Instead, they could use the name of the village as a surname.

In Chennai, Sneha, a lawyer, has refused, as a matter of principle, to state her caste on any official document for 35 years. Finally, she obtained a certificate from the government stating what she wanted, namely, that she belonged to no caste.

Credit: The Guardian

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