On 07 Dec 2018 the Indian government introduced a truly revolutionary bill. Indian history has been short on revolutions, unlike the more violent societies of the West and the Middle East. The idea of a violent revolution is alien to the Hindu psyche, given our tradition of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and ahimsa as encapsulated in the phrases “sarva dharma samabhava” and “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”. Revolutions imply prolonged periods of uncertainty and chaos. We have traditionally preferred communal riots and large scale destruction of property as means of public self-expression. These are brief and to the point. No hard feelings thereafter. Since the idea that public property is actually our own and paid for by our hard earned taxes has not percolated down to the hoi-polloi, buses and trains are usually the first targets of our urge for public disorder.
But here is where we are different. As soon as the frenzy abates, our mohalla committees, often consisting of the very same looters and rioters, swing into action. We have sadbhavana yatras; people remember the days when young Ram and Rahim used to fly kites together, go mango-stealing in nearby orchards, swimming in the river and of course teasing the girls. Tears are shed, sweets exchanged; Ram and Rahim embrace and vow “never again” to let themselves be swayed by extremist ideologues, unless provoked. Peace is restored. The azaan is heard once again; suprabhaatam sounds on the temple speakers. The mosque turns up the volume on its speakers. Likewise the temple. All is well, until the next time.
The cabinet communique was brief.
It said that the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) had decided that caste and religious names should no longer be used. A bill to this effect would be introduced in the current session of Parliament. Names (and surnames) signifying religious and caste leanings would not be legal anymore. Instead neutral names, perhaps even numbers could be used to identify people. A commission would be set up to go into the details and specify what was acceptable. It would be headed by (who else?) a retired Supreme Court judge and would include two members, one (who else?) a retired bureaucrat (read IAS) and an eminent retired policeman, whose names would be announced shortly.
There was stunned silence. As expected Arnob was the first to bounce back. In an all-night debate with a hundred participants, twenty at a time in relays, the issue was discussed threadbare. All those likely to be affected were invited — religious and caste leaders, socialists, communists, secularists, hard core fascists and so on. There was even the mandatory retired Pakistani general and a sneering academician from across the border. As morning broke, Arnob thundered again, “India wants to know”, just as he had at the beginning of the ‘debate’. To widespread applause, he continued, “We will be back. R will continue to follow this story.”
Other channels did their own thing, more or less along the now accepted pattern first popularized by Arnob. ‘Debates’ galore, lots of shouting, name calling and so on. The ‘experts’ who appeared on these panels were polymaths. You could quiz them on cricket (indeed some appeared regularly in IPL chats) or on constitutional law. They could give you ‘gyan’ in five minutes flat on anything and everything.
What was surprising across all channels was the unanimous opposition to the move. The pundits and the maulvis all agreed that this move would strike at the very roots of social cohesion. Names were sacred. To ban them was unthinkable. It was against the sharia, the Vedas, the Zend Avesta and whatever other sacred book you could name. Would a prophet by any other name smell as sweet? As the Archbishop of Mumbai pointed out — in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All of which, in his humble opinion, signified the importance of names. The Shankaracharya of Puri agreed. Ram Naam Sat Hai was the general opinion in North India. The proposed bill went against the very tenets of the Hindu religion. Names were important. If one did not know whom one was talking to, one would not know what to say. Addressing someone by caste name was a given. How was one to address a digit or even two, as was proposed? He direly forecast the end of the world as we know it. Mr Pinkoo Modi, M.P., quipped that the world as we know it was precisely the problem. He would much prefer a world he didn’t know.
Once the initial shock had worn off, and the implications of this move had started to seep in, there was widespread public debate. Even JNUites agreed that the Modi government was on to something.
But there was a problem. If an Akhlaq could not be identified as Akhlaq right off the bat, then how could one organise a meeting protesting discrimination against people from a particular community. On the other hand, as the ABVP president eloquently pointed out, how could you have a Ram mandir, if the word ‘Ram’ was not to be used?
But first things first. The composition of the commission caused some disquiet among the intellectual classes. Certain eminent public persons (EPPs for short), who cannot be named for obvious reasons, had seen themselves as ripe for selection in such commissions in view of their well….’eminence’. To say they were upset at being left out would be an understatement. While some felt that the choice of a retired SC judge could be understood in view of the legal acumen he would bring to bear on such a complicated issue, others were of the opinion that the mere fact that someone had once been a judge did not ‘per se’ attest to the possession of any qualities required to deal with an issue of such magnitude. They pointed to some recent cases in which judges had not exactly covered themselves with glory. In fact even the integrity of many judges had been called into question in several high profile cases. The names of Karnan, Mukherjee, Mishra, Quddusi all came up. Some EPPs felt that a judicial background could possibly be a disqualification. However the large mass of the public did not have any vehement objection to a senior judge heading the panel. Major objections were raised to retired babus and policemen being members of the commission. People wanted to know why a babu was required at all, unless it was in a junior capacity to make the minutes. A policeman could probably bring in the tea, intellect not being considered a major requirement in this line of work, when a well placed blow from a lathi could do the job. Some retired ex-servicemen still agitating for the OROP at Jantar Mantar wanted to know why a retired ex-serviceman had not been considered for membership. But this idea was only discussed in some service messes. Soldiers are not taken seriously in any capacity in India, intellectually or otherwise.
In view of the religious sensitivities involved many, especially from the Congress, SP and the Communist parties, were of the view that one maulvi, or preferably two, one each from the Barelvi and the Deobandi schools, were absolutely required to be members even if there were no Hindu representives, in view of the religious significance of Muslim names and surnames (usually Arabic). Since many burly Sardars are called Pinky and Sweety, it was felt that Sikhs in general would have no objection to not being on the commission. Hindus could of course be ignored, as usual.
After a lot of deliberation and various press releases which included new names, the government finally reverted to the original two members that it had earlier declared, namely Shri ML Churana IAS (retd) and Mr DO Lagaao IPS (retd), with Justice KS Taaldo as the Chairman. They happened to be of persuasions which satisfied the appropriate religious requirements, thus reinforcing the government’s secular image. Everyone agreed that the government had chosen wisely. The demands of the babu fraternity having been acceded to (as usual, I must add) and that of the rest (ex-servicemen included) having been duly ignored (again as usual), the commission could now proceed with its stated business.
But before that there was one important issue to be settled, the ‘perks’ the commission members were entitled to. As the chairman explained in an informal meeting with the press at a well known five-star hotel, in popular jargon, the meaning of the word ‘perquisite’ is misunderstood. It implies getting something extra, over and above entitlement. Nothing in his opinion could be further from the truth. The word actually means entitlement. Whatever ‘perks’ the members were entitled to had been clearly laid down in government orders dating back to 1862, when the Calcutta High Court was established. Some mischievous ‘elements’ were attempting to create a controversy where none existed.
It is surprising how often these ‘elements’, foreign hands’, ‘systemic failures’ etc. crop up in the Indian media whenever anything shady is involved. In India, people never commit crimes. It is always ‘rogue’ ‘elements’ or ‘dreaded criminals’. This is somewhat similar, in a contradictory-seeming way to what anti-gun control supporters and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US always say after yet another shooting in a creche or kindergarten — it is not guns that kill people, it is people who kill people. The solution the NRA advocates is an AR-15 assault rifle in your toddler’s schoolbag, along with his lunchbox. But that is not what we are discussing here.
“I have decided against the ceremonial horse drawn barouche I am entitled to vide the 1862 gazette order, in view of the expense to the exchequer”, quipped Justice KST. The learned judge’s sense of humour and the touch of austerity implied met general approval. A wise choice as Chairman, most felt. For his choice of steed, Justice KST graciously settled for a Jaguar FPace SUV, while the members opted for Land Rover Discoveries. Lutyens bungalows on Akbar and Prithviraj roads were duly found and refurbished in simple style for a few crores apiece to satisfy the spartan tastes of the Chairman and members. After staff and secretaries had duly been detailed and the honorariums decided (on par with the CJI and the Cabinet Secretary) the commission was ready to go.
In his first press conference after the commission had been duly appointed by the pleasure of the president, Justice KS Taaldo stated that the commission was very clear that caste and religion and discrimination based on these had become the bane of our society. These had no place in any civilized country. The commission proposed to take a very firm line in its final report, whenever that event took place. That was all he had to say at this juncture. The press and public would be kept up to date with the work in progress at monthly briefings. Presently the commission had been given a term of six months, but in view of the magnitude of the task at hand, it was conceivable that that could stretch further. The terms of reference made it clear that time was of the essence, but in view of the gravity of the task and its implications for society, it would probably be wise to ‘make haste slowly’. The members of the commission were eminent men in their own fields. Justice Taaldo said that he was aware of the heat generated during the debates on the composition of the commission. He would therefore be calling on certain eminent persons for their opinions and advice before finalising his report. Due regard would be paid to religious sensitivities and sentiment. After all we were a democratic society. The members were now open to questions, he said.
News Now wished to know why expensive SUVs had been chosen as transport for the members when cheaper, less polluting alternatives were available. J KST said that he would let ex DGP DO Lagaao answer that one.
DGP DOL — The work of the commission is just beginning, but the Home Ministry and the IB have worked out the threat perception. This indicates that the members could be targeted by certain extremist organisations opposed to the proposals. In fact death threats have already been received. These were now being investigated. The dreaded ‘foreign hand’ could not be ruled out. In view of this, the NSG has recommended bulletproof SUVs for the members and their families.
Justice KST intervened to point out that both Jaguar and Land Rover were now Indian brands. Everyone knew that both were owned by the Tatas. So the use of these vehicles was a boost to the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ programme. Be Indian Buy Indian.
Continuing, DG DOL said that in view of the threat, the security for the commission had been upgraded to Z plus. They would henceforward be escorted by NSG commandos with 24 hr protection wherever they moved. The PM had already authorised the use of the IAF’s VIP Sqn aircraft for the members and their families. They would not be required to go through security checks, just like Mr Robert Vadra and family.
Why VIP treatment for the families, someone asked.
Shri ML Churana answered that though the family members were not officially part of the commission, they were experienced people and achievers in their own right and their opinions would be valuable in pushing forward the commission’s work. It would therefore be necessary for them to be available wherever the commission was tasked to go. With this clarification, the commission adjourned.
Two weeks later, the proposed bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha to widespread applause from the ruling benches. It bore the cumbrous title of Personal, Religious and Caste Identification Removal Bill, later christened by some wags the PRIC bill, pronounced PRICK.
As Mr Pinkoo Mody M.P. remarked, “I wonder what these jokers are cheering for? In the next election they won’t be able to use the very caste names which have given them their votes. Imbeciles!”
“Imbecile ka matlab kya hai?”, asked another MP.
“Matlab bilkul aap jaise.” replied the irrepressible Modi.
“Sahi kaha aapne, Pinkooji.”
The Union Law Minister VM Oily in his opening presentation outlined the salient features of the bill and added that it would fulfil the long overdue desire of Mr BR Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers, for the abolition of caste, by outlawing the use of caste names as surnames. No more Mishras, Rajputs, Guptas, Singhs, Nairs and so on. All men would now be equal in the eyes of the law. There would be no pre-judgements based on the sound of someone’s name. A man would be judged by what he was and what he had done, not where he came from.
Further, he added, no names which signified religious orientation would be permitted, on similar logic. The bill would include the introduction of a national identity card which would become necessary for personal identification once religious and caste names were abolished. This would be called the Satnaam card.
There were loud protests from a certain section of the benches, both ruling and opposition and shouts of “No, No”, “Never”, “Why Satnaam” and so on.
After quiet had been restored, the Speaker asked the protestors to state their objections one by one. Mr Anwarul Chowdhury of the IML said that while the IML was as secular as anyone else, they would not stand for any denigration of the Prophet or of the Sahaba. That would be ‘haraam’, he said. How could the glorious name of the Prophet be banned, he asked, since that was apparently what the government wished to do. On the pretext of banning caste names what the government actually planned to do was to de-Islamicize Muslims, even subtly Hinduize them. The very name of the proposed citizenship card had a Hindu bias. Caste had no place in Islam, he said. It was a Hindu problem. Muslims should be exempt from the bill. He would strongly oppose any such move, as would a majority of his faith.
The Speaker reminded the members that it was early days yet. The intent of the government was honest. The bill had just been taken up for discussion, and still had to be debated and then voted on. He advocated a patient hearing.
More members of the IML got up to speak. They wished an instant division or else an immediate withdrawal of the bill and threatened a walkout if this was not agreed to.
Surprisingly some saffron clad members of the house found common cause with the IML. We do not agree that anything wrong is being done when we add Gupta, Jain, Bannerjee etc. to our given names, they said. “Arre, Guptaji, matlab Speaker Sahab…” Speaker Matlabi Gupta smiled wanly.
Everyone knows who we are, the member continued. This is what we are. What exactly did the government propose to replace names with, he asked.
The Law Minister replied that that was precisely why the commission had been appointed. He appealed to all to study the bill and its intended benefits before any judgements were made. However he was shouted down.
As slogan shouting members made their way into the well of the house, the Speaker suddenly remembered that he had skipped breakfast and adjourned the house for the day.
The newspapers the next day saw headlines like “IML rejects bill, cites Prophet”, “Ram Naam Sat Hai could become “108 Sat Hai”, “Where will Digitisation stop?”
The activity on social media increased to such an extent that it trumped comments on Trump’s hair colour, how much he had paid Stormy Daniels and other ladies for their professional services and Priya Warrier’s winkabilities.
A couple of days into its activity the chairman’s FPace SUV was stopped on Krishna Menon Marg and had its red beacon smashed by some Dalit activists. For good measure they smeared cowdung on the board proclaiming the road’s name.
Asked why, the activists said that they were against any privilege for anyone.
Why a red light for the chairman? Can I have one on my motorbike? If I can’t, neither can he.
What about defacing the road sign?
Krishna because it proclaims he is a Hindu and that is unacceptable as per the PRICK bill. And Menon because that denotes caste and that is unacceptable too.
Does that mean that we have to rename all our roads?
Yes, if that is what it takes.
Imagine the expense and the implications. All our cities names will change.
What do you mean?
Can we have a city called Allahabad, since it is named after a deity worshipped by adherents of a particular religion? We’ll have to reprint all our maps, sign boards etc etc. Where did you study?
St Joseph’s School, Thiruvanantapuram.
Oh, then both will have to go, the Joseph and the Tiruwhatever, since both indicate religion and that’s a no-no
Great, so we have to reprint all our maps, military and otherwise with the new names. What about the country’s security?
We don’t care.
So what group are you?
We are the Dalit Reservation Tiger Sena.
Oh, Dalits. But you can no longer proclaim that once the bill comes into force.
What do you mean?
The use of the word Dalit indicates caste and privilege.
Privilege? What privilege?
Reservation for one.
Oh, I see now. This whole charade of a name change bill is to end reservation. We should have seen through that earlier. You Savarnas are smart, I grant that. But we are not the Dalits you knew earlier. We will demand a change which allows us to continue to use Dalit, but you Guptas and Aggarwals will become digits. How do you like that, Ms 123?
The news of the attack on the chairman’s car and the impromptu interview with the Dalit Sena went viral thanks to a video posted on YouTube the same afternoon.
The commission set about its work in earnest following the Chairman’s press conference.
Following its first sitting, the commission decided that it was necessary to visit Germany, France, the UK, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic in Europe. Asked why, the chairman replied that all these countries had significant ethnic minorities (read Muslim) and they wished to study the various measures taken by authorities to ensure better integration. When the TV channel Why Now asked the chairman why a commission which was instituted to study the abolition of casteist and religious names needed to study integration in Europe, the chairman replied that as a former judge of the SC, it was his philosophy to look at the causes underlying any case before judgement was passed. In the instant case, it was very clear that the commission was actually intended to promote greater societal integration between various groups. Surely there was no better way to study this than by seeing what measures other countries had tried and instituted. This trip to Europe did not mean that only European measures would be studied. The commission had plans to visit the US and Canada, the West Indies, especially Guyana and Trinidad and the Virgin Islands where significant Indian minorities resided. Later on the commission would also visit Thailand and Singapore, Australia and Hawaai. On being asked about Africans being upset at being left out, the Chairman pacified the correspondent of South Africa Today by replying that the commission had heard much about the beauty of the Cape Province. A visit to Cape Town would certainly be on the itinerary. It would be necessary to research the writings of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s great leader who had a large number of admirers in India. Further a large number of South Africans boasted Indian ancestry (though some listeners doubted whether they would admit it in public) and their views would add weight to the commission’s recommendations.
Mr ML Churana, member, hastened to add that the list was not exhaustive and that other countries would certainly be visited. A wag was heard to ask, “What about Chennai? When will you be visiting?” before he was quickly tackled by a burly sub-inspector and bundled into a waiting police van.
News reports in the following months sometime listed the commission’s itinerary. There were some questions raised in parliament about the expenses of the trips the commission had undertaken and about whether the terms of reference of the commission allowed it to proceed on foreign jaunts. However, this soon ceased after an all-party parliamentary committee was formed to look into the matter. The parliamentary committee decided to follow the same route the commission had taken in order to better inquire. The three member committee originally constituted soon found it necessary to expand its membership to forty and had to reject applications from various Honourable Members eager to study integration patterns in various countries. In order not to disappoint these academically inclined parliamentarians, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha ordered the constitution of various sub-committees to assist the first committee in its endeavours. This mollified the members somewhat. The Speaker also ruled that memberships would be distributed party-wise in accordance with the parliamentary strength of the parties concerned. This was widely applauded.
After the first six months had lapsed, a government notification increased the term of the commission by six months.
The commission was housed in discreet premises off Akbar Road close to India Gate in Lutyens Delhi. However Justice KS Taaldo soon felt the need for a larger building to house the staff and the extensive documentation that it had accumulated in such a short period. Another adjacent building was then allotted as annexe and several of the staff moved to that location.
Several years had passed when Mr Pinkoo Modi MP, remembered that not a single report had been furnished so far. Bringing up the question in the Lok Sabha, Mr Modi demanded to know what work the commission had done to date.
In reply the Home Minister stated that the whereabouts of the commission was uncertain, in view of their hectic travel schedule. However he promised to furnish an answer before much time lapsed.
A month later the Home Minister announced to an astonished house that Justice KS Taaldo was now a Canadian citizen. During the course of his travels, Justice KST had been particularly impressed by the civic amenities in Canada and the atmosphere of peace and tranquillity prevailing despite the occasional severe weather. He had therefore requested permission to base the commission in Canada about a decade earlier. The premises in New Delhi had been let out to a Canadian MNC and the rent was being duly credited to Justice KST’s bank account in Toronto. The location of the other two members had not been ascertained yet.
The news understandably caused a mild uproar in Parliament and outside for about a couple of days before it was overtaken by events elsewhere. Communal riots in UP and Pakistani shelling in Akhnoor and a surgical strike across the border by Indian Army commandos soon took up the available bandwidth.
Several years later, the Embassy of India in Sweden announced the death of Mr ML Churana. He had settled in Stockholm several years ago during his travels and liking the Scandinavian way of life had moved in with a blonde secretary the commission had hired for its Stockholm office. Permission for hiring local staff had been obtained from the the Finance Ministry. The rent for the apartment he was staying in was still being settled by the Indian embassy. On inquiry it was learnt that Mr DO Lagaao had settled nearby in Copenhagen.
A few days later a brief notification in the Government of India gazette announced that the term of the commission to look into the implementation of the Personal, Religious and Caste Identification Removal Bill would not be extended. The bill was given a quiet burial.
A few days after Justice KS Taaldo’s death was announced, the government announced a decision to repatriate his remains to India. The coffin was received by the Home Minister and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Justice KST now rests in Rajghat next to Mahatma Gandhi, whose values he had always espoused. On a demand by his family and those belonging to his caste, the Telis, the original bungalow housing the commission he headed has been converted into a memorial. This is run by a trust named after the learned judge and is headed by his grand-nephew, the only member of the family remaining in India. This studies the use of caste and religious names by Indians, the very work for which Justice KST sacrificed his life.
P.S. Parliamentary committes and sub-committees still continue their trips abroad to study the use of religious names abroad. Indians continue to use caste and religion specific names.