Gandhinagar November 22: Dalits are changing their surnames, so says a study by a senior official of the state Social Welfare Department, highlighting the contemporary social reality in the State. The study by Hasmukh Parmar, a deputy director with the department, shows a maximum of 46.67 per cent respondents in the 30-40 years age bracket reporting a change of surname. Among reasons for the change, a high 30 percentage directly blamed the social denigration they faced based on caste.
While working on his PhD thesis, Parmar had carried out the survey interviewing about 800 respondents in the north and central Gujarat districts of Surendranagar, Patan, Mehsana, Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad, Sabarkantha, Vadodara and Kheda. A majority of respondents were service class individuals followed by professionals like doctors, advocates, teachers, and engineers among others.
“The phenomenon itself is not new. Given our hierarchical system of castes, a surname becomes an easy tool to place an individual thus institutionalizing discrimination. The study that I carried out as part of a thesis only helps delineate certain issues that can be directly addressed,” says Parmar, who also published a book reporting his findings.
There are other interesting points. The phenomenon is limited to urban centers, as in a small rural setting individual identities are difficult to hide; and most of the respondents changed their surname in order to dissociate from the negative implications of one’s caste-based surname.
In a sign of caste practices, 76 per cent respondents said they have been asked about their caste directly during first interaction with strangers in buses, trains or other social gatherings. “In Saurashtra region even now a conversation sometimes begins with the question Kai Nathe Cho (What’s your caste)?” says Parmar.
Respondents have even listed out reasons why they changed surnames. One is social acceptability and better interaction by not disclosing one’s caste identity. Some cited easier availability of private sector jobs, home loans, rented accommodation, and even striking office friendships as benefits derived after changing surnames.
Of the total respondents who changed names, 23.33 per cent had their new surnames based on their villages of origin, followed by 13 per cent based on profession. The rest chose new names from literature, other higher castes, or borrowed from friends. Though Parmar himself concludes that the practice of untouchability has more or less gone out of the social landscape, caste based relations still rule the societal mindscape, and lead to ostracisation, and even violence in some cases.
His suggestions: In government jobs use of surnames should be avoided; Dalits should voluntarily give up the use of surnames and have surnames based on the village of origin.