The government of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), has decided to change the name of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar in official usage. The lead architect of India’s Constitution will now be referred to by his full name, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, in all UP government documents and records. The move reeks of caste prejudice and hatred.
Would the same government dare to change the names of Gandhi or Nehru – men of higher caste – with such impunity? Would it insist on mentioning their middle names (“Karamchand” and “Molital,” respectively)? The answer is a resounding no.
Hindu scripture dictates that lower-caste Shudras carry names that indicate their servitude to other classes. Further down the social hierarchy, the untouchables were allocated names that made them even more contemptible. The caste system is a system of naming and labeling. The decision of the UP Government to “change” the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar is therefore not only patronizing, but an insult to the great man who fathered India’s democracy and who gave human rights to India’s oppressed majority and to women.
The good doctor was perhaps named Bhimrao after his mother, Bhimabai, but in primary school he took the name Bhiva. His father’s name was Ramnak (hence Bhimrao’s middle name, Ramji), and his grandfather’s name was Malnak, the -nak suffix indicating that they belonged to the Mahar caste. His family name was Sakpal, but the convention was to adapt one’s village as a surname in official records. Bhiva came from the village of Ambavade, so his surname became “Ambavadekar,” “kar” being an indicator of place in the Marathi language. As the name was long, it was reduced to Ambedkar by his teacher after his own surname.
Popularly, though, Ambedkar came to be known as Babasaheb. For millions, he was a great liberator. “Babasaheb,” a Marathi phrase, roughly translates as “Father-Lord,” and it is a name that is used for this giant of Indian history by people around the country. While Nehru was known by his caste honorific “Pandit” and Gandhi by the religious honorific “Mahatma,” Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was simply Babasaheb. In the course of time, both Gandhi and Nehru have lost popular appeal, but Babasaheb Ambedkar continues to rule hearts and minds. That is why the politics of naming is important.
What makes governments think they can re-name someone loved and cherished by the people, like it’s a re-branding exercise? Great historical figures inspire emotional attachments that are sacrosanct.
The UP government, under the Hindu nationalist Adityanath, is known for its hatred of minorities and Dalits. In the state’s recent by-elections, candidates from the socialist Samajwadi Party, supported by the Bahujan Samaj Party, defeated the BJP in Lok Sabha seats vacated by Adityanath and his Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya after their ascent to power in the state legislature.
The state of UP is key to any national government and the recent results show a reversal of the BJP’s fortunes. In this politically volatile situation, ahead of national elections in 2019, changing Babasaheb’s name by official decree in such a blatant exercise of caste bias suggests that the BJP either takes Ambedkar’s followers for granted or is foolishly stirring the political hornet’s nest.
Either way, the UP government is blundering as its actions will be seen as interference in the autonomy and pride of a community that constitutes 20% of India’s population. The insistence that “Ramji” should be included in his name looks innocent on the surface, but it reeks of “Hindutva” politics.