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Not Kali, Kela, Sola — Dalits in Rajasthan village are at war against insulting names

Can a name change one’s fate? Rajasthani Dalits think it can — they have set up Garima Bhawans or House of Dignity to reclaim dignity and respect.

Members of the Dalit community in Rajasthan's Chittorgarh district sitting inside a Garima Bhawan | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint
Members of the Dalit community in Rajasthan's Chittorgarh district sitting inside a Garima Bhawan | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

When Lalu Ram, 23, and his wife Kailashi, 20, welcomed their second child a year ago, he went to a pandit to get his newborn daughter named. A driver from the Bhil tribe in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh district, he returned home with names such as Kali and Beri — both of which sounded absurd to the parents. One is meant to insult dark complexion; the other is devoid of any meaning—but reduces one’s name to a mockery.

Everyone in the neighbourhood started calling the dark-skinned baby girl ‘Kali’ in the Karjali village — until a group of four Dalit activists intervened and rebelled against the system that reserved ‘insulting’ names for Dalits and tribals. The activists built the Garima Bhawan or ‘House of Dignity’, with its walls covered with B.R. Ambedkar’s photos and a long list of recommended alternate names and their meanings.

Inside Chittorgarh’s Garima Bhawan | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

And it was here where Kali bai became Riya Kumari. She is not the only one, though. Dadam bai‘s son was renamed Himmat, Uga bai‘s daughter became Varsha Kumari, Udi bai now calls her daughter Anita Kumari.

“Gone are the days when we were Nosy bai or Rodi devi or Tolu Ram. We will be Gaurav, Harshit, Chirag, Nihal,” says 50-year-old Laxmi Lal, a mechanic from the Meghwal community in Ummedpura village. Lal joined hands with the Samta Sangathan, which set up the Garima Bhawan in Karjali and 11 other villages in the Chittorgarh district. All of them have a singular goal – give ‘dignified’ names to Dalits and tribals in the area.

Also read: Horses to helicopters, moustache to libraries — Dalit pride in Rajasthan has new wings

Where name is the calling card

Samta Sanghtan launched the initiative in 2021. Since then, as many as 40 children, 26 of whom are girls, have been given ‘dignified’ names. Of the total, 30 were from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community and 10 from Scheduled Tribes (ST).

In Rajasthan, where a man’s worth is judged by his moustache and young men mount bikes and steeds in wedding processions, the name is the calling card.

Members of the ‘upper caste’ are resisting Samta Sanghatan’s efforts, and Brahmin priests are on the defensive.

“We give names based on nakshatra. I don’t think naamkaran is based on caste discrimination,” says Ram Lal Garg, a pandit for the SC and ST communities who lives in Karjali village. He has been naming babies for more than 20 years now — and if his method is anything to go by, it suggests the opposite of Lal Garg’s view. “If someone is named Uday, he would be Uday Singh if he is a Rajput. And Uday Lal if he is from a lower caste. This is more about how society functions,” he adds.

Girls, especially those from SC/ST communities, bear the brunt of this discriminatory practice.

“A girl with a dark complexion is always named Kali, and the unwanted girl child would be called [by] many discriminatory names such as Dhapu and Dhapli (meaning ‘enough’),” says Harlal Bairwa, co-founder of the Garima Bhawan movement.

But this kind of discriminatory naming isn’t limited to Rajasthan alone. In neighbouring Haryana, an unwanted girl child is often named Bhateri or Bhota (meaning ‘enough’), Sarto (‘more than enough’). In Maharashtra, girls were named Phasibai (‘deceiver’) and Nakoshi (‘unwanted’). But over the last decade, the Maharashtra government has launched large-scale campaigns across 1,000 gram panchayats in the state.

“Discrimination starts right from birth. So we decided to change the system of naamkaran, one name at a time,” says Bairwa.

“Riya, Riya!” Lalu Ram calls out to his daughter, and the toddler responds gleefully.

Lalu Ram with his daughter Riya | Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

“I like this name very much. It is so lovely, so different from my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother’s [names],” says Lalu Ram.

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What’s in a name? 

The discriminatory naming system is prevalent in the Mewar region of Rajasthan as well. A Dalit or a tribal community member has to address individuals belonging to the agricultural OBC caste as Kakaji”. A Rajput is called ‘Daata’. Even Rajput babies have to be addressed with diffidence if not respect — “Kunwar sa“. In villages, Dalits and tribals are not allowed to take the first names of people from the upper castes. And they are constantly reminded of their status.

An elderly SC member named Bhanwar, for instance, would be ridiculed as Bhanwriya. It has no specific meaning but is used anyway to mock the person.

“This is a well-thought-out system to instil a sense of inferiority among us,” says Harlal. “We are easily identified with such weird names. Whichever part of Rajasthan and the country we go to, we can’t get rid of caste identity as it is deeply rooted in our names.”

He works closely with 41-year-old Jawaharlal Meghwal whose name was reduced to ‘Jawariya’. But what stoked his fury was not the absurdity of his name but a neighbouring village that was being called ‘Mehtaro ka kheda’— a derogatory name for the Meghwal community.

“Whenever I saw the neighbouring village [being called] ‘Mehtaro ka kheda‘ on a wedding invitation card, my blood would boil,” says Jawaharlal. He rallied the local panchayats and villagers, and finally, on 14 April 2022, the village was renamed Bheem Nagar.

Harlal, too, felt the burden of his name while growing up in Raipuriya village in Chittorgarh. His father died when he was four, and his mother expired when he was still in school. After he joined Prayas, an NGO that teaches underprivileged children, Harlal started working in the education sector. He then completed his undergraduate course.

One episode changed his perception of the naamkaran system. “In 2004, my sister was contesting for the panchayat samiti election and we needed some documents for caste certification. I went to check the revenue records. To my shock, I saw that my father’s name had been degraded even more. His name was changed from Sola Ram to Sawliya, my uncle Kela Ram was Kaliya, and another uncle Dola Ram was Doliya,” says Harlal.

His parents had named him Lala. “But in school, a teacher changed my name to Harlal. It is still a decent name. But some in my village never stopped calling me Laliya,” he adds.

Harlal and Jawaharlal point out that the Garima Bhawan initiative carries great significance, given that Rajasthan is among the top offenders in the country when it comes to atrocities against Dalits.

The 2021 National Crime Records Bureau data shows that for every 1 lakh Dalits, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh reported over 60 crimes. It is twice the national average of 25, and the number has been on the rise for the last five years.

The killing of 28-year-old Jitendra Meghwal, a member of the SC community in Pali district, for allegedly growing a moustache, and the murder of nine-year-old Indra Meghwal in Jalore for allegedly drinking water from a pot used by upper castes in 2022, gave an impetus to the movement.

“We can’t get the visuals out of our heads. These two incidents have much more to say about our small acts of rebellion,” says Jawaharlal. “They have added to the energy to mobilise SCs and tribals against caste oppression and superstition.”

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Making the name a weapon of choice

Although the Garima Bhawan movement took root only two years ago, the need for change had been budding in the minds of Harlal and other activists for more than a decade. In 2001, Prayas launched an educational campaign in Chittorgarh’s Kapasan tehsil.

“Young educated men from disadvantaged groups were called in to teach the children. That’s how Jawaharlal, Prem, Prabhulal, Mahesh Kumar Kanjar, and I came together,” Harlal says. He was in his early 20s at the time. These activists earn their livelihoods by being farmers, mechanics, and teachers.

But names became their weapon of choice.

In 2017, after founding Samta Sanghatan, they opened centres in villages such as Karjali, Mewda Colony, Surajpura, Bheem Nagar, Amarpura, Ummedpura in Chittorgarh. Community members gather at these centres every month, and people are made aware of their constitutional rights.

Members look to three Rajasthan districts for hope — Bharatpur, Karauli, and Dholpur. “In these districts, Dalits use Singh as their surname. In the rest of Rajasthan, it is not allowed,” claims Gopal Verma, 61, a Bharatpur-based activist who runs a social justice and development committee.

When personal became political 

Can a name change one’s fate? Lakshmi Lal from Ummedpura village is convinced it does. In keeping with tradition, he named his daughter Kanku. “We kept calling her Kanku till she was in Class VIII,” he says. One day, he decided to act on behalf of his daughter. He marched to the school and asked the teachers to change his daughter’s name to Kalpana.

“I had been reading a newspaper and thought that my daughter can be Kalpna — so why name her Kanku? The name was already reduced to a mockery. It had no dignity and meaning,” Lal recalls.

Kalpana wants to become a lawyer. “She is now a second-year LLB student at a law college in Udaipur,” says Lal, his eyes tearing up with pride.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)