Meena K, 43, has had her name written in at least three different ways. Her maiden name was written as either Meena K or Meena Kalathil. After marriage, her name got recorded in some documents as Meena Sudev, the surname being her husband's first name. “My name was not changed formally, but it was recorded that way in some documents. Later I made sure that it was uniformly mentioned as Meena K everywhere, so that there would be no confusion.

Thus a single person's name can be written in many different ways in India. Naming conventions themselves vary highly across regions and communities. Many Parsis have occupation-based surnames such as Merchant. Many South Indian surnames could be long, indicating name of region, family or ancestors. In some communities, one's surname may come first and given name later.

Caste-based names

Caste continues to strongly influence naming practices. Caste-based surnames are commonly used in North India and many parts of South India. However many in South India use only initials based on name of their father, family or village, in place of surname. A common practice in India is to deduce a person's caste upon knowing his surname and native region, often leading to caste-based discrimination. For instance, many studies have shown that job applicants with low caste names get far less interview calls than those with high caste names.

But did we always have caste-based surnames? According to academic Ruth Vanita, Professor at the University of Montana and former Reader at Delhi University, use of surnames became very widespread only once the British started registering land records. Surname based on caste or village was used as suffix to distinguish between people. More traditional and caste-neutral surnames like Kumar and Devi became less popular from this time.

However, caste can become apparent even when caste name is not directly used. In his 2012 paper Personal names and politics: A case study of Tamil, Dr L Ramamoorthy, faculty at the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), points out that caste hierarchy is evident even when children are named after gods. Thus, for example, in Tamil Nadu villages, people belonging to the higher castes often choose the names of the well-known widely revered deities, while the suppressed castes opt for less-known deities' names like Karuppan and Muniyan.

Even where different castes use the name of the same village deity, some difference is maintained. For example, a lower caste person may use the name 'Muniyan', while an upper caste person may suffix the honorific '-samy', making the name 'Muniyasamy'. However, Ramamoorthy also mentions that these trends are changing, and that Sanskrit names are now being used by all castes in the state.

The names of lower and upper caste people differed in terms of meaning too, earlier. According to Prof B N Patnaik, retired Professor of English and Linguistics at IIT Kanpur, oppressed castes in Orissa earlier used to give short names without any particular meaning, to their children. An example is the name 'Puria' which is different from the Sanskrit name 'Purushothama'. Patnaik says that lower castes may have used these names because of tradition and their awareness of their own social situation. Another common practice was of upper castes referring to lower caste people by ugly or derogatory names, despite the latter having a separate given name. Patnaik says that this practice no longer exists in Odisha now.

Many academics like Patnaik trace caste differentiation in names, to the ancient Hindu legal text  Manusmriti. This text prescribes that names should signify the person's varna - name of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras should respectively signify auspiciousness, power, wealth and humility. The main criteria for women's names was that these should be pleasant and meaningful. However, this criteria was not for lower caste women. This is illustrated in a study done by Prof Patnaik. The study, done on 1000 Oriya names in works of literature between 1870s and 1970s, revealed that lower caste women were referred to by ugly names like Pakoi (toothless person) and Nimi (one as bitter as Neem leaves).

Patnaik says that naming practices have changed considerably in Odisha, with many poor people moving to cities and prospering economically, and the consequent intrusion of urban culture into villages. Education, political awareness, government initiatives and inter-caste marriages here have also changed the power equation in psychological and material terms, according to him.

The educated among oppressed groups, who have gained educational and social status, give their children the same names as upper caste people. Because of a filtering effect, others who have not acquired such status also use similar names. The difference is that the former group usually prefers abstract names like Usha and Prajna, while the latter choose more traditional names like Sita and Radha,” he adds.

However, overtly caste-based naming continues in many parts of the country, an example being the Musahars, an extremely marginalised SC community in Bihar. Traditionally landless, this community is largely illiterate, its members often forced into bonded labour and living in segregated settlements. Krishna Kumar Paswan, guest faculty at Tamil Nadu Central University, in his paper Musahar speech community: A sociolinguistic study, says that upper castes continue to address Musahars with ugly names.

If a person meets with an accident, he is given a bad name like 'Mukhatiya' based on the incident. If Musahars speak out against this, they may even get killed,” says Paswan. He says that in UP and Bihar, children are often forced to retain caste-based surnames. “Even if a child has a neutral surname like Kumar, teachers in village schools would know their caste name and mention it in their records. Those who resist this practice are harassed.

However, names that Musahars give to their own children have improved over the years. Paswan says that earlier, many used to name their children after the name of month that they were born in,  their physical features etc. The names were usually two-letter words that could be easily pronounced. In the last two decades or so, with exposure to Bollywood films through DVDs, many now name their children after film stars, but in less sophisticated ways. For example, the name 'Hemiya' may be used instead of 'Hema'.

Turning the tide

There have been challenges and alternatives to caste-based naming system across time. Sikhism, which emerged in the 15th century, emphasised equality and prescribed that its followers should remove caste-based surnames. First names were to be unisex and of religious significance, while the last name was to be Singh for males and Kaur for females.

But over time, caste crept into Sikh names too, and now many in the community use Singh/Kaur as their middle name, and add a surname – such as Ahluwalia or Arora – based on caste or family.

Caste-based surnames were also shunned by many followers of medieval Hindu bhakti traditions; they would take the name of a god and add Das as surname, according to Ruth. In recent times, the Tamil movement of the early 20th century are among those that challenged casteism in names. The movement promoted more egalitarian, pure Tamil names instead of Sanskritic names.

While many lower caste Hindus had converted to Christianity or Islam in hopes of evading caste differentiation, they have largely been unable to achieve this even with respect to names. Ruth says that many lower caste converts to Christianity took on surnames with Das (such as Yeshudas), Sewak, or adopted western names. However, some upper caste converts to Christianity retained their original names. Among Muslims too, caste difference is apparent from surnames such as Khan, Syed etc.

Dalits in parts of South India have recently started asserting themselves by using their own caste surnames which were not used earlier and which are often considered expletives in mainstream society. Examples are surnames such as Parayar in Tamil Nadu and Madiga in Andhra Pradesh.

Political scientist and activist Professor Kancha Ilaiah says that this emerged as part of 'Dalitisation': “Post-independence, post-Ambedkar, and especially since the Mandal Commission report of the 90s, there has been an awakening among Dalits.” But he is also quick to point out that Dalits who are progressive in this respect are those already oriented towards Dalit movements rather than the common people at large. Besides, this trend has been largely limited to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The gender dimension

It is not just caste that colours one’s name. Across the world, women's names are often based on stereotypical feminine attributes such as beauty and grace. Ramamoorthy, in his case study, observes that many Tamil women are named based on their physical features (Thenmoli, Malarvili etc), a practice rarely seen in the naming of the male child, indicating that women are still considered by men as an object of enjoyment.

Another practice exclusive to women is the change of name post marriage. In most parts of India, married women replace their maiden surnames with the first or last name of their husbands. Interestingly, this practice was also introduced and institutionalised by the British. In Britain, the practice had developed in the early modern period along with land registration in individual names, when married women did not have independent property rights.

In her essay 'Was Sita Mrs Ram?', Ruth says that in India, the change in naming pattern also accompanied the transition from rural household-based production to urban nuclear families in which men went to work and women stayed home. She says that in India's ancient texts, people were usually referred to by their first names alone, and fathers' or husbands' names were not always tagged with women's names.

Today, acceptance of the changed surname is not just common but expected. Publication in an official gazette is not necessary for women to change their names, showing the marriage certificate is enough. In fact, women who do want to retain their original names after marriage often face several difficulties since the common assumption is that they would take their husbands' names post marriage.

From documents like passports to employer records, officials often insist that women use their husband's surnames. In cases, they have even changed a woman's name in this manner without asking.

An oft-witnessed tendency is to enter the husband's name in official documents if the wife's surname is not explicitly mentioned. In such scenarios, different surnames in different documents could become problematic, as for example, when names on the PAN card and bank account do not match.

Ruth points out that many illiterate rural-to-urban migrants are introduced to the practice only when state and other institutions arbitrarily give the husband's surname to his wife. Often it may be the husband who goes to these institutions to get some work done, and hence the choice of name may not even be the woman's.

Women's rights lawyer Flavia Agnes says that there are no rules whatsoever that require women to use their husband's surnames. “My surname is my mother's first name. I adopted this name in 1988, and my passport and all official documents reflect the same. One can choose to use the name of one's liking, but most women just give up and do not fight for their rights,” she says.

In many Maharashtrian communities, tradition requires women to change their entire names after marriage. In Maharashtra courts, until recently, a woman who filed a divorce petition was forced to use her husband’s first name as her own middle name, and his last name as hers. This was irrespective of whether the petitioner had changed her name post-marriage. Based on a petition by Flavia's organisation Majlis, the Bombay High Court amended a rule under the Family Courts Act in 2011, to allow women to use their maiden name if they had not changed it post-marriage.

However, Flavia says, “This is a continuous struggle and every woman has to fight her battles to make it a norm, and that takes time. Hopefully when faced with obstacles, women are taking up the issue in an appropriate forum such as the higher judiciary or media.

In 2014, the Women and Child Welfare Department of Maharashtra passed a resolution that in all official documents, women could use either her father's or husband's name, and that children could use either or both parents' names. If not given this choice, women can complain to their respective District Collectors. How effective this will be, remains to be seen.

Digitising names: The e-governance challenge

In the final analysis, the wide variety of ways in which Indian names are shaped and written is mindboggling! Given this, developing open data standards for names is especially complex in India.

Currently the standard for names are part of the MDDS (Metadata and Data Standards) notified by Government of India's Department of Electronics and IT (DeitY) in 2011. These standards allow for data to be used commonly across different e-governance applications. The standards were developed over five years and is under review currently. According to Kavita Bhatia, Additional Director at DeitY, major applications like Aadhaar and passport database is currently using this standard.

Under MDDS, the short and full name of an individual is recorded in both English and the official language. Kavita says that since Indian names are so complex, the current standards do not ask for separation of first name, surname etc. The standards mention that the full name should be captured in natural order, with surname, middle name etc in any order as per cultural practices. A name thus entered can have a maximum of 99 characters.

The short name can be entered in the order in which the person wants her name to be displayed in documents and forms, restricted to 30 characters. Currently, the policy is that all new e-governance applications, along with revised versions of old applications, should use these standards. MDDS standards are being improvised currently.

Even while digitisation process is getting more sophisticated, regressive practices like identifying a person by his caste surname or identifying a woman by her husband's name, continue. Subtle indicators in names also reveals a person's given position in the social hierarchy. Deeper social change is needed for these naming conventions to change too.