Pardon me for the corny title, but I was not in the mood to write today. I am just waiting for something on my laptop to finish and I cannot start the next thing that I have to do before that thing finishes. The corny title is the product of half-heartedness and laziness. Let’s hope the rest of this article (I am trying to build self-esteem by not calling it a ‘piece’) will not be of the same nature.
Yesterday someone sent me a link to a Wikipedia talk page where a ‘silly’ discussion was going on as to whether Bhagat Singh (about whom the concerned article was) should be referred to throughout as Bhagat Singh or should he only initially be called Bhagat Singh and from then on as only Singh.
Bhagat Singh, of course, is one of the best known names in India, indeed the in entire Indian sub-continent, that is, in South Asia (barring, perhaps, Afghanistan). If there is one person who rivals Gandhi in popularity and in stature in the history of Indian independence movement, even in the whole of 5000 years of Indian history perhaps, that person is Bhagat Singh. He was socialist revolutionary, and a freedom fighter. More the former than the latter, which is something that many (especially on the Right) are not willing to accept.
A lot could be written about Bhagat Singh and a lot has been written. But this articles is not about Bhagat Singh, but about just Singh. About any Humble Common Singh. Or Proud Uncommon Singh.
Singh, in Sanskrit and in Sanskritized Hindi (and in many other Sanskritized Indian languages) means lion. The rulers and the feudal classes of northern India, who considered themselves great warriors (though for nearly a thousand years they were ruled either by those who were foreign invaders, or were descendants of those invaders, or else they accepted the suzerainty of those invaders) started calling themselves Singhs, that is, lions. In today’s India, of course, few have such delusion of grandeur (they have different delusions now), but there are still some who think along those lines. In today’s India, Singh hardly means anything. It is just a name.
But it still has a significance. Although it is not a caste name, that is, the name of a specific caste, it still denotes membership of a broader caste. The caste system in India does not consist of just four castes, the four ‘Varnas’. (If any Yoga-peddling Indian ever tries to convince you that it does, check your wallet.) It is a phenomenally complicated system with a criss-crossing hierarchy that even those Indians who still practice it are barely familiar with. Most practicing casteists have seen only a tiny part of the blood splattered giant caste mural that spreads across the ‘four corners’ of the South Asian sub-continent.
And it is significant not just for South Asia, by the way. What do you think Norodom Sihanouk owes his name to? What is the origin of the name Singapur? None other than Singh.
The significance, moreover, is not just about the caste name alone. There is a whole system of traditions and customs and taboos and rules and regulations that is associated not only with each caste, but with their relationships with one another.
Just to give one example, I was once attending a class on socio-linguistics. The teacher was an expert on socio-linguistics. She said during one lecture that under the Indian caste system you are supposed to marry a person of your own caste. Now that is roughly true, but there are complications. In the caste that she belonged to, it is certainly true, with the prohibition that you cannot marry any relative and any one who has the same ‘gotra’ as you. ‘Gotra’ is another complicated concept with various interpretations, but let’s not go there. In my caste, however, I pointed out to her, a very important prohibition is that you are not allowed to marry within your sub-caste. That is, if you are a Rajput, and your sub-caste is S, then you have to marry someone from a Rajput family (subject to the above proscriptions), but you simply cannot marry someone who is from the same sub-caste. You can marry a C Rajput or a B Rajput or a T Rajput, but not an S Rajput, because that would be considered incest. This is further complicated by the fact that there is no common agreement about which is the caste and which is a sub-caste, because it is not a a two level hierarchy. Now, she was not aware of this and she found it hard to believe. But we then had another argument after some time. I mentioned that in Indian villages, even the language is different for different castes. At least it is different for upper and lower castes. Those from the ‘lower’ castes are not allowed to speak the language of the ‘upper’ castes, but the vice-versa is allowed. There may be places where this does not happen, but there are many where it does. She was not aware of this either and at this point she thought I was just being obnoxious and was peacocking. She did not exactly say that (I have borrowed that P-term from the Wikipedia talk page) but those were the feelings she expressed effectively.
Not that I am an expert in the caste system. I was brought up in a nuclear family where the caste system was not present so much. I was fortunate to be able to free myself from the caste prejudices at quite an early age. The point is that even those you would consider knowledgeable about the caste system in India know very little about its complexities. And she was not aware probably because she came from a somewhat elite background, where there is comparatively less direct encounter with the caste system.
Coming back to the theme of the article, my name has three parts. The last part, the third part, is Singh. The last name of the person who sent me the link is also Singh. The last name of the current Indian Prime Minister is Singh. The last name of the prime accused in the recent Delhi gang rape case (who hanged himself or was murdered in jail) was Singh. The name of the rape victim who died also had Singh in it. I am sure that many among the protesters against the rape, as among the prisoners in the prison, had names ending in Singh. All my family members and relatives have Singh in their names.
The gist of this Singh song is that there must be a few hundred million people in India, definitely more than one hundred million, who have Singh in their names.
How is that so? This is how. The last (tenth) Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh decreed, in the days when the star of the Mughal Empire in Delhi was waning and the star of the long oppressed Sikhs was starting to rise, that all male Sikhs must henceforth call themselves Singhs. That they should have Singh as their last name. And so all Sikhs added Singh to their names. But Singh is not usually their last name. The last names is usually the caste name. Singh is generally the second last name. Sikhism, in theory, has no place for the caste system, but that’s how things turned out. That is the power of the caste system in India.
Then there are the Rajputs (literally, sons of the royalty). They are not called Rajputs everywhere. For example, in Rajasthan (former Rajputana) they proudly call themselves Rajputs, but in Uttar Pradesh (where they are found in the largest number) they call themselves Thakurs. ‘Rajput’ in Uttar Pradesh is the name of a lower caste, so no Thakur would call himself Rajput. That is the fun of the caste system.
All Rajputs/Thakurs have Singh as their last, or more commonly, second last name. Some upwardly mobile, convent educated Rajputs/Thakurs have now started to drop Singh from their names, but they still keep the last name, i.e., the caste name, which still identifies them as Rajputs/Thakurs, with a little risk involved. For example, if you are name Mr. X Singh Y, and you start calling yourself Mr. X Y, then even though Y is the highest sub-caste among the Thakurs, there are lower caste people who call themselves Mr. X Y. But the risk is not much if you have already moved up the ladder, because the context will vindicate your pedigree. Fun continued.
All male Sikhs are Singhs. And all Rajputs/Thakurs of both sexes are Singhs. (There are a handful of exceptions, of course.) The latter are much larger in number. But these two are not the only Singhs.
During all of Indian history, one major mechanism for social upward mobility has been to climb up the caste ladder, because that was pretty much the only way it could be done, unlike now, though caste is still very important even now, albeit in a less overt way. Thus, it was common for families, and sometimes whole communities or villages or localities to have deals with those in power to give them recognition as members of a slightly higher caste. In fact, that is how most Rajputs became Rajputs. There is a theory that says that there were people who originally came from various places, say, from Turkey or Persia, who got themselves accepted as Rajputs because they were at that time in a position to bargain for such a deal of social mobility and acceptance. This may not be a complete explanation, but I think there is quite a bit of truth in it.
So much for the supposedly racial basis of the caste system. But the racial basis is there in a very different sense, if you know what I mean.
Leaving aside the racial basis, what I am driving at is the trend, still very much present, a sad (as well as amusing) trend, of people of ‘lower castes’ adding Singh (or some other marker of an ‘upper’ caste) to their names, much to the annoyance of the Rajputs/Thakurs. That is why it is a common practice to get the caste verified (unofficially, because official India, in theory, bans caste-based discrimination), before a marriage, by members of the extended family, of the prospective bride or the groom.
Just to set the record straight, the Rajputs/Thakurs were calling themselves Singhs long before the decree by the last Sikh Guru. He was, in a way, saying that we are as much of warriors, if not more than, as the Rajputs. The Sikhs then were the people resisting the Mughal Empire, whereas the Rajputs (most of them) were collaborating with it. The Sikhs later resisted the British Empire too, till they were subdued and started total collaboration with the British. Till Bhagat Singh and party came along.
There is a lighter aspect of the Singh song too. People often have fun at my expense because of my last name, which, as I said, is Singh. I leave it as for the reader to guess why and how. These are gentler people. And this happens more in South India, or East India or outside India. Not in North India, because about, may be, 20% of the North Indian population is (last) named Singh.
There are less gentler people who have fun at my expense with my first name. This fun is of a nastier sort. Because nasty people like nasty fun.
It is better to finish with gentler people. I was once attending a major international conference in a South Indian city (as if the name is a secret and as if I am a great researcher) and there was a cultural program in the evening. There were performances by folk (or psuedo-folk) artists from different parts of India. A South Indian student from my institute (which was organizing the workshop) was introducing them. One of the performances was by artists from Punjab, who were, naturally (there is a story there) Sikhs. This student, a good natured person, kept referring to them as ‘Singhs’ and made some good natured joking remarks about them as ‘Singhs’. I later approached him and tried to tell him, for the sake of accuracy, that not all ‘Singhs’ are Sikhs. That a large section of the population of several North Indian states is made up of ‘Singhs’.
You see, people may have fun with my name, but they have much more fun with the Sikhs in general. Sikh jokes in India are endemic. But Sikh jokes, which, by the way, you might hear from the Sikhs themselves, do not refer to them as ‘Singhs’. They refer to them by the term which is used to refer to any Sikh all over India, especially North India. That term is ‘sardar’. The word literally means ‘the leader’ or ‘the chief’, and it is still used in that sense, but as soon as you are going to tell a joke and you say, “There was a sardar…”, you have got the makings of a successful joke. A sardar joke is the safest joke in India. In South Asia, I should say. It will never fail. The word itself has become a joke, but usually a good natured joke, because the others are a bit scared of the Sikhs too.
And yet, one of other prominent leaders of the Indian independence movement, Vallabhbhai Patel, the person who is credited with having unified the hundreds of principalities with the Indian nation after the independence, was given the honorific ‘Sardar’. And the man who now claims to be his successor, the man who oversaw a pogrom on a massive scale, a man who is a proud Fascist of the worst sort, has been given the honorific ‘Chhota Sardar’ (the Junior Sardar). That is a tragedy not directly related to the caste system.
I guess when I informed that student about the difference between ‘Singhs’ (there is really no such thing as ‘Singhs’) and Sikhs, I was secretly worried about being considered a ‘sardar’. Many people there did, in fact, think that. No one wants others to have perpetual fun at their expense. I don’t think even the Sikhs do. They just can’t stop it, so, to keep their dignity and to not seem like spoilsports, they join in. But if you remember, there was resentment against it during the days of the separatist movement during the 80s. The resentment must have been there all along. It just came out then.
And among the ‘Singhs’, the Sikhs, there are the ‘lower’ castes. The Majabi Sikhs, as opposed to the Jat Sikhs. These long oppressed Sikhs are now coming out with their own resentment against the caste system. Being made fun of is bad, but being oppressed and persecuted (by the people of their own religion) is worse. That is the sadness of the caste system.
To put it very mildly. Almost offensively mildly. Almost obnoxiously mildly.