The name is Khan, Radha Khan

Radha Khan | Updated on December 28, 2019

Out of the box: What happens to those who do not fit into neat religious categories?   -  ISTOCK.COM

In a country obsessed with religion, a name such as this invites admiration, questions and disbelief

Many assume that I am Muslim as I have a Muslim surname. It says a lot about our deeply entrenched mindsets — both religious and patriarchal — that most people believe so despite the fact that I clearly have a Hindu first name. There are also those who argue that as my paternal grandfather was Muslim, I have to be one, too — even though I point out that my grandmother and mother are not Muslim.

Every time I join a workplace or encounter new people, I am more often than not quizzed about my name. Frequently it is with admiration about its uniqueness, but often the erroneous assumption is that my surname is due to my having married a Muslim. There is incomprehension among some. When I encounter officialdom, say, in the form of immigration officers, I am often told that one simply cannot have a name like this.

My name plays on my mind as I look at the protests all around me against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the government’s move to bring in an all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC), which, many hold, discriminate against Muslims. Columnist Mukul Kesavan wrote in The Telegraph last month that with a national register, the burden of proof shifts: Citizens have to prove their claim to citizenship. “For most Indians, their anxieties will be allayed by the knowledge that should they fail to provide adequate paperwork, the Citizenship Amendment Act (as the CAB will be known by then) will come to their rescue. As Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians, they will be amnestied and offered a six-year path to citizenship. For Muslims, though, failure to satisfy the NRC will trigger an existential crisis: undocumented Muslims will be declared illegal immigrants, barred from the rights and privileges of citizenship.”

I am well aware that I will not face the kind of hardship or interrogation that will be encountered by those who are non-literate, Muslim and/or without the same sort of resources — economic/social/cultural — that I enjoy, and that this, perhaps, may just be an emotional and psychological worry for a person of my class background. Religion plays almost no role in my immediate life, nor does it inform my life choices. I eat, speak and dress like any of my friends; the only distinction is in my name or, rather, one part of it, which will now serve as a different kind of marker.

This move by the government, which has made clear that some are more equal than others depending on their religion, is unacceptable. But my question is about those who do not fit into neat religious categories. I wish to draw attention to those of us who, by birth or choice, wish not to be identified with one religion or the other, or, as the case may be, with any religion at all. Today I feel that with my inter-religious name, my legitimacy to claim this country as my own is now in question. What was earlier just bigotry or simple incomprehension I faced in casual encounters is now being made into State policy — the space for a non-religious identity that’s plural no longer exists.

The one document I do have is a copy of a book edited by my grandmother Shyam Kumari Nehru, as she was then. The book, Our Cause: A Symposium by Indian Women, was published by Kitabistan, Allahabad, in 1936. It is a collection of ideas and challenges as envisaged by women leaders of the time, the first wave of Indian feminists. Born on October 20, 1904, my grandmother would have been 36 when the book was published, and yet to be married to my grandfather Abdul Jamil Khan (Jamil). She was an active member of the freedom movement and a practising lawyer. She was also part of the progressive writers’ movement, and a founding member of the Indian Humanist Union (IHU), which sought to promote “love for fellow beings coupled with the scientific spirit of free enquiry”. She became the elected chairperson of the IHU, was a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), and one of the founding members of the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW), its general secretary and, later, chairperson. My grandparents — humanists who renounced their religion to marry — left me and my family a legacy which will not hold as evidence of citizenship but stands as witness of another time and an inclusive vision: A secular and plural personhood based on ideas of humanity, equality and fraternity for all. Maybe it was, in the end, all but a Utopian dream.

But, instead of losing hope, perhaps I should recall the Central Industrial Security Force guard in Ranchi airport, who paid me the nicest compliment that I have ever received about my name. Handing back my identity document to me, he said, “I too will give my daughter a similar name.”

Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion

Published on December 26, 2019

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