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My Name Is Blue

Caste-based prejudice has long been a fact of life in Himachal Pradesh. Now, new initiatives look to change that—with the state police as catalysts.

My Name Is Blue
Sanjay Rawat
My Name Is Blue
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Trigger Why we are doing this story

  • Debate over whether Census 2011 should include information on caste—the first time since 1931—led to a separate caste survey

***

At the Himachal Pradesh Police command headquarters in Shimla, history is framed and mounted on the walls—photos of past police chiefs, right from 1949, line the length of a corridor. But turn the corner, and the present holds sway, quietly making history of its own. Freshly painted nameplates and nametags on the uniforms of police staff catch the eye: conspicuously absent from both are surnames.

A nameplate reading ‘Dr Daljeet Singh, IPS’ (replacing the earlier ‘Dr D.S. Manhas, IPS’) leads to the office of the Director General of Police—the man behind the decision to drop surnames from all official police dealings, which took effect from June 15. “That day is observed as Kabir Jayanti, and (the decision) perfectly suits the Sufi saint’s credo of communal harmony and a social system sans caste and class,” he says.

Daljeet Singh had been mulling the idea for some time, and got his fellow officers to participate in a “think tank” meeting. The result was an order to HP Police, dated June 14, that read: “It is advised not to use surnames and caste names while addressing one another in all official and demi-official communications. The objective is to develop team spirit and not the groups based on region, religion, language, caste etc.”

Effectively, it means surnames—instant indicators of caste and social standing—need no longer be part of the official identity of the hill state’s police force. Just the kind of step people on the lower rungs of the caste ladder would need for a stronger, surer footing in society, feels Kishori Lal Koundal, president of the All India Harijan League, Himachal unit. On the prevalence of untouchability in the state, Kishori Lal cites the example of temples that do not allow entry to people of the lower castes. “At weddings, it is a common practice to seat upper-caste guests away from invitees belonging to lower castes. Again, a job-seeker is always asked which caste he belongs to, and I know of scheduled caste candidates who’ve been refused residential quarters and told to stay in Dalit bastis instead,” he says.


Don’t ask, Don’t tell No surnames at police HQ. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

What is more alarming is that such incidents are widespread. Kishori Lal identifies Sirmaur, Mandi, Kangra, Kullu, Chamba and the Chaupal areas of Shimla district as hotbeds of caste-based prejudice. “Rural areas are the worst affected. In such a scenario, a police officer who makes a statement against casteism by shedding his surname would be a catalyst for change.” Constable Inder couldn’t agree more. Patrolling a misty Mall Road along with Constable Ranjit—both flaunting shiny black nametags that omit ‘Sharma’ and ‘Thakur’—he says, “At my level, most of us don’t use our last names anyway, but a conscious effort to project an identity shorn of caste and class connotations is good news. People are educated now, they are giving earlier mindsets a shake-up. Take inter-caste marriages: in Shimla district, the number of such alliances has gone up over the past decade.” Ranjit chimes in, “When we eat in the mess, caste equations do come into play. These new nametags ensure that at least it isn’t in your face.”

It’s no great surprise then that many in the police force, like Saproon’s assistant sub-inspector Dharam Sain Negi, are eagerly looking forward to pinning on theirs. The change that has quickly gone from paper to practice in the state capital will take another four to five months to reach all of Himachal’s 15,000-strong police staff. And if Shimla’s Sadar police station Inspector Rattan Kumar has his way, it’ll reach all other government departments too. “Why us alone? Every department must join in,” he says.

It will be a while yet before the reach of the change extends that far. Critics are already wondering if a step like this will truly alter mindsets or end up as just a cosmetic change in, well, name alone. Sociology professor Satish K. Sharma feels the perpetuation of caste is ingrained in the Indian social organisation, and Himachal Pradesh is no less immune to it. “There are over 30 castes here, including the so-called lower castes like Kolis, Chamars, Churas, Lohars and so on. It will take much more than a token removal of surnames to make a real impact. Moreover, India’s police force follows a system of reservation in their recruitment process itself,” says Satish, a long-time resident of the state.

He, instead, cites the defence services as an example of an organisation in which surnames exist, but do no more than bestow nymic identities. “Whether it is the army, navy or the air force, officers are referred to by surnames and it has not proved to be counter-productive. Why should it be a problem with the police?” Some within the force are not convinced either. Sushil Kumar, Deputy Superintendent at the Solan police headquarters, says, “It’s great if this step mitigates discrimination. But surnames don’t always specify castes. Agnihotri can be used by Rajputs or Brahmins or Khatris. Again, for investigating officers, using only their first name on papers to be presented in court, can create confusion over identity.”

Such counter-arguments have already made their way into DGP Daljeet Singh’s office. “People have asked me questions such as, ‘What if two officers share the same name?’. Well, in that case, their designations will set them apart,” he says. He should know: his namesake is a superintendent in Kangra. Once the new scheme sinks in, he feels, doubts will peter out. He has reason to believe so. There is a possibility that the no-surname policy could be implemented at a national level—it is listed for discussion in this session of Parliament.

Another change that the DGP introduced recently—blue uniforms to replace khaki (viewed as the colour of aggression)—stirred up murmurs of doubt that have since been assauged.

Right now, however, Daljeet Singh is likely preparing to ask some incisive questions of his own. Because this month, his force is expecting its first performance assessment report done by an independent agency, the Himachal Pradesh University. Whatever that report card may reveal, one thing is certain: if the present changes are anything to go by, the photos of intrepid top cops in these corridors will now be suffused in a calm blue. And captioned with shorter names.

***

Also Calcutta September 2, 2010

  • Bishnu Shrestha was looking forward to retired life as he caught the Maurya Express to his hometown. Little did he know, it was not yet time to sheath his weapons. At midnight, armed robbers attacked the train and attempted to assault a young girl in front of her parents. With nothing but his khukri for defence, the ex-jawan fought off the goons, killing three and scaring off the rest.
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