This is the story of how Shahnawaz became Md. Sameer Rao, a 24-year-old B.Tech graduate from Uttar Pradesh who recently won a legal battle to officially change his name, overcoming procedural difficulties and pedantic regulations.
The case prompted the Allahabad High Court to observe that, “the intimacy of human life and a person’s name is undeniable,” and that “the right to keep a name of choice or change the name according to personal preference comes within the mighty sweep of the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”
Born in a village in Bilari tehsil of Moradabad, a city renowned for its brass industry, Sameer, as he prefers to be called, had for years battled a mini-identity crisis. His father’s family had christened him Shahnawaz but his maternal side preferred to call him Sameer, which also became his popular identity. However, his school documents mentioned him as Shahnawaz and that stuck as his official name.
As Sameer grew up, this posed him with day-to-day inconveniences. The postman, for instance, would find it hard to locate him in the village where addresses are not as easily defined as in the cities. While the post was addressed to Shahnawaz, in the village everyone knew him as Sameer. “These incidents would trigger me,” says Sameer, adding that the two names would keep playing in his head. But more than anything, he wanted to exercise his right to choose his preferred name.
Then in 2020, COVID-19 struck. With plenty of free time at home, Sameer decided to research ways to get his name changed legally. He was named Shahnawaz in his high school examination certificate and intermediate examination certificate issued in 2013 and 2015 respectively. He publicly disclosed a change in his name through a notification published in the Gazette of India on October 2, 2020. Following this, he got a similar notification published in a local daily newspaper and sent an application to the Regional Secretary of the Madhyamik Shiksha Parishad, regional office, Bareilly. To his disappointment, his application was rejected on October 24, 2020. He then filed a writ in the Allahabad High Court.
While invalidating Sameer’s application on grounds of delay and limitation, the official order also cited regulation 40 (a) of the Uttar Pradesh Intermediate Education Act, 1921. It says that an application for change in name has to be filed within three years from March 31 of the year when the candidate appeared in the examination. In Sameer’s case, the application was submitted seven years and five years after he sat for the high school and intermediate examinations, respectively.
Due to a paucity of funds, Sameer could not engage a lawyer and started arguing his case himself. But on the request of the court, lawyer Hritudhwaj Pratap Sahi volunteered to argue
his case. The rejection of Sameer’s application to get his name changed by UP authorities was “arbitrary and contrary to the statutory provisions holding the field,” argued Sahi.
Articles 19 (1) (a) and 21 of the Constitution of India grant every citizen the fundamental right to keep or change his or her name. However, it is not an absolute right and is subject to various restrictions as prescribed by law.
I. P. Srivastava, additional chief standing counsel, arguing on behalf of the UP authorities, stated that the change of name was not an absolute right. The proposed name also fell in the prohibited category since it disclosed the religion of the applicant, Srivastava said in court.
On May 25, Justice Ajay Bhanot ruled in favour of Sameer and set aside the order rejecting his application. Justice Bhanot directed the state authorities to allow Sameer to change his name and issue him fresh high school and intermediate certificates incorporating the change. The rejection of the application for change of name on grounds of delay was “arbitrary and transgresses the fundamental rights” of Sameer, said the court.
“The human name is an inalienable part of an individual’s life, and an indispensable tool for the human race to enter into social groups and thrive as a race,” Justice Bhanot said.
Sameer says he has no attachment to his former official name, Shahnawaz. “When a person is used to being called a certain name (Sameer), obviously he will prefer to keep that name rather than the one only used in school classrooms. His family members and friends told him Sameer sounded better than Shahnawaz,”.
His initial name Shahnawaz did not have a surname. But his new name Sameer has one. Sameer borrowed the Rao surname from his maternal side to trace a link to their legacy.
Rao is used by his maternal side, as they belong to the Pundir clan of Rajputs based in Uttarakhand, but have been Muslims since the beginning of medieval Indian history.
To avoid speculation that he had converted his faith and adopted a new name with the Rao surname, which is also in common usage among Hindus, he used the prefix Md. (Mohammad), a Muslim identifier.
While he embraces a new official identity, the court also gave some important general instructions to the government to ensure that all his identity-related documents including Aadhaar card, PAN card, ration card, driving license, passport, and voter I.D. card, were congruent.
If a person is allowed to carry identification documents with different names, it would lead to "confusion in identity and possibility of mischief," Justice Bhanot said, asking the government to be proactive in tackling both.