From Erewhon’s High Court in vacation mode: Obiter Dicta on ‘Importance of a Name’

For those who are privileged by association of name, should they be allowed to ride on that carpet and soar above all of us?

Published : Dec 11, 2023 09:59 IST - 8 MINS READ

The Prime Minister has fashioned his own kind of name rather cleverly: this is the name “PM” itself.

The Prime Minister has fashioned his own kind of name rather cleverly: this is the name “PM” itself. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

This is going to be an unusual judgment. It is not delivered in any particular case, but the issue seems to be present in many cases that come before us. Secondly, we are in vacation mode and should ideally be travelling or doing some worthwhile reading to expand our minds but that is rather difficult for those of us who think our minds are already expanded sufficiently. So we thought of this novel idea of a judgment without a case, a novel obiter dicta (Latin for observations not forming part of the deciding principle of a case). We want to set forth some thoughts on the subject of the “Importance of a Name”.

“What‘s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,“ says Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Now if that were to be applied to politics and the legal profession and other fields in India, all hell would surely break loose.

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Take the most famous name in India: the Gandhi name (well, at least for now, for we can never say when Amrit Kaal has properly set in). The original (Indians like to classify on such lines) was Mohandas Karamchand, whom Einstein described as so extraordinary that generations to come would scarcely believe that such a man walked upon this Earth. Some confusion is now caused because of a recent book about him titled I Am an Ordinary Man. Now this seems a bit unfair; if the Mahatma was ordinary, where would that place the rest of us, and would we not be cast into some terrible pit of substandard stuff? But we note that the author is an original Gandhi, and of no mean accomplishment himself.

The ‘unoriginal’ Gandhis

Originals lead to duplicates and copies; are we Indians not famous for that world over? But the most remarkable, and perhaps indeed the most audacious, has to be the appropriation of the Gandhi name by one Indira, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. She was married to a Parsi, Feroze Jehangir whose surname was Ghandy, a popular Parsi name. The marriage gave way, and one could have forgiven the lady if she had cast away her married name. However, by some fortuitous twist, the aforesaid Feroze had changed his surname to Gandhi after he joined the Independence movement. So she stuck to the name and ever so coolly attached the two most revered Indian names to her own. No one stopped her—remember, Papa was Prime Minister. Her political success was guaranteed. We should not be surprised to find half of India’s voters labouring under the impression that she had a connection to the original Gandhi. Her progeny have shown no intentions of establishing their Parsi origins.

So the Gandhi tag has continued to dominate us. Democracies have surer ways to preserve dynasties than royalties, it must be said. One wonders if there should not be some kind of restriction on the carrying of famous names by progeny. I mean, you get a great head start by being the son or daughter of a famous so-and-so, and you still want to get frequent infusions of the booster during the entire length of the race you run? Article 14 postulates equality, and we all agree that we should be equal at the starting line and that there should be handicaps devised to achieve real equality. But what of those who are privileged by association of name? Should they, in all fairness, be allowed to ride on that carpet and soar above all of us to descend short of the finishing line and raise hands in victory?

In law, there was estate duty, which taxed bequests of what the law calls real property (money, land, etc.). That was abolished to benefit the wealthy, a regressive move for one can see easily the problems created by profligate youth who never worked an honest day in their lives. But the point is that we should focus also on the very real benefits attached to the inheritance of the name of the ancestor, and act to curb its indiscriminate and unwarranted benefit, especially when such name and fame are generated in the public sphere. Marcus Aurelius said that “to whom much is given, much should be taken from“ and he may have modified that to also say that “where much is undeserved, it had better be withheld”.

PM, PM everywhere

Now our Prime Minister loudly declaims against this dynasty business and his view resonates with the public. Actually, whether they agree or not, the Prime Minister’s voice resonates pretty well, being an extension of his expanded chest. But he has fashioned his own kind of name rather cleverly: this is the name “PM” itself. Being a man of supreme confidence, he perhaps is sure that this is a lifetime appointment and only his voluntary abdication to seek sanyas or some formal Vishwaguru of the world will cause him to lay down office. So we have a whole lot of projects carrying the tag PM (PM Gati Shakti, PM Awas Yojana, PM Fasal Bima Yojana, PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, PM Jan Dhan Yojana, PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, PM Suraksha Bima Yojana, etc.) PM CARES is another (just in case anyone thought he did not). It expands to Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund.

Now the problem was that this skipped usual governmental reporting and oversight procedures and safeguards, and someone complained to the Supreme Court, but lo and behold—the Court said this was okay. After all, when the Prime Minister wants to care, who are we to scare? So a whole stack of funds obtained by public donations with tax deductions (and obviously people will line up to give to “PM”) is being spent under the personal benevolence of the Prime Minister. And now the Prime Minister looks very benevolent too, with the Santa Claus beard. The saintly statesman look is perfect for G20 and Election 2024, and it is a pity that it sometimes goes awry because of that pesky unoriginal Gandhi and the Australian cricket team.

But occasionally we miss a chance to name well. Take our Chandrayaan-3. It went to the moon, and we were the first to land near its south pole. Great news, worthy of world leadership—especially in the G20 presidency year—and we are the champions of the South. A good name would have gone down well. The landing spot of the Moon Lander could have been called the Kalam Spot: to honour a rare man who was India’s most beloved President and one of its greatest rocket scientists.

Kalam means arriving at theological principles through dialogue, debate, or discussion or simply put, acquiring knowledge through speech and utterance. Muslim by birth, he took a keen interest in the epics including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This name would have gladdened the hearts of all Indians and won appreciative nods internationally as a true manifestation of the spoken word of inclusivity in G20 statements.

But no, we named it Shiv Shakthi Sthal. Now one does not know if the Lord of Kailash is pleased at being offered extraterrestrial residence where only the Elon Musk-like spaceship travellers will come to worship. Some good adviser should have spoken up, but after Parmeshwar Narain Haksar (who was Mrs Gandhi’s adviser) are there any good advisers around? By definition, they are the ones who tell their leaders what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear? That can be perilous.

Problem not in politics alone

Before leaving this case, we may also draw attention to the full-length advertisements in newspapers and other media. These extol the achievements (unverified) of the ruling party at the Centre or a State, but what is disturbing is that the listing is dwarfed by the photographic depictions of the leaders—the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers. To the extent that the footwear of the leader is as prominent as the best achievement of his government. We wonder if the Election Commission has applied its mind to this aspect; it would do well to formulate some criteria beyond which these are to be treated as political party advertisements and not governmental ones. We know that election spending limits have long overshot the mark and no one takes that seriously, but is there a T.N. Seshan who has miraculously survived government service and can mean business? A tall order perhaps, but one must always hope.

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And one last point: it strikes us that we should not be casting blame on the world on an aspect where one look at the legal profession unearths problems aplenty. Famous judges and lawyers produce children; whether deserving or average, they become successful and famous. The law court is a walled-off affair; judges are brethren, your father judge’s fellow judge is Uncle or Aunty, and the chumminess goes on. Look at how many children of judges end up as judges, and you will realise that dynasties do not thrive only in politics.

Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”) is the fictional country where Samuel Butler set his satirical novel of the same name. The court, judge, and judgment in this piece are fictional.

Sriram Panchu is real. He is a Senior Advocate at the Madras High Court. He was assisted by Vikas Muralidharan, Lecturer, Sai University, and Aprameya Manthena, Advocate, Madras High Court.

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