By: Sanjib Meitei
Saturday morning is always pleasant for me. It is a day I can spend some time with myself in a nearby university’s sport ground without the need to rush back before 8 am to ensure I reach office by 9 am. It is day I can think of something other than never ending office works. One Saturday morning, when I am back from the ground at around 9.45 am, I saw a miss call from one of my friends whom I have not been in touch for a long time (around 2 years). I called him back to inquire the reason behind his missed call. The reason was amusing and sound trivial. He wanted to remove the word “Singh” from his last name. So, he wanted to know procedure to change his name in his degree certificate. My first reply was “Are you serious?” I tried to persuade him by giving a workaround solution just the way I generally provide to scientists from our partnering organizations whenever my informatics solution fails to cater their research needs. I tried to simplify. That is simple, you just use an easy name like mine “Sanjib Meitei” in your credit card, PAN card and use the name instead of your certificate name. You don’t need to change your name in certificate. Moreover, you don’t show your degree certificate when someone asks your name. Well, he didn’t ring me up to listen to my free workaround solutions. He had already taken up a step further than I imagined. He had managed to strike off “Singh” from his name in HSLC certificate. Now, he wants to get rid of this word from his name from the degree certificate too. He reasoned in short, “it’s embarrassing to have “Singh” in a Meitei’s name”. I pondered for a while and understood the eventual futility of any suggestions to stop doing his quest to remove the word. I assured him that I will assist getting his name change done.
Being Saturday, I had the privilege to spend some time thinking about the reasons that might force him to prioritize a task that has nothing to do with his professional life. As the day progressed, my mind was wandering on the thought whether it really matters when someone uses Singh as his last name. Why this Kolaveri Di? Well, in the context of the Indian society, my friend has a point to feel something awkward about mismatch between last name and our race especially in Hindu and its nearby societies. Most of the popular names and surnames in India are clan/caste/region specific. So, whenever your name is announced, people already imagined a template of your look/caste/race/region in their mind. This is where Meiteis with Singh as last name become a mismatch to many people who are not even aware of the existence of an Indian state called Manipur. A few years back, I read a piece of news titled “Singh from the east” in a national newspaper (it must either be Hindustan Times or Times of India since I read these papers only). It was amusing news although not very important. Either Rennedy Singh or Gouramangi Singh (sorry, I could not remember the exact one and I don’t want to dig the information out) went to Australia to play high level club football matches. It was a matter of pride that Indian footballers got to play football in Australian league matches. All the people from Punjab living there in Australia gathered to welcome the Singh. Anyway, it is matter of pride to have one sporting icon from your community or caste or region. It is a global phenomenon that is not only restricted to Indians only who are starved of legitimate sport stars. Phillipinos will rightly gush about Manny Pacquio, the reigning king of boxing while I, as a Manipuri always like Mary Kom to win gold in every competition she participates. Coming back to the story of the news I just mentioned, when Singhs in Australia saw the Singh from the east, they were left shocked and confused. Luckily, some Manipuris living there turned up to take the charge and organized a welcome party for the name wise mismatched Singh. Well, similar stories of confusion continue to brew up for many common Singhs from the east in Indian schools, colleges, offices and many other places. Some are sensitive and some just move on ignoring the raised eyebrows. On the other side, from the shocked people who just realize the existence of Singhs in the east, some brash people questioned or commented on the mismatch between name and the race while some polite people just get on keeping their wonder and curiosity to themselves. But a generic line accepted among all people when they saw Singhs from east or some not so popular communities runs freely “Aaj kal har koi apane naam ke aage Singh likhte hain”. And for sure, the same sentence might have been used by stunned Singhs in Australia when they realized that the Singh of football was from the east.
I am not going to request Singhs from the east to change their last name. Different people have different experience in life. Who knows, some people might have got social acceptance and honor because of Singh as last name. But, I, in this article, bring in some basic information regarding people belonging to different castes/communities/regions who generally write Singh as their last name. I don’t say all Meiteis do not know the lineage of Singh but it is also a fact that many of my fellow Meiteis are oblivious to the reason and significance of writing Singh as last name.
“Singh” derived from a Sanskrit word “Simha” means lion. It is one of the most popular last names (many write it as their middle name too) and is used predominantly by people belonging to Rajput clans to symbolize their bravery and warrior pedigree. The rajputs are divided into three clans namely Suryavanshi, Chandravanshi, and Agnivanshi. As per legends, Lord Ram belonged to Suryavanshi rajput clan, Shri Krishna belonged to Chandravanshi clan (there seem to be some argument regarding this when Yadavas claimed that they are the legitimate descendents of Yadubanshis) and Chalukya rulers belong to Agnivanshi clan. Historically, different clans ruled several western, eastern, southern and northern states of current India although it didn’t reach NE states of current India. Besides rajputs, the Sikhs also write Singh as their last name. They started using “Singh” as mandatory last name under the leadership of Guru Govind Singh in 1699 AD. Well, Meiteis (although I am not scholar in this field), especially the king and his family should have started a little bit later as compared to the Sikhs during the reign of Maharaja Garibniwaj. Most probably, by the time of “Chahi Taret Khuntakpa”, I think common Meiteis too started using “Singh” as last name (anyone, please educate me more regarding this). To my not so erudite understanding, taking “Singh” as last name by Meiteis was not wrong from the context of literary meaning of the word “Singh” since Meiteis are warriors since the time of immemorial.
Although Sikhs and Meiteis started using the last name Singh around the same century, Singh by a Sikh is well accepted while it is a misnomer for Meiteis to general Indian populace. Sikh’s contribution to Indian history is significant and they have always been a part of it. Even in today’s India, although their population is around only 2% of total Indian population (well Meitei population is negligible), they produce people who are always in public knowledge. Easiest examples, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, many Army Chiefs to name a few who make significant contribution to the nation as well as become popular names among common people. Meiteis, despite our bravery and history in our right, are quite unheard of among majority of the common people of India and never got our share in Indian history also. Well, I don’t need to write in detail regarding this. In simple language, majority of Indians are not familiar with Singh attached to names of Chinese looking people. So, Singh becomes a misnomer to Meiteis to them. Scientifically, the reluctance of majority of Indian common people to recognize Singh as last name Meiteis is very reasonable. Just see how letters are arranged in computer keyboards. When I saw computer keyboard for the first time, I felt disgusted. I thought how on the earth, letters are arranged horribly out of order on keyboards. However, it is so popular with people that if a company comes up with a new keyboard having letters arranged in different order to the current one then I doubt it will be acceptable to people.
My friend who decided to strike off “Singh” from his name seem to be quite sensitive as far as mismatch between the last name and our ancestry. My only concern was that he needs to change his name in many important documents which may require legal proceedings. I hope, he named his son accordingly. I am not sure if I would have gone all the ways to remove the word had it been in my last name. Anyway, in this big bad world where we cannot avoid many uncomfortable things, one should be comfortable at least with his own name. If some of my fellow Meiteis are embarrassed with their last name, I will blame a few generations of Meiteis who failed to promote our own language to define things properly. They could have come up with our own word to define ourselves instead of burrowing it from other established languages and corresponding utility. Many communities use “Singh” and other variants of the word to symbolize that they are warrior descendant. “Meitei Nongsha” is a word that we use to praise people who show bravery in the face of adversities. We, the Meiteis, for sure belong to a proud warrior community who withstands the test of time, intruders and many more unwanted situations. We can proudly use a name to symbolize having descents of a warrior clan. However, would I use “Singh” to do so? My answer is a big Never! Because, there are already people who have established their own historical, political, social and cultural lineage for this last name in Indian society. To me, working hard to make Singh a popular Meitei’s last name just sounds like investing upon developing a keyboard with different letter arrangement from the current popular one without much resource at hand. I feel proud that my fellow people start seeing the importance of developing our own identity rather than just living with a last name which majority of the people consider it to be a misnomer. We belong to a small community and if a Meitei brings laurels for the nation, we cannot afford to lose the credit in confusion to other well established communities. I will not force other people who write Singh as last name to change their last name but personally, I will love to see Meiteis using their own Surname or Yek as last name.