By Shilpa Phadke & Sameera Khan
Clearly Sanjay Dutt hasn’t read his Shakespeare for he doesn’t seem to recollect the Bard’s pronouncement, “What’s in a Name?” But then perhaps for one with his nose in all kinds of things rotten, nothing smells sweet to him at all.
We allude to Sanjay Dutt’s recent assertion of his and his wife’s right to the Dutt name, simultaneously questioning his married sister Priya Dutt’s right to the same name, thereby annoying not just his sister but all women who choose to keep their birth names. The annoyance of course is mild. In any case, most of us don’t rate a convicted criminal’s approval very high on our list of priorities. Nonetheless since the issue has come up, its worth not just reiterating rehearsed arguments on women’s rights to their birth names but also asking Sanjay Dutt ke banyan ke peeche kya hai?
At a time when women are transgressing all sorts of previously sacred boundaries, keeping one’s birth name after signing up for the institution of marriage seems like a little thing indeed. And for many progressive men and women, it has become an almost taken-for-granted assumption that both will keep their own names and separate identities if they choose to marry and / or procreate. Legally, in this country, women have the right not just to keep their birth names, but also to give these names to their children if they wish to.
Sanjay Dutt seems to believe that by changing their last names, women show their husband’s honour and respect. We don’t really agree with the terms of this debate but even if one were to judge him on his own terms and assume that people bring shame or honour to their families depending on the “names they adopt, the question arises: in this case, who would be honouring the Dutt family name and who would be shaming it? If we were Mr Sunil Dutt watching our daughter and son making their way through the world, there is little doubt about whom we would choose to bequeath our name to.
The question Sanjay Dutt really raises is more than just the right to keep birth names. It is also about birthright; about inheritances and family legacies, especially in a not-so-closet feudal country like ours where women’s legal rights to property are still often not honoured and where sisters give up inheritance claims in the name of sibling love. In a roundabout but not very subtle way, by questioning his sister’s right to her birth family name, Sanjay Dutt is really asking whether Priya Dutt has the right to the family political mantle?
As Dutt begins to have political ambitions (a clever, if not very original, way to stay out of prison), he perhaps seeks to challenge his sister’s right to the family political legacy. If, for the moment, one sets aside objections to such feudal political legacies in a democracy, then the question one must ask is: does the law-abiding daughter have any less claim to the Mumbai North-West Lok Sabha seat -– which was held by father Sunil Dutt for several years –- than the prodigal convicted son?
Hopefully, if Sanjay Dutt does stand for election, the electorate which has demonstrated over and again that they are no dupes will tell him in no uncertain terms that respect and honour cannot be claimed on the basis of a name or as a birthright. They have to be earned.
Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan collaborated on the Gender and Space project (www.genderandspace.org) and are currently writing a book based on that research along with Shilpa Ranade.