Every time I join a new workplace or encounter new people, I am more often than not quizzed about my name. Frequently, it is with admiration about its uniqueness, and often, the assumption is that my surname is due to my having married a Muslim. There is incomprehension among some – when I encounter officialdom in the form of immigration officers, for instance – who hold the belief that to have such a name is just not possible. The nicest compliment I have received, I must confess, was from a Central Industrial Security Force guard at Ranchi airport a few years ago. Handing back my identity document to me, he said, “I too will give my daughter a similar name.”

Many assume I am Muslim as I have a Muslim surname. It says as much about them as it does about our deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset that despite the fact that I clearly have a Hindu first name, it is assumed that I am Muslim. There are also those who argue that as my paternal grandfather was Muslim, I too have to be one, despite my protests to the contrary, pointing out that my grandmother and mother are not Muslim.

There is an assumption that inter-religious marriages are a relatively recent phenomenon. Today, possibly, they are increasing in number, though even now the percentage is minuscule.

An article that caught my eye the other day said just 5% of marriages in India are inter-caste and that 95% of the population marry within their caste. This made me wonder: what then is the percentage of inter-religious marriages? A study, Dynamics of inter-religious and inter-caste marriages in India, which used data from the third round of the National Family Health Survey 2005-’06, suggests that only 2.1% marriages are inter-religious.

In the vitiated atmosphere in India today, we hear daily of couples coming under attack from their families and vigilante groups. This bogey of love jihad, which is now part of our lexicon, needs to be constantly repudiated and shown to be untrue. The Nehruvian idea of secular India is challenged and denigrated daily. In her article The Nehru you don’t know, journalist Amulya Gopalakrishnan wrote of the concerted campaign against Jawaharlal Nehru and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's project to “scrub him out of textbooks”. She said “his reputation is being savaged on the internet”.

It is in this context that I feel it is important to recall the story of my paternal grandparents – believers and practitioners of the secular Nehruvian project.

Grandparents' story

Each generation feels their battles are harder and greater than those of the generations that preceded them. I see this in my own interactions with my mother and in those of my daughters with myself. Yet, each generation in its arrogance fails to recognise that it is the fight of the previous generation that enables us today to fight our own. The story of my grandparents inspires me to stand for what I believe in, as I have their example.

My grandmother, Shyam Kumari Nehru (Shammi), and grandfather, Abdul Jamil Khan, married on December 7, 1937 under the Special Marriages Act, 1872. As required by the law at that time, they renounced their respective religions to marry each other. They believed neither should convert to the other’s religion. A few black and white photographs exist as evidence of their marriage. Three persons witnessed their wedding, one of whom was Sahibzada Masooduzzafar, my grandfather’s cousin who doubled as the photographer.

Shammi was considered to be past marriageable age – she was in her late 30s. When they announced their intention to marry, there was widespread disapproval from her family. Yet, as Shammi was financially independent, highly educated and a professional woman (she was a lawyer), the couple went ahead. The family later came around.

My father, who was born in 1940, and his sister, who came seven years later, were given secular names that reflected their mixed heritage – Kabir Kumar Khan and Kamal Kumari Khan. They were brought up to respect all religious traditions, though later on my father declared himself to be an agnostic.

My parents married, again under the Special Marriages Act, in 1965. My mother is from Allahabad and from the Kashmiri Pandit community my grandmother, Shammi, belonged to. My father gave my sister the name Uma as he admired his maternal grandmother Uma Nehru. My mother says she similarly named me – she felt it had to be a name that reflected both religions. My mother maintains that though she was born a Hindu, she is neither a practising Hindu, nor even a believer. The only time we witnessed or participated in a religious ceremony in our home was at Diwali, as she felt it was important for us culturally.

Four generations

Mine was also a civil marriage, registered under the Special Marriages Act. My husband, though born a Hindu, was as clear as I was that we would have no religious rituals. Our daughters were given names reflecting this heritage and with both our surnames. Again, it is only Diwali that is celebrated in our home.

My older daughter, now 21, is ambiguous about whether she believes in a god or any higher being. The younger one, nearly 18, is clearer. She believes in a god or higher being/force but not in any one religious ideology.

The differences I have with my husband are neither religious nor cultural, but rather, based more on everyday issues faced by countless couples worldwide, such as matters of money and division of household chores.

All three generations – my father, my children and I – have been brought up no differently than any of our contemporaries. We eat, speak and dress like any of our friends. The only distinction is in our names or rather one part of it. Religion plays almost no role in our immediate lives, nor does it inform our life choices.

Today, I cannot but wonder what my grandparents would have to say on learning that their great-grandchildren are still subjected to questions over having inter-religious names. They would be happy, I know, to learn that we are clear on one fact – that we are Indian.

The writer is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, social inclusion and governance.