Can one infer the religious community to which an Indian belongs from his or her name? Intuitively, the answer would be yes: Indians and those familiar with the country certainly develop a pretty good sense for such inferences. And even though names remain only one among several clues (including dress, language, etc), names alone are sadly often reason enough to discriminate against people (for instance to deny Muslims housing). But most Indians also know the flurry of probing questions along the lines of "What's your name?" - "X" - "No, your full name?" - "X Y" - "Where are you from?" - "Z" - "No, I mean: Hindu?". Clearly, names are not always good indicators to gauge an individual's community.

Today's post sheds a probabilistic light on this problem. First, I discuss why it could be useful to infer communities from names. Next, I introduce a name matching algorithm which I developed to achieve this task (building on others' earlier efforts, and available for download below under the GNU Affero GPL license). Finally, I give a first indication of how good my algorithm works: what's in a name? Your comments are of course highly appreciated - and I apologize in advance for a rather technical post (which is in fact as much a writeup for my own memory as it is meant for you to read). Once I develop empirical applications of this software, I promise more lively prose...

This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here.

Articles of faith: Religion, secularism, and the Indian Supreme Court, by Ronojoy Sen, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2010, xli + 237 pp., ISBN 0-19-806380-6

After independence, India established a ‘principled distance’ between religion and the state as part and parcel of becoming a ‘modern nation’. At the same time, India also saw the rise of Hindu nationalist forces which question this very distance. Both seemingly opposed trends share common roots, argues Ronojoy Sen in his detailed exegesis of Supreme Court judgments on religion: the court ‘significantly narrowed the space for religious freedom’ by ‘homogenizing and rationalizing religion and religious practices’ – which in turn ‘strengthened the hand of Hindu nationalists, whose ideology is based on a monolithic conception of Hinduism and intolerance of minorities’ (xxix, xxx). While identifying the link between exclusivist Hindutva and wider trends towards a more homogeneous and standardized Hinduism ‘as a religion’ is not that new, Sen manages to shift this debate from colonial to post-colonial times, and is the first to highlight the key role of the judiciary. This makes his book an important contribution to the study of religion, law and politics in contemporary India.