Ananya Vajpeyi


Between sophistry and silence


Can the ongoing devaluation of language and undermining of democracy be reversed?

The outgoing Vice President, M. Hamid Ansari, was subjected to one of the strangest send-offs in Parliament in the history of independent India.


A distinguished and well-spoken diplomat, scholar, author and the country’s Vice President for two terms (2007-17), he was made to sound, in the Prime Minister’s speech, like nothing more than an insecure Muslim. The Ansari brothers of his grandfather’s generation, in the first half of the 20th century, were close comrades of Mahatma Gandhi, supporters of the Khilafat Movement, and founders of the Jamia Millia University. His own association with the Aligarh Muslim University as Professor and Vice Chancellor, his stints as ambassador of India in many capitals of West Asia — all these, in his humiliating farewell, were summarily reduced to being functions of his individual religious identity.


Unfairly denigrated


In a convocation address at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, as well as an interview to Rajya Sabha TV just days before he stepped down, Mr. Ansari spoke about the growing feelings of insecurity and marginalisation among India’s minorities, especially Muslims, given the atmosphere of religious nationalism and cultural chauvinism that currently prevails. For expressing his legitimate concern as a holder of one of the highest offices in the country, Mr. Ansari was rudely demoted from the status of an Indian citizen, patriot and public official to a narrowly defined and ideologically confined member of, as they used to say in press reportage of communal riots until quite recently, “a certain community”.


The opposition’s candidate for the vice presidency, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, had by this time already lost the election by a wide margin. Mr. Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma and himself a diplomat, scholar, author and former Governor, also well-spoken, erudite and distinguished, though not a Muslim, was similarly made out to be unfit for the job on account of his lineage and political associations, whether historical or personal, with the Congress party. Both men were denigrated as tokens of a ‘secular’ type, their valuable contributions to public life dismissed as mere reflexes of an accident of birth, their entire careers collapsed into their respective surnames, their personae and participation diminished as parochial and unworthy of our respect.


Hardly a few weeks earlier, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, had casually and deprecatingly referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a chatur baniya (“wily trader”). After a public outcry, a few days later, speaking at the Sabarmati Ashram, Mr. Modi recalled one of the best-known songs from Gandhi’s multireligious ashram prayer book, “Vaishnav Jan To Tene Kahiye” by the medieval Gujarati poet, Narsi Mehta. While the refrain of this celebrated bhajan means, “Call such a one a true Hindu, who empathises with another’s pain”, Mr. Modi suggested that the words vaishnav jan (meaning “a devout Hindu” or “a truly pious person”) be replaced by “public representative” — jan pratinidhi — so that the line would become: “Call such a one a public representative, who empathises with another’s pain”.


The implications were bizarre, to say the least: one, that a natural equivalence stands to be posited between pious Hindus (vaishnav jan) and public representatives (jan pratinidhi) in contemporary India; and two, that Gandhi’s profoundly moral message of empathy as a political virtue can be scrambled and appropriated in the most banal way, to stand for what are at best bureaucratic aspirations, from efficiency to governance to accountability. In fact, this powerful piece of public poetry, written in Gujarati but a part of the Indian nationalist lexicon for close to a century, is here made to signify anything other than what the Mahatma actually meant. This was that genuine piety is the capacity to relate to and share in the suffering of others, whatever our differences with them, including, crucially, religious differences.


In other words, a sincere public representative in the Gandhian sense would first and foremost empathise with beleaguered minorities in a majoritarian political context — ironically, quite the opposite of the BJP’s attitude to weaker sections, especially Muslims. It would be pertinent here to recall Gandhi’s commitment to establish reconciliation and non-violence in the midst of the most intense communal conflict preceding and during Partition in 1946-47. So also we should acknowledge Mr. Ansari’s empathetic efforts, as chairman of the National Minorities Commission (2006-07), to secure justice, relief and rehabilitation for victims of sectarian carnage in both Delhi 1984 (where Sikhs were affected) and Gujarat 2002 (where Muslims were affected).


Manipulation of language


What is going on in all of these instances of sophistry, silence and insinuation used so masterfully by the Prime Minister and others who hold important positions in his party, cabinet and government? How are identities imposed, implied and then targeted in this sort of discourse that is as damaging as it is oblique, as insulting as it is ambiguous? How is language misused to render those perceived as political opponents in the worst possible light? Collective memory is degraded in the age of instant gratification, fake news and social media, but we need to recall over the past 40 months extremely problematic phrases that were tossed out into the mainstream national conversation just long enough to hurt, but not long enough to invite consequences. “Ramzaade ya Haraamzaade” was one such. “Love Jihad”, another. “Kuttey ka baccha”. “Pink Revolution”. The list can go on.


It is important to recognise that the manipulation of language, the deployment of silence, the disparagement of individuals, the erasure of historical memories, the marginalisation of minorities and women, the crushing of institutions — these are all strategies on a continuum, designed to effect the tectonic shift of a plural and diverse India into a Hindu Rashtra.


It is part of the same push then, when the incoming President, Ram Nath Kovind, in his inaugural address to the nation, simply did not mention India’s principal freedom fighter and first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), or when the Nehru Pavilion and Hall of Nations, iconic modernist buildings in Delhi, located on Pragati Maidan, were demolished overnight despite the matter of their future continuation, use, re-purposing or demolition still being debated in court.


People, places or events — anything can be made to vanish from the historical record. If we do not acknowledge their past existence, or if we remove all present traces of their existence, it’s as if they never were. The world’s greatest apostle of non-violence can disappear overnight — the author of Hind Swaraj, the architect of our freedom, the father of our nation — and in his place, as if by magic, a chatur baniya, scheming, selfish, stingy, sectarian, is installed by a slip of the tongue. We cannot help notice acts of terrible bodily harm, like lynching and rape, routinely enacted against minorities — Muslims, Dalits, Christians, tribals. Do we also pay attention to the violent use of words, or to the equally dangerous failure to speak, the omission of facts, the denial of empathy, the refusal of respect that have all become par for the course in the reign of Hindutva?


The larger question of course is, whether the devaluation of language, the distortion of truth and the undermining of democracy we are witnessing right now, are one-way processes, irreversible, now that they have begun.


Ananya Vajpeyi is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi

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