Of bans, blasphemy laws and politically correct language: Meanings of words are not solely contained in themselves
A blasphemy law proscribing a certain word may raise awareness that a certain public behavior is socially unacceptable, but it cannot do very much more if the underlying attitudes have social acceptability.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
It is the peak of winter everywhere in the northern hemisphere, including the great city of Kolkata. Like millions of people around the world, I have just spent a whole year getting to know my family members better. On the rare occasions that I have stepped out in recent times, I have been troubled by the sight of people walking around the city not wearing an essential protective covering. I am referring, of course, to the monkey cap. I don’t know what has happened to my fellow Bengalis these days. They are not wearing their monkey caps.
Back when I was growing up in Shillong, we used to see hordes of visiting Bengali tourists during the summer and Durga Puja holidays. Since Pujas are in autumn, when minimum temperatures in Shillong fall to as low as a Bengali-freezing 14 degrees, the visitors would step out properly accoutered against the elements in the essential multi-pack of topi, muffler and sweater. The topi to beat all topis was, of course, the balaclava or monkey cap. We could always recognise the tourists whenever we saw a crowd with their heads and faces covered like bank robbers or Everest mountaineers, walking around the streets in search of fish and rice restaurants.
The association of the Bengali with the monkey cap, often made in a humorous way, is something that we are all used to. It may be that some people have started taking the jokes seriously and consciously avoid the stereotype. Or it may be that there’s nothing more at work than fashions changing, and one glorious day monkey caps and bell bottom trousers will make a triumphant return. In any case, no offence is usually taken to the humour around this stereotype – a rare example in today’s world, where any joke about any group becomes immediate cause for outrage.
The pushback against politically-incorrect humour, like the pushback against the new farm laws, was led by people from Punjab. Journalist and writer Khushwant Singh, who authored, among much else, a series of popular joke books, was one of those who faced the heat in the early days of activism against stereotypes in humour. In 2004, he received notices from the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, the organisation that manages gurdwaras of north India, for his sardar jokes. Singh’s books, with their Santa-Banta references, however continued to publish and sell. Eventually, a bunch of court cases against such jokes was filed, and the matter reached the Supreme Court. The honourable judges asked how a ban might be enforced, and said, “We are clear on the issue that the courts cannot lay down moral guidelines for citizens. We cannot issue guidelines to regulate individuals”. The court had also observed that, “Today it is Sikhs. Tomorrow, people from the North East will come and seek a direction that there should be a ban on anyone referring to them as ch*nk*es. Day after that, the people living below Vindhyachal will seek a ban on North Indians referring to them as Madrasis”.
There is no ban yet on the word 'Madrasi' but the word 'ch*nk*' to refer to people from North East India is indeed banned now – not by the courts, but by the Home Ministry. The aim of the ban, instituted after the death of a young Arunachali man in Delhi following a fight that began with racial abuse, was to curb attitudes of racism towards people from the region in mainland India. This was perhaps a necessary step to help raise awareness that such racial discrimination is wrong.
However, there has never been any attempt to curb similar attitudes in the North East itself, where ethnic and racial tensions are commonplace and ancient. Outsiders are referred to as 'dkhar' in the Khasi Hills, 'vai' in Mizoram, 'mayang' in Manipur, 'bongal' in Assam. Different Naga tribes have their own languages and different words for the outsider. There is even a popular acronym, 'IBI', which stands for 'Illegal Bangladeshi Infiltrator', that may be used for anyone whose name, religion, linguistic background and appearance match the stereotype. Every state has its own versions of the term, and the reference is generally to ethnicity, race and religion, not residency and citizenship. These are therefore racial terms. They are generally not used in jokes. They are used in all seriousness and have actual consequences for the “outsiders”, who constitute local minorities that have faced violent targeted attacks down the years in various parts of the region, and continue to face stereotyping that can land them in detention camps even now.
And yet…would banning all the derogatory and often racist terms for outsiders in the North East change people’s attitudes? A blasphemy law proscribing a certain word may raise awareness that a certain public behavior is socially unacceptable, but it cannot do very much more if the underlying attitudes have social acceptability. I remember a conversation with a person from the North East after the word 'ch*n*' was banned in India. Yes, she said, the kind of boys who used to call out that term to harass her had stopped using it. Now they were shouting 'momo' instead.
One can imagine a situation where, gradually, the entire Tibetan and Chinese menu are banned by the government of India, but even that would not suffice to end such verbal harassment, so long as boys catcalling girls continues. Any word from 'pancake' to 'banana' to 'ice cream' can be perceived as pejorative or loaded with innuendo; the insult is not in the meaning of the word but in the context and perceived intent of the speaker. This is why the worst abuses can be and indeed are often used, especially among school and college friends, as terms of familiarity and even of endearment. The gaalis signify old friendships. The same words used in the street for a stranger would lead to an immediate altercation or fight.
The idea of politically correct language, and especially of politically correct humour, misses a crucial point: the meaning of a word is not solely contained in the word itself.
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