The changing semantics of Indian polity

Tensions and communication hiatus are created when political power uses semantic manipulation with clear objectives and targets; they always use this effectively.

Published: 11th July 2022 01:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th July 2022 08:33 AM   |  A+A-

(Express Illustrations : Soumyadip Sinha)

(Express Illustrations : Soumyadip Sinha)

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. “it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” 

This much-quoted conversation from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is no kid stuff. It alludes to the riddle of words and their meanings, how a word acquires its ‘agreed-upon meaning’ and how meanings undergo change and when. Meanings change by semantic expansion or restriction, semantic deterioration or amelioration. Semantic shift happens all the while as language is a living force. 

However, this natural shift of meanings does not cause any disruption in social life. Tensions and communication hiatus are created when political power uses semantic manipulation with clear objectives and targets. Political movements always use this technique effectively and often for benevolent ends. During our Independence struggle, political linguistics was well used with several words acquiring new meanings. Expressions like Bharat Mata and Vande Mataram for instance outgrew their limited boundaries to convey far more intense patriotic feelings. 

In today’s India, we witness the strategic distortion and deterioration of the agreed meanings of quite a few familiar words. The ruling party and the government through concerted and targeted communication have been tweaking the meanings of cardinal words to their desire, delight and design. Familiar words are invested with strange meanings. Words such as nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, minority, culture, etc., now have acquired hitherto unimagined meanings. Their old meanings are almost discarded like expired credit cards. Simultaneously, a tamed mass media take upon itself the task of popularising these new meanings. The zealous social media and hyper-loyal anchors go to unimaginable extents to doctor videos and twist facts to substantiate the new meanings minted by the party and the regime. 

It is axiomatic that any text without a context is a pretext. To hammer in the new meanings to the old words, suitable contexts are essential. National security and national pride are the preferred matrix around which narratives are woven to create contexts and install new meanings. When India today endorses declarations in international forums and multilateral platforms upholding media freedom, democratic right to dissent, freedom of expression, inclusive growth, and such lofty ideals, they often appear as doublespeak as they jar with real-life situations. 

Nonetheless, they set the background to sharp-focus the new narratives required to legitimise new meanings. Using the language of virtuous ideals even as practices are contradictory is a strategy to distort meanings. Consistent use of democratic rhetoric for undemocratic applications rewrites the definition of democracy in the public consciousness. It creates contradictions and disarray in national life with robust pillars shaking and trusted terra firma turning quagmire. Contradictions roam around like fearless jackals. Individual rights get crushed in the name of rule of law, complete with the bulldozer and non-bailable arrest warrants. 

While the environmentally responsible governance with a thrust on renewable energy and carbon neutrality is the accepted narrative, the eco-sensitivity norms are merrily diluted and the new four-lane mountain highway project connecting the ‘char dhams’ that threatens the fragile Himalayan ecosystem is green signalled without any qualm. With no solution in sight for the highest-ever unemployment, spiralling prices, fall in rupee value, farm crisis, jobless growth, increasing hunger and general distress in the post-Covid recession, leaders show the victory sign to an embittered people and speak the language of infallibility and glory. 

Hitherto respected and valued words are facing an existential crisis by the steady depletion of meanings. As per the new lexicon, liberal democracy is all about duties, secularism is the right of the majority community to have its way, human rights activism is anti-national, criticism and dissent are seditious, plurality is condescending tolerance of the other, volunteerism is subversion on the sly, political morality is smart politics sans morality, scientific temper is the pride in unsubstantiated feats in mythology, freedom of academics and institutions is the opportunity to sing paeans and play second fiddle to power. Anyone pursuing the old meanings of freedom, human rights and liberal democracy has to necessarily encounter the new lexicon of distorted meanings. 

The State reacts with such vehemence against these moonwalkers that it can kill their spirit forever. It is also a signal to potential dissenters. The strange sight of indignant public interest petitioners becoming the accused overnight is a typical case of semantic shift. Pertinently, the instant arrest of Teesta Setalvad and K B Sreekumar did not shock the nation sufficiently. For, in the past few years, our society has already consumed in small doses the hemlock of lowered expectations. Fear and self-censoring have already replaced open debates. Imagined phobias and constructed enemies are distorting the vocabulary of history and social justice. 

Whenever such massive semantic shifts of well-established ideas have taken place in history, their consequences have not been happy for humankind. The immediate result of this Babel-like situation is the collapse of communication among fellow citizens. The common fabric of shared meanings is tattered. 

For instance, democracy and secularism no longer mean what they used to signify in Nehru’s India. When the fearless exchange of ideas among the citizens has broken down as a result of semantic subversion, the flow of communication from the top to the bottom becomes the only worthwhile channel of ideation and grandstanding. That gives the leaders freedom to choose their preferred meaning for every word. And that indeed is an ominous power. Will history retrieve the lost meanings? 

K Jayakumar
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University


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