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Using words as swords: Power of speech in the COVID time ... and otherwise

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*
It was my PhD Defence day on Feb 20, 2015 at Erasmus University Rotterdam when my Thesis Supervisor, Prof. Jan Jaap Bouma, gifted a book titled, ‘Speeches that Changed the World’ written by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Quercus Publication), with a typical Dutch humor saying that my thesis arguments all through were positive and passionate and that I must use the assertive public speaking skill in future.
From the calls to arms to demands for peace, and from the cries of freedom to words of inspiration, the book as an anthology captures the voices of 54 influential people, including prophets and politicians, rebels and tyrants, soldiers and statesman, by placing them in historical context and seeing how words have triggered as well as tainted the society towards development and destruction.
As it was humbling that my supervisor read my characteristics and concerns, with great curiosity, I took up reading one speech a day after my return to then visiting professorship at Research Institute of Humanity and Nature in Kyoto. Simon starts with this line, “A great speech does not just capture the truth of its era; it can also capture the big lie.” While reading the speeches, I Google searched more about the leaders I was reading.
There I came across Shekhar Kapoor’s directorial serial on the Prime Ministers of India, namely, ‘Pradhamantri’. So simultaneously, I started watching the ‘Pradhamantri’. I would watch with interest on what Shekhar presented as ideology and parts of the speeches of the leaders that impacted the masses and the movements across India in the past.
The assertion of any ideology never influenced me, including the leaders whom I admire; instead, the logical arguments aligned with the current context and the values that I aspire impress me. Still, the accents in which the words impact the masses have been of great interest.
Since time immemorial, words have been more powerful than the swords, be it from Upnishad, Ramcharitmanas, Gita, Quran, Bible, to the works of greats like Tagore, Rumi, Shakespeare, Kahil Gibran; besides, in many cases when the words have resulted in literal swords with the greats like Ashoka, Akbar, Napolean, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler; and when the words were used as liberating swords by the greats like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Nehru, Ambedkar and many others.
In the recent time, while the speeches from the leaders across the world continue to be assertive and impactful, a shift in the vocabulary of the speeches is negatively impacting the masses and the movements across the country. The use of certain type of vocabulary by head of the state in India is a matter of concern.
I chose to write this article in reference to the national addresses made during the COVID time and how it is impacting and what can be a better vocabulary in this situation. I’ll discuss few words to understand the patterns that are hitting our psychology as swords. Before that, let us realise the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the content and intent of these speeches by the media and further by the masses.
I feel pushed to write as a follow up of my recent article on the class and communal viruses amidst the corona virus.
Post this, I read the script of the Prime Minister’s national addresses on television for the Lockdown-1 and 2. The speeches are assertive to be administrative and impactful on the ground too; however, they fail to impress by content and intent as they lack showcasing the democratic and scientific processes in the background. Further, the question is whether the impacts are positive, when there is a doubt that the COVID tests are not held enough, when the death toll of the migrants’ exodus isn’t made public, and then the communal hatred is exponentially heightened.

COVID

Language is certainly crucial in speeches. National addresses on COVID are delivered in Hindi (rightfully so) for better outreach to the masses; however, interestingly, the important words are chosen in English, such as, War, Fight, Win, Defeat, Lockdown, Social Distancing, and Donation. Ironically, in such Hinglish approach, these words get translated in Hindi as complete in themselves, since those come with prejudices, thus making the political vocabulary far more impactful than they are meant to be.
The first crucial words that are working like swords are Corona as a War that we the people must FIGHT, and we must fight to WIN and to DEFEAT the Corona war. Though COVID is serious and needs to be taken seriously, many people end up fighting the Hindu-Muslim war in a panic of spread of the virus, mainly because some media news information have bloated the communal angle way too much to bring distress situation in the society. There is more talking of communal virus among the media and the majority masses than the COVID itself.
Let us get it right! Let us first understand the meaning of COVID and the difference between a virus and a disease as the phrases are used interchangeably. Coronavirus is an umbrella term for a group of viruses that cause diseases like SARS and MERS. In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) referred the name COVID-19 where, the CO is for corona, VI is for virus, and D is for disease.
So, if it is a disease and a communicable one, let us use the medical terms for COVID address as, we need to prevent its spread ad cure if infected. The mindset of war and fight is a psychological disease, again inflated by politics and media constantly screaming and spreading the communal virus. Unfortunately, the four words ‘war, fight, win, defeat’ trigger a lot of adrenaline rush among the masses in specially pertaining to Hindu-Muslim and Pakistan, more so when many are sitting idle at home and frustrated in the COVID time.
I say this because of the ease with which the media and the masses slipped into the narrative of a group spreading the disease, which also got bloated to the Hindu-Muslim hatred on the ground, in the neighbourhood, and even to the extent of some Hindus taking pledge to not buy goods from Muslims, and government strategically announcing the COVID counts identifying the hotspots and ordering separate wards for patients based on religious faiths.
Mindset of war and fight is a psychological disease, inflated by politics and media screaming and spreading communal virus
So, let us get over this mindset of our winning over COVID or defeating COVID. COVID is here to stay just like the other corona viruses, as it reads from world health experts. In the meantime, if we may address the communal virus with more care, concern, and compassion, it will be better for healing the entire community. To do so, the national address must first stop using the words as swords, and simply use medical words to be more honest and help the people in fear to not get agitated with hatred and anger.

Lockdown

Then a crucial word that is working like a sword is Lockdown. When we put the prisoners, we say lock-up which means a small room, used as a prison in which criminals are kept for a short time; lock down means a state of isolation or restricted access instituted as a security measure. 
When the Jammu and Kashmir lockdown was imposed in defense of the abolition of Article 370 in August 2019, majority of the masses in the rest of the country interpreted it as a strict administrative action by the government for security reasons especially to control the ‘so-called’ terrorism in the valley.
But now, after seven and half months, when the entire country is under lockdown, it is considered more as a measure of health security. But, since we are interpreting COVID as a war that must be fought and defeated to come out as winner, the lockdown is emerging as serious down syndrome, including domestic violence and child abuse.
Since it is a medical-social measure and not a military outset, the lockdown declaration could be more positive than pessimist, such as home stay for rethinking health and happiness and helping the society from prevention of COVID. Even Home Quarantine serves better than the lockdown. 
The news of COVID spreads and deaths around the world is enough to create fear and has anyway made the masses follow the declaration, but the positive words could have curbed the negative energy that is now experienced inside the house and around in the society.
The anxiety level and the anger among men are on the rise as I get to hear everyday someone or the other in my township yelling at their family member. Not surprising that the helplines for domestic violence against women and child abuse are registering huge numbers since the police complaints and cases are apparently not getting registered.

Social distancing

Another crucial word that is working like a sword is Social Distancing. While the stress on social distancing for COVID is meant as physical distancing in its true translations regionally, besides meaning to avoid peoples’ congregation. 
In a diverse and divided society, it is no exaggeration to say that we have too many Distancing(s) happening especially in the last few years; besides, we distancing ourselves from the Ecology/ Mother Earth in the name of Development, where Economy is seen as Everything and that too at the cost of Empathy. Leaving the Ecology-Empathy (though at the core of everything) aside for a moment, we have come real far of Distancing ourselves from the social to economic to intellectual to political to judicial to now physical distancing and if summed up then from Humanity.
Anyway, I shall write an article soon on all the distancing-s.
The lockdown to prevent and cure COVID is appropriate to reflect upon the distances drawn amidst the aspiration to Make a New India that is a Smart One. The decisions and actions in this lockdown and the apathy of the poor and people in the cities clearly showed that the class distance is here to stay. It gives me shivers to imagine how the poor families with a room (of less than or nearly 30 square meters of national average area for housing for poor family of an average family size 4.5 persons) or a shack are expected to maintain a physical distance while quarantining at home.
In a diverse, divided society, it is no exaggeration to say that we have too many Distancing(s) happening in the last few years
Then, there are the regional and religious distancing across the class that too are here to stay, when we don’t even know our next-door neighbours’ names, region they belong, language they speak though we tend to know their religion. The imposition of social distancing in an already socially distanced society is more a domestic thing where even physical distancing is challenging with the rising domestic issues as discussed above.

Donation

Another crucial word is Donation. A deep gratitude to all those who are lending helping hands in this difficult time. The word donation is wrapped with a sense of being supreme and then be sympathetic to the vulnerable. We earn way too much and then are spending donations for income tax and of course to divert our financial resources in the areas that are concerning to us.
It may be considered na├»ve but cannot resist to say that what about earning an optimal and leaving the opportunities for others since, the economic disparity is more out of earning disproportionately than earning lesser (I’m not a Marxist!). Also, let us remember that poor people live more sustainably than the rich, but yes, the quality of life can be little better than what they are left with after our consumption. It is the rich people who need to change and be more responsible of their behavioural patterns of production and consumption (one of the sustainable development goals, SDG12). These days of donations in kind and cash may discontinue after the COVID and will never be enough since we did not make this thin distinction of supporting the needy in the society.
Let us remind ourselves that India ranked low in the World Giving Index 2018-19 despite informal culture of donation many of which are unfortunately leftovers from the donor both in foods and goods. But there is something more crucial in donation and that is Dignity. Gautam S Mengle rightly finds out from the poor people who are receiving donations as “…they said they were getting tired of surviving on the kindness of strangers …"
We must realize that being poor may be unfortunate situation, but the right to dignity cannot be taken away from the poor people. Anyway, leaving the behavioural aspects aside and focusing on the word, the greatness of donation by the donor and the recipient feeling small can be at the least made to appear humble by using a word for example, Support.
So, we must inculcate the supporting psychology more than donating psychology in the society. Reminds me of Lao Tsu’s article (about bodywork in Yoga Journal in 1986) that, “if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
So, even if we donate at the COVID time which may be deemed necessary (because we deprived them from the essentials since they are paid way too less to find the essentials affordable), let us do so to support them for longer period.
The other aspect of Donation is that it is a classic case of Governance Failure when the donation is drawn from the masses and is of ‘business as usual’ order (tax exempted) than doing charity since one has more to share through delegating responsibility by donating.
It is concerning that despite over production of crops and surplus food stocks at the Food Corporation of India, majority of the poor people in the country sleep either hungry or are under nourished. Let us also remind ourselves that India ranked 102 out of the 117 in the Global Hunger Index 2019.
Besides, the discriminatory labour laws of the country leaves certain sections of the society with low wages to afford a decent quality of life and then there are people who earn exponentially high and take pride in charity and many even do not do charity.
The concern related to the governance failure brings to the last crucial word that is PM-CARES. The moment PM-CARES fund was declared in the national address, people made the donations generously to the extent that the PM-CARES received Rs 6,500 crore of donation in a week which is three times more than what the long existing PM National Relief Fund got in two years.
Great! That the donations received is large, but then why people were not donating otherwise in first place? It leads to the logic that people are donating only when relief is called for (post the lockdown1-2 national addresses).
Still then, why would government call for donations in first place? Because unfortunately the healthcare spending is only 1.28% of the GDP and the doctor-population ratio is 1:1456 against the WHO recommendation of 1:1000. We are overdue on healthcare reforms. Further, why it should be called PM-CARES fund? Since, the PM-CARES fund is a private trust and not a governmental body and donations are no more voluntary actions when people are pushed to do so.
How about calling the PM-CARES Fund as WE-CARE Fund? After all it is a fund generated from We the People
Besides, the concern is the trickling of that donation fund to the ground/needy may be longer, politically strategic, curbed by the infamous bureaucracy and with no possibility for the fund’s accountability. Anyway, the point is the power of the words that raised the fund from We the People. But then, how about calling the PM-CARES fund as WE-CARE Fund? Afterall it is a fund generated from We the People. Simply again, the power of words from the speech!
What’s there in a name, but still I’m sure people will agree on the word WE-CARE too. It is important to mention here how the PM-CARES has also divided the masses (via media) in terms of nationalism as those who donated here are loud to announce; despite the fact that a large section of the society chose for local donations that also went equaling if not exceeding the PM-CARES fund in aggregation and where the donors are taking account of the on-ground activities.
Anyway, it is noticed that the world order of supremacy of the (populist) leaders is changing the political vocabulary. My final example that sums up the above words are the 2014-19 of, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas that got extended in 2019- to Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, in the national addresses.
However, though as a country we are better in COVID counts, the decisions and the actions in the COVID time have fallen extremely short of the inclusivity especially for the poor and the minority, and instead heightened the long existing class and communal issues as also coming out indirectly from the horse’s mouth finally.
I rest scrutiny of Words here with a tribute to my English teachers (1979-89), Henry Mam, Chaudhuri Mam and Thomas Sir, from Burgess English Medium School at Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh. The article is also dedicated to my mother who pushed me to reading English literatures to make notes for her Masters in English, when I was 15 years old.
I’m still not a good student of English, but it was only during my MPhil in 2005-06 at the University of Cambridge, I realized the struggle of using phonetic English when my guide, Late Prof Barry Moore, too, struggled with my thesis. The article is also written for my thesis students whom I constantly pester on use of right words in the presentations and reports.
We are all victims of Phonetic English in India since English is not the Mother Tongue. English, on the one hand, is just another language of communication full of fallacies given the sophism it has for it being global; Hindi, on the other hand, is clearer and more direct in its meanings and interpretations.
But when Hinglish is used in speeches (in Indian colloquial), there is this risk of using sophisticated English punch words that when picked up in isolation (like here too) and used in the media for transmission, their meanings get bloated leading to misinterpretations among the masses as we are witnessing in the country with class and communal impacts amidst the strict administration.
Thus, for speeches in Hinglish it is better to use positive English words, so that if picked up independently by the media and the masses in its Hindi avatars, there is a more optimism to lead us to more concern, care and compassion among the diverse community we are.
I conclude by endorsing and extending Simon’s line as, ‘Great speech(es) move the masses and therefore it is a great responsibility on the leaders to provide a positive direction to the movement’.
---
*With the Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad as partner; recently joined Amity University Chhattisgarh, Raipur as professor. Keen political observer, entrepreneur, researcher, educator, interested in learning and sharing

Comments

Mahima said…
Awsome you covered every aspect and power of words, media and politics. Great job
kiran said…
A masterpiece that unravels and bares the facades sugarcoated by the use of terminology so to speak.The complexity of the political economic and social alignments drawn by the prevaling seat of governance is very well interpreted and spoken with utmost honesty. Respect and much more power to the mighty pen of this author and all others who choose to speak their mind and mirror the events without mincing their words.

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