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Saturday, January 24, 2004

Often I am troubled by the lackadaisical deployment of certain words. Recently, I attended a small get together and as the discussion veered around to state of politics and corruption, the language that was used to explain various corrupt practices surprised me. For instance, many found Telgi, the kingpin of stamp scam, a very intelligent person! To my surprise I found quite a few using similar language to describe various corrupt practices. The most often heard statements have been: “He seems to be an intelligent person but he has gone too far” or “He is so intelligent, how did he get caught in the first place?”

We often do not realize the import of words that we are using. By deploying wrong words to describe a given phenomenon we might end up legitimizing an immoral act. If the acts of persons like Telgi are described as intelligent, then what does the word “cunning” connote. The word “intelligent” has a positive ring to it and does not connote any evil intention. When we say such and such a kid is the most intelligent in the class it implies that he attempts all the questions in the exam without resorting to malpractices. And strangely, some of us deploy the word “intelligent” to describe the behavior of scamster like Telgi. Imagine a kid listening to such a description and the image s/he will have of Telgi. What kind of role models are we giving our kids?

At a personal level, this blurring of distinction between intelligence and cunningness could prove costly as some of us may end up doing business with cunning people. On the other hand, the words that we deploy to describe a given phenomena determines various political outcomes. Take the recent case of violence in Assam. The people of Bihari origin have been described as “outsiders” or as “foreigners”. Once such words gain currency, exclusivist politics based on violence also gains momentum. Since "they" are “foreigners” it is perfectly legitimate to throw them out by whatever means available. Similarly, the slum dwellers or the pavement dwellers in the cities have often been described as an “eye sore” or as a “burden on the city.” This characterization has resulted in skewed public policies such as resettling the slum dwellers on the outskirts of the city. In some states, the major political parties went a step further and have been demanding large-scale evictions and banning the entry of immigrants into the cities, which is impermissible as every citizen has a right of movement, residence and employment all over the country. More importantly, the terms “eye sore” or “burden on the city” clouds many important services that slum dwellers provide to the city. The maidservant who works in residences and the cobbler who gives a timely stitch to the footwear all come from slums. Instead of “eye sore” the use of the word “service providers” to describe the poor in the city might bring about a qualitative shift in the understanding of the emergence of slums and policy initiatives to tackle the menace of squalor.

While the words that we deploy determine policy initiatives, the penchant for defining or classifying ideas in the social realm into either “the left wing” or “the right wing” has evolved into an authoritarian intellectual tradition. The words either “the left” or “the right” are freely attached to every new idea and as a consequence every new idea is not judged on its own merit. This does not augur well for a democracy, as the vibrancy of a democracy is contingent on free expression and honest assessment of new ideas. We must also realize that the battle for good governance should first be won in the realm of ideas. This requires that our definition and classification of corruption, instead of sounding like a eulogy, should expose the unethical behaviour and dangerous consequences of corruption.

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