Home Feature The Slippery Slopes of Semantics

The Slippery Slopes of Semantics



We’ve just dabbed our eyes after seeing the Republic Day Parade on TV. Since we have had a large number of Defence Services officers in our bloodline, this reaction should be expected. We don’t try to define it because definitions are attempts to bind concepts into the straight-jackets of words. But concepts flicker and change their form like sunlight filtering through wind-rippled leaves. It is this shape-shifting nature of words that has caused all the unrest spreading over our wonderful land today. It all spins around a single word: CITIZENSHIP. Some say, “Citizenship has been defined by the Constitution of India, particularly in its Preamble.” Others say “Just a minute! The Constitution has not been carved in stone by a supernatural power. Even its much quoted Preamble was changed by Mrs Indira Gandhi to insert the words Secular and Socialist in it. So what’s wrong if We, the Government, define citizenship to exclude some future arrivals!? Don’t we have too many people in India already?” The confusion lies not in the word but in the varied meanings given to it by the people using it. They use the same word but the two opponents define it differently. This happens so often around the world that it has given birth to a little known science: Semantics. It goes beyond the dictionary definition of words and considers the hidden social implications of them. To start with, “Semantics” is a Franco-Greek word. When a word migrates out of the land of its birth to another land, its character changes. The word avatar is an Indic word meaning “incarnation” But when it was taken out of India by the British, it evolved into the word atavistic: a primitive throwback! That is quite the opposite of the evolved avatar! According to the latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the total number of Indic words adopted by the English language is 384. It is impossible to speculate what those words, and their meanings, will be transformed into when processed through Brit imaginations. A similar process could have taken place in the minds of the two disputing parties seeking the meaning of “Citizenship”. Traditionally, Northern Indian society is paternalistic, and women are protected by their fathers- brothers-husbands-sons. Historically, their voices carried no weight. Even though they are known to wield considerable influence in family affairs, their role was seldom given formal recognition. This strange dichotomy was brought home to us when, after years of writing under a joint by-line, and receiving awards as a couple, another leading Indian tourism organisation decided to recognise us with an engraved silver plaque. We saw it, thanked them, but refused to accept it. The plaque carried only Hugh’s name. We accepted it only after this deliberate omission had been corrected. Our extensive tours around our land have convinced us that paternalism, and it vicious implications, was a historical accretion. Clearly, however, the prevalent paternalistic mindset prevents our netas from addressing groups of women protesters or young university students. Does the global recognition given to Malalla Yusuf Zai and Greta Thunberg disturb netas? Or, perhaps they have not even heard of these teen-aged girls because of their blinkered mindsets? This would not be unusual because there are still people in the USA who believe that the world is flat. Could this pre-digital mindset also explain why some of our netas refuse to even consider a revision of the Act? Do they draw their inspiration from a supposed tradition of an unquestioning obedience to the traditions and diktats of the elders? If adherence to tradition was so sacrosanct, would the wheel ever have been invented? A credibility gap is always filled by the wildest speculations which, if not corrected, burgeon into dangerous fantasy. A dialogue is in the highest traditions of Nalanda scholarship as the Dalai Lama has brought out frequently. So why are we caught between the rock of the perceived sanctity of traditions and the hard place of the aspirations of lakhs of women and young people? We can put a Band-Aid on this irritation. But then this “irritation” could grow out of control and spread to our still-peaceful little state. We shouldn’t slip down that slippery slope of semantics.