Updated: August 20, 2021 9:22:15 am
“Language,” the literary critic Terry Eagleton once wrote, “is the root of all identity. To tamper with it is either poetry or treason.” The Manohar Lal Khattar government in Haryana, though, does not seem constrained by these high-minded sentiments. In the most recent salvo in the seemingly perpetual battle between free speech and “hurt sentiments”, it has decided to go to bat in defence of the latter. According to a state government spokesperson, the chief minister of Haryana has decreed that the use of the phrase “gorakh dhanda” be banned in the state. “The expression cannot be used now in any context.” Gorakh dhanda is a colloquialism used in large parts of north India to describe unethical practices. Reportedly, Khattar decided to outlaw the phrase after meeting a delegation of the Gorakhnath community, who are ostensibly offended by it.
Words, of course, are curious things. Language can enforce inequalities, jokes can dehumanise people. On the other hand, language evolves and not every word and phrase — particularly when it morphs into metaphor — is an insult. Banning words for political considerations — or, in fact, for almost any other reason — is going down the slipperiest of slopes. Are poor dancers the target of a saying like “naach na jaane, aangan tedha”? Should schoolchildren no longer hear the phrase “andhon mein kaana raja”, lest it is deemed too ableist? After all, taken literally, these terms can be seen as offensive to some class of people or other.
In fact, by trying to prevent “hurt sentiments”, the government does a great disservice to the people it claims to protect. It makes children of adults, thinking of them as being swayed by the optics of banning words by an over-interfering father figure of the state. There are many followers of Gorakhnath, an 11th-century religious figure, but to use their piety as a political ploy to tamper with language is certainly not poetry.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 20, 2021 under the title ‘Word police’.