Return to frontpage

Sense and Sensibilities in India’s Political Discourse

India's political discourse, which was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi's unifying call for independence, has gone through various phases in the seven decades since freedom, each reflecting the political sentiments that have been at play. Photo: The Hindu Archives.

India's political discourse, which reached a national characteristic during the freedom struggle, has travelled through several phases since Independence. If the pre-1947 period was a time for messages of unity and commonality, the first breath of independent India was rife with political elan, an aspiration for modernity. In the later decades, India heard varying levels of rhetoric and political vocabulary to suit the times. As the nation approaches its seventy-fifth Independence anniversary next year, facts-based debates are off the public space and the popular discourse has plummeted to a low point in which hate speech sets the tone for divisive narratives.

In this Essay, G.N. Devy, Chairperson of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and cultural and literary critic, contextualises the changes in the country’s political vocabulary. He takes a broad view of India’s political values and the accompanying use of language. Observing the public narratives over seven decades of independent India through the lens of sociolinguistics, Devy draws out the linkages between popular discourses and the political ambience of the nation at various periods; and expresses concern that the political discourse on the block is weakening the respect for constitutional values.

1. Discourse at the Margin

There is no exact synonym for the word 'discourse' in my mother-tongue, Marathi. It is not available in Gujarati and Hindi as well, the two other Indian languages I know. If one seeks to locate the concept, 'discourse', in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and many other Indian languages, one would have to inevitably invoke the term  paribhasha,  a derivation from Sanskrit. However, there is an element in both 'discourse' and ' paribhasha'  indicating a close kinship between their semantic formation. The two prefixes— pari  in  paribhasha  and  dis  in 'discourse'—provide this link. Pari   of Sanskrit extraction, indicates the peripheral, as against the essential, central, or substantial.  The Latin  dis , which in other contexts may mean 'death' or 'non-being', means in conjunction with  cursus  exactly the same: 'away', 'far', 'distant'.

A common dictionary definition of the English term, 'discourse', indicates that it is of late Middle English origin. It denoted ‘the process of reasoning’. It was drawn upon the Old French  discours , which, in turn, was drawn upon  discursus  in Latin. In its original Latin usage, it meant 'running to and fro'.  Understandably, therefore, dictionaries of synonyms pair 'discourse' with 'chat', 'colloquy', 'conversation', 'dialogue', 'exchange' and 'discussion'. In all of these, the most significant denominator is the mode of communication—speech.

Discourse is speech or conversation somewhat off the mark from the central tenets of the area being discussed.

Thus, discourse is speech or conversation somewhat  off the mark , away from the central tenets or arguments of the area being discussed. Political discourse, understood from this perspective, is what is  being said about  and not the fundamentals of governance or principles of political philosophy. Political discourse, therefore, is as related and at the same time as much unrelated to the course of political actions as is a publisher’s catalogue to the published books. Discourse in its various forms is an advert, an addendum, an address, and not the thing, action or thought itself.

2. Politics and the Language of Discourse

Normally, when foundational political values change, a similar shift takes place in the discourse related to them. A classic example can be drawn by comparing some of the Vedic texts with texts from a later era, both produced under different political contexts. Two references drawn from two different periods of ancient India are indicative of how political philosophy has evolved.

The section of  Yajur Veda, now recognised as the  Ishovasya Upanishad (Isa Upanishad),  begins with the famous dictum, 

Ishavasyam idam sarvam yat kim cha jagatyam jagat;
tena  tyaktena bjunjita, ma gridhah kashyasvid dhanam.
"(Know that) all this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by God. Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation; do not covet what belongs to others." 1

The political context for this formulation, during the closing centuries of the second millennium BCE, was provided by a setting in which neither were the lives of a population fully in the grip of a feudal state, nor were human-land relations governed entirely by ideas of ownership.

A thousand years later, the  Manusmriti,  compiled under a different political backdrop and has since then been India’s gravest stumbling block in creating a humane and equitable social order, states: "Whatever exists in the world is the property of the Brahmana; on account of the excellence of his origin, the Brahmana is, indeed, entitled to all." 2

The political context for this formulation was the tussle between Buddhism and Brahminism. D.D. Kosambi, probably the most perceptive commentator of social strife in ancient India, discusses at length how 'the middle path' propounded by Buddhism was different from the life of the forest dwelling hunter-gathers of the time and the more settled society following ' yagna ' (rituals of offering). This inevitably brought the 'middle path' in clash with the established class of priests and merchants and, eventually, receded into the background, even as it spread outside India without much use of force and violence. 3

Surprisingly, the key phrases in the verse from the  Ishovasya Upanishad  and the one from  Manusmriti  have a remarkable linguistic closeness.  Just as the former uses the phrases ‘yat kin chit' (not even a small bit) and ' jagatyam jagat', the latter uses ' yat kin chit' and ' jagatigatam' (pass your life in this world).  These two phrases occur in both texts; and one need not think of this as a mere coincidence. Not just that, the design of Manusmriti rests on the use of the Anushtubh poetic meter, the most preferred by some of the major Upanishads. It is interesting to note that the other major texts of the period such as Bharat’s Natyashastra and Gautama’s Dharmasutra had moved to a mix of prose and verse.  Manusmriti kept close to the traditional style and meter.  In one of its dictums (verse 4.124), it states that the Yajur Veda was meant for use by humans, while the Rig Veda was for the gods.  The affinity ends when we come to the ideas promoted through the Manusmriti .  The closeness of vocabulary cannot be seen as merely incidental but needs to be read as a deliberate subversion of the original. The Manusmriti is full of such undermining of the noble ideas in the Upanishads that had historically preceded it.  The linguistic affinities helped this smriti in claiming authority among the followers of the Vedic rituals. Nonetheless, they provide foundations for two diametrically opposed political philosophies: the aspiration for equity versus the justification of hierarchical superiority.  Here, the political philosophies had changed, the related discourse had changed; but their linguistic expressions had not.

It is also quite possible that although the principles of politics show no significant shift from one era to another, the political discourses of given two eras are significantly different.  A good example of this can be seen in the long history of feudal kingdoms in India (or elsewhere).  The political discourse about the feudal system during the 12 th  century and the 16 th  century shows a major shift as exemplified, for instance, by Kalhana's  Rajatarangini   (1184 AD) and Al Badouni's  Tarikh-i-Badayuni  (1595 AD).  At first sight, the intents of Kalhana and Badouni look very much alike and so do the structures of their works.

Though spaced apart by four centuries,  Kalhana and Badouni may appear fairly similar to a 21 st century reader.

Kalhana as well as Badouni enjoyed royal patronage and had the express intention of depicting the ruler as the epitome of princely qualities.  Both works, Rajatarangini   and Tarikh-i-Badayuni , spend enormous energy in drawing up long lists of preceding rulers, presenting complicated genealogies, and establishing claims over ancestry which, on a proper historical scrutiny, appear more imaginative than factually accurate.  Kalhana tried to cover the period from 1182 BCE to his own time, and Badouni from 977 AD (going back to the first Islamic ruler Sabuktigin) to his own time. Though spaced apart in time by four centuries, with Kalhana in the 12 th century and Badouni in the 16 th century, they may appear fairly similar to a reader in the 21 st century.  However, on more careful reading, it becomes clear that Badouni is capable of irony and sarcasm when commenting on the royalty of his day while Kalhana displays no comparable 'critique' of Sri Harsha of Kashmir.  Badouni had ample criticism of Akbar's religious views to offer; and his work had to kept guarded for a decade after Akbar's death, well until Jahangir's hold over the Mughal empire was well established. By comparing Kalhana with Badouni what we learn is that a shift in discourse style cannot always be taken as an indication of a corresponding shift in the politics that the discourse depicts.

The apparent disconnect between politics of a given era, its discourse and the linguistic expression used by the discourse cannot, however, be seen as an indication of non-relation among them.  Politics and political culture are not the only source of a given political discourse.  It arises primarily out of the linguistic resources available in that era.

3. Long Lasting Dreams in Different Language-Styles

A settled terminology used for discussing politics gives way to a different one due to several factors such as changes in labour practices, emergence of new technologies, economic shifts and population migrations, which are all intimately linked with politics but cannot be described as politics.  In other words, political discourse acquires new forms not only when a new power system emerges but also without such a power-shift having taken place: when the language in which the discourse circulates undergoes a significant style-shift.

Two examples from two different periods from another country are instructive. About a century and half ago, a short speech made at Gettysburg by Abraham Lincoln, brought a war-torn U.S. back to its senses.  He was speaking about Americans who gave their lives so that equality continues to live:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives so that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this...
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us --– that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –-- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain –-- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –-- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (November 19, 1863)." 4

In the last week of May 2020, a Black American victim of police violence, George Floyd, in his last 127 words spread over an 8-minute desperate final gasp for breath, said exactly the same as Lincoln had said. Or, as Joe Biden put it during his election campaign for the U.S. Presidency, "There can be no realization of the American Dream without grappling with the original sin of slavery." 5  Floyd's words will go down in history as an immortal outcry for the right to dignity and equality:

"It's my face man; I didn't do nothing serious man; Please; Please; please I can't breathe; please man; please somebody; please man; I can't breathe; I can't breathe; please (inaudible); man can't breathe; my face; just get up; I can't breathe; please; a knee on my neck; I can't breathe; … I will.  I can't move. Mama; Mama. I can't; my knee; my neck; I'm through; I'm through. I'm claustrophobic. My stomach hurt; my neck hurts; everything hurts; some water or something; please, please. I can't breathe officer don't kill me. They're gonna kill me, man. Come on man. I cannot breathe.  I cannot breathe; they're gonna kill me; they're gonna kill me. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.  Please sir, please, please, please. I can't breathe." 6

Floyd's words, literally his dying declaration, had a question in it and that was: 'is not a black person in America entitled to the right to life to the same degree as the white people are?'  Lincoln, having fought the civil war precisely on that question, put it more eloquently in his immortal speech.

What is even more important for us to know than the ideal of equality embedded in the two articulations is that the Floyd case put in sharp relief the right-wing hatred generated and legitimised during Donald Trump’s presidency.  The entire Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that changed the outcome of the U.S. Presidential elections in 2020, found deep resonance in the minds of Indians who felt perturbed by the rampant instances of mob-lynching of Dalits and Muslims in India and the support they received from the Modi regime.  The infamous outpouring of venom towards protesting Muslims by a prominent BJP politician, ' goli maro salon-ko''7 in early 2020 brought to mind the entire George Floyd episode and the BLM in the U.S. and made one think as to why such a movement had not immediately sprung up in India.

The difficulties in deciding if discourse is merely a linguistic extension of political action; if change in discourse-style is necessarily change in discourse; and if no such change in style is at all any indication of continuity of ideas, trends, moves and mobilisations in the political arena, any conclusions drawn about changing political discourse merely on the basis of linguistic, cinematic or artistic articulation related to politics are essentially tendentious and tentative.  With this caveat, I turn to recording the style-shifts in political semiotics in my experience.

4. Political Semiotics Since Independence

I was born in the year India became a Republic and my political awareness started acquiring a definite character when India experienced the Emergency during the mid-Seventies. The intervening decades had seen the rise of sartorial political statements. Gandhi's charkha and khadi were still in the air; but a greater elan had entered the sartorial habits of public figures. The clothes they wore were starched and ironed and jackets they wore had a shine that the coarse khadi in the past never had. In those same decades, larger than life posters of netas started capturing the imagination of people.

From 'unity in diversity' and 'scientific temper', slogans moved closer to the imagery of commands, demands and desires.

Particularly in large metropolises, these posters, vying with cinema-posters, had become an essential element of the urban public art. The sartorial texture, the tone of the pigments used for the posters as well as the language used in public spaces started to change in the Seventies. Compared with phrases in the Fifties and Sixties, 'unity in diversity' and 'scientific temper', the slogans moved closer to the language and imagery of commands, demands and desires. Catchwords such as "so and so  amar rahe" , "so and so  ki jay" , "so and so  zindabad , or "so and so  murdabad" —all denoting either praise or protest—started looking dated. The new slogans were, in contrast, either command phrases such as " garibi hatao" , "Indira hatao, desh bachao" somewhat reminiscent of the 1942 ' chale jao ’ (quit India) movement; or they were explicit desire words such as ' nav-niramn ,' ' sampurn-kranti ’', 'X revolution'.

One interesting word, a strange mix of noun and verb, that came in use was ' gherao' . It worked both as a noun and as a verb; it was also a visual image and it tied up with numerous past cultural practices involving a community dance in a circle such as the garba in Gujarat, Raas in the Hindi heartland and Bihu in Assam. It stuck to the public imagination.  The political diction of the Fifties and the Sixties was dominated by the remnants of the freedom struggle, the idiom of the Seventies and the Eighties was driven by Left politics, with West Bengal on the forefront.  Words like hartal , boycott, satyagraha and picketing had started looking worn out and inconsequential, and the words that sounded politically more potent were 'strike', 'lock-out', 'campaign', 'encounter', 'defection', 'lobby-crossing', 'syndicate' and even 'Indicate' (group loyalty to Indira).

The generation of the 1980's that grew up watching TV and with access to STD booths, cordless telephones, fax machines and early versions of computers befriended a new political lingo. In it, initially, 'taking India to the 21 st century', 'modernisation', ' roti-kapada-makan ' and then, 'coalition' and 'fronts' overtook the era of the terms like ' jal-jungle-jamin ’, strike and gherao. But during the Nineties, after the Babri Masjid demolition, terms close to various shades of violence and bloodshed took centre stage. These terms included 'terrorism', encounter, ' Mandir-Masjid' , riots, and a very quaint and comically ancient looking 'rath-yatra'.

The decade that followed, which also marked the start of a new century, was relatively a digression from this rather violent public discourse.  The terms in greater circulation in political space were: stock-market, the BSE, spectrum, liberalisation (though of 1990 vintage), globalisation, 2K, GenX, millennium babies, and—with meaningless frequency—'sustainable', 'transparent' and 'accountable'.  The soothing terms became a bit subdued. After 2008, as banks and economies started collapsing the world over, these passed through a phase of serious self-doubt. In India, for a while the terms that appeared in political news stories with great frequency were 'coal-block', 'spectrum' and 'scam'; but having served their political purpose, these terms quickly took a backseat, and a completely new set of terms entered the news-TV studios and the ever-reduced number of newspaper pages.

5. Post-Truth Jargon of Street-Smart Politics

These new terms, initially confusing as they were street-smart, were in most instances quite ungainly. Besides, they were not derived from existing dictionaries of political terms in which a word and its meaning had a fairly respectable correspondence.  These terms came from an unprecedented glossary called 'post-truth.'  Their claim to truth-value was based on just the fact that they were uttered for the followers of a neta to 'forward' them habitually on social media in all directions without worrying if they meant what they are supposed to mean.

Language is a strange system of signification.  In it, deciding the meaning of some really difficult-looking terms is easier than explaining the meaning of some easy looking terms. For instance, the emergence of humans as "a significant force in the Earth System, altering key process rates and absorbing the impacts of global environmental changes" prompted scientists to propose that the current geological period (since the 18 th century), be called the 'Anthropocene' epoch. 8 In this era, "the expansion of mankind, both in numbers and per capita exploitation of Earth's resources has been astounding" to the extent that "mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come." 9   As I have noted elsewhere, this is also a phase in human civilisation in which there is an admission that "the human footprint on Nature has crossed the tipping points." 10

In contrast, 'nature', a relatively simple looking term, may pose great difficulties in explaining it with certainty. Does it mean 'all that exists before and after Life'? Does it mean 'human characteristics, the human nature'? Or is it 'all that is not culture', or something else and divine? And if it means all of these, the inner contradictions between them make one wonder how or why this term carries within it so much paradox. 11

Though created for explaining meaning, no good dictionary pretends to know what 'meaning' means.  This is not because compilers of dictionaries are ignorant but because they know quite well that meanings of words shift from time to time, and often words are employed precisely in order to cause such a shift.  Over the last few years, one has noticed a conspicuous shift in meanings of several words and expressions.  Here is a random list, though by no means exhaustive. 12

The gentle folk who like to talk about books, culture and politics over a cup of coffee or a friendly peg are now called 'the Khan Market intellectuals'.  Those who feel that injustice anywhere—whether in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh, in a university or outside—is their concern and voice it are 'the tukde-tukde gang'.  Those who think that humans are humans irrespective of one’s religion are 'pseudo-secularists'. Anyone pointing out that the government is anti-people is 'a traitor or desh-drohi ’.  A person critical of the Prime Minister is 'an urban Naxalite.' A mob that wants to lynch an innocent person is 'protector of cows'.  The person who gets lynched is 'an offender deserving of an FIR.' ' Gharme ghusake marunga'   (will chase into their houses and thrash them) and ' chun-chunke marunga' (will get to everyone and beat them to pulp) oddly enough means the 'new idea of a welfare state’! Grant of citizenship means ‘not allowing people of a certain religion to reside in India’. ‘ kapde-se pahechane jate hei ’ ‘their dress reveals it all' means 'the people who do not like the Hindutva idea'. This last, by the way, is an antonym of ' suit-boot-ki sarkar'  which means ' Hindutva dressed up in a half-million worth jacket.' 13

The current political discourse has a high voltage sarcasm and a special like for Orwellian euphemisms.

The current political discourse,  thus, throws up a surfeit of iconoclastic attacks on ideas and ideals held dear by Indian people over the past decades.  It also has a high voltage sarcasm and a special like for Orwellian euphemisms.  In George Orwell’s famous work 1984, for instance, "the Ministry of Truth is the Ministry whose duty it is to propagate lies—that is to say, to alter history from time to time as may be convenient to the masters of the Party". 14   Politicians in India appear to have far surpassed Orwell’s skills in this department.

The post-2014 accent in political discourse owes a lot to the changing media technology.  The virtual and digital manifestation of politics has travelled a long way from the banners, posters, cheap print handbills and the political evening-bulletins. Political communication has recently become virtual and the enormous speed with which it comes in and goes out makes veracity of what is sent out superfluous.  If thousands of paid IT techies are appointed by a leader or a party to splash by the hour laudatory views and visuals, it is not difficult for the leader or the party to acquire a super-human image in a brief time.  Holograms, rather the person in flesh and blood, tweets rather than conversations,  images clad in fancy costume rather than real time media interviews are used to captivate minds of the people, it is not so difficult to divert the nation’s attention from the grey patches and policy-blunders.

Thus, demonetisation, which hit the economy in its solar-plexus, was depicted as the last stop on the road to bring black- money out; the loss of soldiers on the Chinese border as a diplomatic victory; discrimination against Muslims at the heart of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 15 as great piety shown to foreigners seeking shelter; the handing over of education to private sharks as bringing dignity to Indian knowledge and the tragic plight of the nation in the COVID-19 pandemic as 'we have defeated Corona'.

In order to cement the cracks developing in this 'feel good' blitz, the news of the PM being received with an overwhelming welcome by countries outside India, or his receiving various international awards, images of his mystifying meditation visit to caves in the Himalayas, were doled out.   If one raised any doubt about the material conditions of the country, the techies double over as trolls and do a carpet bombing of abusive messages.  The discourse has indeed gone high tech and fast speed.  In the process, it has made political realities and economic facts the least important part of what is being talked about.

Labour, production, distribution, rights, entitlements, justice and such other terms – once central to the political discourse – are no more necessary as the discourse moves from the real world to the virtual world.  The Ministry of Truth is all about 'positivity' in the minds of citizens.  Anything less, or anything else stands the risk of being jeered at or simply being described as 'sedition'.  The sedition law has become more supple than ever before.

There is no point in looking up the etymological roots of the terms that have gained currency during the BJP rule in India, for its roots are in the non-scientific theses on Indian culture, society, history and philosophical traditions postulated by the founders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). 16   As one switches on the All India Radio news bulletin, the very first words that roll out are "pradhan mantri Narendra Modine aaj kaha..." (Prime Minister Modi said today); and seldom is a word uttered about citizens dying in crowded hospitals for want of oxygen supply and ventilator beds.  One saw in the recent West Bengal elections, top leaders exercising phonetic skills that amounted to 'cat-calls', with the term ' didi' (dear sister) said in a manner that verges on the lewd and at the same time vengeful.

The current discourse displays the art of misnomers cultivated to the point of being a refined 'science'.  This involves inventing new names in order to wipe out the old popular usages.  Aurangzeb Marg in Delhi, a road that has importance in India’s modern history, is named Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road.  The statue for India's first Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, is made the 'tallest' so that the debate about who was taller as a leader—the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru or Patel—can be given a sense of finality.  The birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi is named ' swachchata din' (cleanliness day), and posters of Barrister M.K. Gandhi as just a suggestive pair of glasses are put up, reducing the world-famous leader of the Indian freedom struggle into no more than a cleanliness faddist.  The discourse is fast busy wiping out historical memories that are associated with all ideologies other than the one that the RSS claims as its own.

Nearly a century after the freedom struggle, the political discourse, politics, and political values are seen as being in an organic unity.  The difference between the freedom struggle and the present phase in India's history is that the freedom movement had elevated people's horizons by bringing them close to the dream of a free nation with possibilities of reducing inequalities.  The present discourse, and its attendant politics and political vision fly straight in the face of  the constitutional guarantees and values.  They are over busy depicting an imaginary picture of ancient India as a civilisation with no philosophical flaws, no social warts, no moral deficiencies and coaxing unwilling citizens to own that imaginary past as the highway to India's future as a ‘vishwaguru' (mentor of the world).  Post Truth is a term that Donald Trump would have gleefully used to describe it.

6. The Jargon and Future of the Indian Dream

The study of Mass Psychology may explain aggressive verbal behaviour as part of a strategy of appealing to the baser elements in the ego-field for creating a new brand of politics. Historians may place this political discourse in the category of vandalised public morality. Linguistics has a different take on this matter.  It investigates and assesses viability of the discourse.  Language, whatever else it may be, is a social system.  Once new meanings get associated with some already existing expressions, they no longer admit the monopoly of their first users.  This means more and more members of the political class will use them, more and more frequently.  Contempt and hatred offer to their first users a sense of self-proclaimed moral superiority, albeit a false sense.  When they are used by all, such words besmirch the terrain ethical. 17

Once new meanings get associated with already existing expressions, they no longer admit the monopoly of their first users.

The hate school has managed to degrade the public discourse to the level of a gladiatorial contest with jeering onlookers.  In his time, Mahatma Gandhi contributed to the public discourse words like ' swaraj' , ' satyagraha' , ' ahimsa' , 'civil-disobedience' and 'truth'.  Together, they gave a moral edge to the freedom struggle. What the hate school has contributed to India’s public discourse has by now become commonplace.  Every family, every evening, gets a taste of this new discourse as the TV sets are switched on. Violence in language is worrisome; its normalisation and socialisation, even more so. 18

Dictionaries may find it difficult to pin down the meaning of 'meaning'; but human societies certainly know how to negotiate assault of violent language on civility and common decency in public discourse. Language, indeed, is a strange system.  It has an inner resilience: when aggressive language tends to become language aggression, language declares a semantic strike. It disallows communication and the possibilities of dialogue come close to an end.  Any Linguist will tell us that the wide-spread anti-CAA protests in India were not just a rejection of the discriminatory CAA, the National Register of Citizens, and the National Population Register. The sit-in dharna of the farmers over the last several months asking for the repeal of the farm laws is not just about agriculture.  It is a lot more. It is saying that unless the 'hate school' does not cure itself of the hate filled language, dialogue of any kind will be impossible. 19

The political discourse is weakening the respect for constitutional values expected of those who come to power.

The political discourse on the block is weakening the constitutional propriety and respect for the constitutional values expected of those who come to power and take an oath of safeguarding the constitution, not as an omission but as a deliberate commission.  Next year, the country will have completed seventy-five years of Independence.  That glorious moment was marked by the hope of equality, dignity, and freedom to all, which soon after got enshrined in the Constitution of India.

The trajectory of India's political discourse from that point till today can be captured by re-reading side by side the two verses, respectively, from the Isa Upanishad  and the Manusmriti .  Mahatma Gandhi stated in his discourse on the Isa Upanishad that that particular verse reflects the very best in India’s history. It is for us to decide if the present regime has not reserved its best compliments for the verse from Manusmriti , which in a contemporary application, justifies and entrenches new and avoidable hierarchies in today’s socio-political context.

Note: Parts of this Essay were earlier published by the author in a column, "Speaking Violence", at The Telegraph Online , on February 6, 2020. [].

[ Dr G. N. Devy , is the Chairperson of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), a project to capture how people identify, name and perceive what they speak, which has published 38 volumes on the Languages of Indian States, Indian Sign Language, and International Languages. A Padma Shri awardee for Literature and Education (2014),  Devy has authored and edited books on Literary Criticism, Anthropology, Education, Linguistics and Philosophy. He can be contacted at [email protected] ].


[ All URLs are last accessed on May 14, 2021 ]

1. Radhakrishnan, S. 1953.The Principal Upanishads , George Allen & Unwin, London, p. 567.  []. Return To text.

2. Panda, N.C. (Ed). 2014:Manusmirti (Text with Sanskrit Commentary and English Translation) , Volume-I Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, Delhi. p. 41. Return to Text.

3. Kosambi, D.D. 1965.The Culture and Civilisation of  Ancient India . London: Routledge and KeganPaul. pp. 97-103.  Return to Text.

4. Abraham Lincoln Online [n.d.]: The Gettysburg Address , November 19, 1863. [].

Note by author : Ever since Lincoln wrote it in 1864, this version has been the most often reproduced, notably on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It is named after Colonel Alexander Bliss, stepson of historian George Bancroft. Bancroft asked President Lincoln for a copy to use as a fundraiser for soldiers ("Bancroft Copy"). However, because Lincoln wrote on both sides of the paper, the speech could not be reprinted, so Lincoln made another copy at Bliss's request. It is the last known copy written by Lincoln and the only one signed and dated by him. Today it is on display at the Lincoln Room of the White House. Return to Text.

5. Smith, A. and Memoli, M. 2019 . Biden delivers most significant speech yet on race, says silence on hate 'is complicity' , , September 16. []. Return to Text.

6. Oppel Jr., R.A. and Barker, K. 2020 . New Transcripts Detail Last Moments for George Floyd , The New York Times, July 8. []. Return to Text.

7. Hindustan Times . 2020. BJP supporters erupt into 'goli maro' slogans at Delhi poll rally, asked to stop , February 7. []. Return to Text.

8. Moore III, B.2000. Sustaining Earth's life support systems – the challenge for the next decade and beyond , Global Change News Letter, The International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP), The Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, May, No 41. p. 2. []. Return to Text.  

9. Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F. 2000. The "Anthropocene", Global Change News Letter , The International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP), The Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, No 41. pp. 17-18. []. Return to Text.

10. Devy, G.N. 2020.Speaking Violence: Public discourse and the democratic response , The Telegraph Online, February 6. []. Return to Text.

11. Ibid.Return to Text.

12. Ibid.Return to Text.

13. Ibid.Return to Text.

14. Hollis, C. 1956.A Study of George Orwell- The Man and His Works, Racehorse Publishing (2017), New York. p. 192. Return to Text.

15. The Gazette of India. 2019.The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 , Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, December 12. []. Return to Text.

16. Devy, G.N. 2020. Op. Cit.Return to Text.

17. Ibid.Return to Text.

18. Ibid.Return to Text.

19. Ibid. Return to Text.

  1. Comments will be moderated.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.