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Of language and politics -The Asian Age


The use of political language, in discreet and decent fashion, is what makes politics appealing in our times. Unfortunately, there have been all the examples of bad or less than desirable language which has often left us disappointed. Think here of Trump and Bolsonaro and Duterte.

Here, in our part of geography, are we surprised at all given the long, dark story of politics in the Indian subcontinent? In the 1960s, as we have said so many times before, Field Marshal Ayub Khan informed a shocked Pakistan that if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League went ahead with their Six-Point demand for autonomy, the state would not hesitate to employ the language of weapons against them. In the end, of course, Ayub walked away into the evening without using those weapons. But his successor Yahya Khan made sure that weapons were used, and massively, against the Bengalis. His army ended up killing three million of them.

In late February 1971, as people in both wings of Pakistan prepared to have their newly elected national assembly meet in Dhaka, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto served notice that any West Pakistani lawmaker who travelled to East Pakistan would have his legs broken. Years later, as Pakistan’s prime minister, Bhutto proved that he could indeed break people’s legs. He had his goons physically assault and maim one of his earliest allies, J.A. Rahim, when the latter inadvertently sneered at Bhutto’s feudal mentality.

Indiscreet language in politics has always led to disaster, or to results that have caused much distress among people. The Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray was a clear instance of how communal politics endangered the lives of men and women everywhere. He hated Muslims, just as there are hordes of Muslims who see everything wrong with Hindus and Hinduism. And he once recommended that Muslims in India be pushed into the sea or kicked out of the country. In Pakistan and even in Bangladesh, there are rabid Muslims for whom all other religions are anathema.

And that brings you to the matter of the sheer happiness with which Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, as prime minister of Bengal, declared a province-wide holiday on 16 August 1946 to observe the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day. The result was four days of murder and mayhem that left thousands of Hindus and Muslims dead on the streets of Calcutta.

Suhrawardy’s apologists are of course all over the place, always informing us that his action has been taken out of context and ought to be put in perspective. But the fact is that Suhrawardy knew what he was doing. Writing in The Statesman on 5 August 1946, he stated his goal thus: “Bloodshed and disorder are not necessarily evil in themselves, if resorted to for a noble cause. Among Muslims today, no cause is dearer or nobler than Pakistan.”

The cause may have been understandable. The language was not. The ramifications of it were horrendous.In 1968, despite being a member of the Conservative Party shadow cabinet in Britain, Enoch Powell predicted ‘rivers of blood’ in the United Kingdom if immigration went on unchecked. That statement was properly seen as a manifestation of racism; and Powell paid the price. He was promptly sacked by opposition leader (and subsequently prime minister) Edward Heath. It was Powell’s language that did the damage.

And language often can be insulting. Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not do himself any favours when he denigrated the scholar Moulana Abul Kalam Azad as the show boy of the Congress or when he refused to shake hands with him. History has reserved a higher perch for Azad than for Jinnah. In similar fashion, when Iskandar Mirza threatened to shoot Moulana Abdul Khan Bhashani ‘like a dog’ in the 1950s, he was only exposing the crudity that underlined his personality. Mirza died in dishonorable exile. Bhashani would go on to earn his place in history.

And speaking of loaded, damaging language, we do not forget General Yahya Khan’s hubris as he informed Pakistanis on 26 March 1971 of what had happened in Dhaka in the preceding few days. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he said in much anger, had committed treason. “This crime”, he warned, “will not go unpunished.” The criminal, of course, was Yahya. And his punishment, of course, came in the form of the dismemberment of Pakistan.

One can be a prisoner of one’s language. At the height of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon told newsmen, “I am not a crook.” Subsequent events proved he was. Asked by newsmen if he would seek a second term in the White House, Lyndon Johnson said, with some degree of hauteur, “I shall cross the bridge when I come to it.” The bridge was already burning in Vietnam. And that second term never came to pass.