Words have meanings so let’s be careful

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Words have meanings so let’s be careful

Thursday, 06 September 2018 | Ishan Joshi

Words have meanings so let’s be careful

To ensure a level playing field between competing narratives, professional media needs to correct its nomenclatural biases

It’s time for a bit of navel-gazing before election season is truly upon us. Is it possible for professional media, and we use the term in a platform-agnostic sense, to achieve a consensus on nomenclature and terminology used in reportage of and commentary on competing narratives and adversarial contemporary discourse? That this is a desirable outcome, even a primary philosophical good, ought to be evident to anyone interested in the contestation of ideas in a civil, or at least non-violent, manner. But to enter a caveat at the outset, and narrow the constituency addressed for a practicable, workable solution as opposed to merely theoretical neatness, it may be more productive to focus the endeavour on players in print media (and their digital arms).

Not, we hasten to add, because of either an aesthetic or normative bias against Television and Online media platforms but because both of them are not part of any extant independent regulatory architecture. Of course, responsible newspaper television networks and Online portals do self-regulate as they should, just as Print does, and that is a sine qua non for the very existence of public interest journalism, even an extension of the social contract between the people and the powers-that-be.

But Print is the only section of non-Government media in India which is subject to both content (editorial) and corporate (commercial) regulatory mechanisms independent of exclusively peer-reviewed ones. To wit, the Press Council of India (PCI), Registrar of Newspapers in India (RNI), Directorate of Audi Visual Publicity (DAVP), Cabinet note of 1955 governing the ownership and activities of news agencies operating in the country and its 2002 amendment allowing limited FDI et.al.

Now, this is not to suggest in any way either that the current composition, functioning and power of the above bodies is ideal or that there are no specific laws which apply to satellite news television which has at least five major Government departments — Information and Broadcasting, Information Technology, Finance, Home and Corporate Affairs — to deal with on the commercial-operational side for ownership/investment rules and uplink-downlink permissions, et cetera. (Cable television is in a grey area and has a host of issues that need resolving before the long-delayed complete roll out of Direct-To-Home or DTH services.)

But the fact which needs to be underlined is that on the content regulation aspect for news television, it is essentially self-regulation and industry peer bodies which are the final arbiters apart from the occasional advisories from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry albeit without any structured process with rules laid down for transparent interaction, while Print has an extensive, arguably excessively intrusive, framework in which it has to operate. Exclusively digital professional media which is currently outside the purview of any independent regulatory framework obviously does not even come into play for the purpose of this discussion. And social media is a different species altogether and we make no comment on it whatsoever here.

The above is only a limited, broad strokes overview of the Indian professional media scene to provide the context in which we can advance our suggestion for nomenclatural normality, to begin with in Print.

We will use three examples of nomenclature frequently used in media reportage and commentary, randomly selected, to make our case. The immediate provocation for this effort is the advisory issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, incidentally not suo moto but based on an order of the Nagpur Bench of Bombay High Court, which has asked media outlets to refrain from using the term ‘Dalit’ and stick to the Constitutionally kosher Scheduled Castes and/or Scheduled Tribes. This is perfectly acceptable and sensible as long as it is limited to when used in a descriptive sense for the subject group. However, it should not include to mean the word Dalit can or should be ‘banned’ either in reportage or commentary.

For example, there are many for whom the word carries ideological resonance and they may choose to assert their normative preference by using the word to describe the subject group whether in a book, article or television discussion. That is their right. But professional media outlets which may have their own views/editorial line for or against such terminology which is representative of a particular ideological stand can always through even very basic style guides ensure that it is represented as a choice made by the contributor in his/her comment and is not the Constitutionally kosher terminology. In reportage, it is even easier to do — always use SC/ST unless in direct quotes attributable to the person making the statement whether at a public meeting or in a book and choosing to use ‘Dalit’.

Next, let’s take a dekko at the casual use of the phrases ‘extreme Right-wing’ and ‘ultra Left-wing’. It is not only a rather derivative discourse but also swallowing whole of both the knowledge claims of the Western secularised Christian discourse in the social sciences apart from being breathtakingly context-free historically. Our suggestion: As long as there is no violence indulged in, promoted, or supported/normalised in words, actions or logistics against State institutions, individuals or class/caste/other groups, all organisations of an extreme ideological persuasion drawing inspiration from the erstwhile Chairman of the Communist Party of China can safely be termed Maoist, which in itself is no crime. With the same conditions, the term for extreme socially conservative Indic dharmic organisations could be Revanchist. And the term for extreme theologically-cum-socially conservative Abrahamic-religions based advocacy/interest groups should consistently be prefixed with Christian, Muslim and so on. If and when there is an overlap or alliance of the above, the nomenclature could get interesting! But the bottom line is all individual members of the above groups are Indian citizens and unless violent they have a right to exist, even if at times in cloud cuckoo land. 

The third nomenclatural notion is simplicity itself. Any individual and/or group who challenges the monopoly over violence by the Indian state may fairly be described as a terrorist if a direct participant or terror sympathiser if s/he is demonstrably so. Of course, eternal vigil is required to ensure our state instrumentalities follow due process but there is neither any justification nor equivalence to be drawn. Oh, and ‘Militant’, ‘Separatist’ and the like are meaningless terms if the state has monopoly over violence and the territorial integrity of India is inviolable which are surely unexceptionable notions.

A lot of the above may be seen even by those simpatico to the argument being advanced as making a mountain out of nuances or even mere nomenclatural nitpicking. Critics of our argument, on the other hand, are likely to discern evil sophistry with an agenda in such an essay. Our purpose will be served if it makes all think about the issue and come up with their own argument which is slightly more intellectually engaging than chalta hai or let sleeping dogs lie. Nation-building in India which began in the ‘modern’ sense post-1947 is a work in progress and the words we use to define our positions will inform the kind of nation we will eventually become.

(The writer is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer)

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