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No room for logophobia

TV grab of members in the Rajya Sabha during the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, in New Delhi.

TV grab of members in the Rajya Sabha during the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: PTI

A Mullah Nasruddin tale exposes the tricky business of law. Once, Nasruddin told a king that laws do not make people righteous. The king disagreed, claiming that he could make people virtuous through the coercive power of law. On the bridge leading to the royal city, the king built a gallows. The royal decree stated: “Everyone will be interrogated at the gate. If they tell the truth, they will be allowed to enter. If they lie, they will be hanged.” When Nasruddin stepped forward, the guard asked where he was going. Nasruddin replied, “I am on my way to be hanged.” The guard did not believe him. Nasruddin smilingly said: “Well if I have told a lie, hang me.” The confused guard said, “But if we hang you for lying, we will have made what you said come true.” This ended in a Catch-22 situation and Nasruddin’s argument was vindicated.

Words deemed unparliamentary

Ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament, the Lok Sabha Secretariat released a revised booklet comprising a list of words now deemed ‘unparliamentary’. This list includes terms such as ‘ jumla jeevi (a person who makes false promises)’, ‘COVID spreader’, ‘Snoopgate’, ‘ashamed’, ‘abused’, ‘betrayed’ and ‘incompetent’. As the Nasruddin story suggests, parliamentary decorum cannot be maintained by issuing diktats; it can be nurtured only when democratic civility is expressed by the treasury benches as well as by the Opposition.

Democracy is government by discussion, John Stuart Mill said. Mill admired the Athenian republic and tried to model modern representative government on the deliberative character of its democratic political life. The praxis of democracy is discussion, debate, and dissent. Liberal democracy favours the Atticism of Athens, where oratory was worshipped and loquaciousness was the norm, while illiberal democracies find refuge in Sparta’s laconism.

Wit, wisdom and retort are the attributes of a shrewd statesman and parliamentarian. An anecdote about Abraham Lincoln underscores this. When Lincoln entered the Senate to give his inaugural address as U.S. President, one aristocratic senator stood up and said, “Mr. Lincoln, you should not forget that your father used to make shoes for my family.” The Senate laughed. Lincoln retorted: “Sir, I know that my father used to make shoes in your house for your family... Have you any complaint? If you have any complaint, I can make another pair of shoes. Because I know how to make shoes myself. But as far as I know, nobody has ever complained about my father’s shoes. He was a genius, a creator, and I am proud of my father.” Similarly, Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist doyen, once stated in Parliament that Jawaharlal Nehru was not an aristocrat as he was portrayed. “I can prove that the prime minister’s grandfather was a chaprasi in the Mughal court,” he said. Nehru smiled and replied, “I am glad the honourable member has, at last, accepted what I have been trying to tell him for so many years: That I am a man of the people.” An ideal parliamentarian should emulate Lincoln and Nehru.

Dictating parliamentary lexicon does not help to constrain clever parliamentarians like Piloo Mody, the Swatantra Party’s firebrand leader. Once, in the Rajya Sabha, a Congress member kept teasing Mody. “Stop barking,” Mody shouted at the member. The Congress member pleaded with the Chair: “Sir, he’s calling me a dog. This is unparliamentary language.” The Chairman concurred and declared that Mody’s words would be expunged. Mody corrected himself thus: “All right then, stop braying.” The Congress member could not catch the meaning of the word ‘braying’ and it stayed on record.

Innuendos are more mischievous than unparliamentary words. When Lohia pleaded in Parliament for Soviet leader Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva to be given asylum in India on the grounds of her relationship with Indian Communist leader, Brajesh Singh, Tarkeshwari Sinha mockingly asked Lohia, a bachelor, how he could talk about conjugal sentiments when he did not have any experience of it. Lohia hit back: “Tarkeshwari, when did you give me any chance?” Can the Lok Sabha Secretariat’s revised booklet foresee such innuendos?

In The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen pointed out that “prolixity is not alien to us in India.” He illustrated this with V.K. Krishna Menon’s record of the longest speech ever delivered at the UN. The argumentative tradition can be traced back to the dispute between Krishna and Arjuna, quoted in the Bhagavad Gita. Both sides of the argument are given equal significance in the text. As Prof. Sen said, “A defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive.” In the parliamentary system, there is no room for logophobia.

Faisal C.K. is Under Secretary (Law) to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal


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Printable version | Aug 9, 2022 7:23:01 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/no-room-for-logophobia/article65681831.ece