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Parliamentary language in the digital age

Parliament House in New Delhi. File

Parliament House in New Delhi. File | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

Language not only changes across region but also profession. For instance, it is common to see the usage ‘for your kind perusal’ in government letters. We dismiss this as ‘bureaucratese’. Similarly, Parliament, too, has its own list of absurd and archaic phrases. The one that never fails to make me laugh is the passionate appeal for peace by the Chair when there is a pandemonium: “The Chair is standing on its legs...” Another phrase, “I beg to lay papers....”, was often used in parliamentary proceedings. In 2017, Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu discouraged this phrase saying parliamentarians in a free nation should not have to “beg” to do their routine work.

Today there is much debate on language again after the Lok Sabha Secretariat compiled a list of 151 words, which have been expunged in 2021 and 2020 in Parliaments across the Commonwealth countries and State Assemblies in India. The list includes words such as ‘dodgy’, ‘betrayal’, ‘dog’, ‘frighten’, ‘hack’, ‘hypocrisy’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘liar’, ‘murder’ and ‘shame’. It also includes commonplace words such as ‘penguin’, ‘goose’, ‘fudge’, ‘grubby’, ‘saleswoman’, ‘species’ and ‘yapping’. Even a word as benign as ‘mate’ has made it to the list. As per the document, it was expunged in New South Wales in August 2020. Many of these words may look harmless, but in a heated exchange between parliamentarians, they may not exactly be virtuous.

The list of Hindi phrases is far more potent and includes words that have entered the political lexicon post-2014, such as ‘jumla jeevi (a person who makes false promises)’. In the first two decades of the Indian Parliament, English was the primary language used for parliamentary work. This changed as the social composition of Parliament changed from the 1970s onwards. At present, as many as 30 languages are used by parliamentarians during speeches, with many insisting on speaking their mother tongue during crucial debates. Perhaps, the next such compilation will also have words expunged from different regional languages.

The current compilation has especially caused consternation among Opposition parties which see this as an attempt to restrict their vocabulary. The government argues that this list is at best only “instructive” and not “definitive”. The preface of the document states that the context in which these words were used is far more important than the words themselves. Ultimately, the final call of whether a word is “unparliamentary” or not lies with the presiding officer of the House.

This brings us to a problem that Parliament faces in today’s digital age. The proceedings of both Houses of Parliament are relayed in real time on TV channels and YouTube. There have been instances where live transmission has been halted on the Chair’s orders. To circumvent this, many members have recorded the proceedings on their mobile phone cameras. These recordings have also routinely made it to the evening debates on TV channels. Many Opposition members have been censured and even suspended for such misdemeanours, but that hasn’t stopped these videos from circulating. It is also common for members to circulate video clips of their own speeches among journalists and on WhatsApp groups with their followers.

Also read | No words banned, but members should maintain decorum, says Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla

Opposition speeches are often provocative. There are many instances of the Chair intervening and expunging words or phrases that it finds “objectionable”. Herein lies the problem. The order of the Chair is often relayed by late evening to reporters, but by then, the video clip would have already been circulated many times over. Print reporters are careful and abide by the orders, but in a digital ecosystem, this is not easy. And though print reporters adhere to the terms of engagement, we are faced with a dilemma when such words create a political storm and do the rounds on social media. While the debate rages on, we continue to walk the fine line between watching the action while also sticking to the rules.

sobhanak.nair@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jul 15, 2022 2:36:10 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/word-cant-get-out-parliamentary-language-in-the-digital-age/article65640595.ece