The battleground called language

I find study of euphemisms interesting as it tell tales from battleground of inclusion, exclusion, or caste politics.

Ajmal Kamal May 04, 2012

To Tulsidas — a 16th century Brahmin saint and poet, and the celebrated author of Ramcharitmanas, the popular Awadhi version of the Sanskrit Ramayana by Valmiki — is attributed the following two-liner: Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, nari/Sakal tadan ke adhikari (A drum, an uncivilised person, a kammi, an animal and a woman — they all deserve a thorough beating.)

It is interesting to note how the gem created by Tulsidas became, during the following centuries, an established ‘saying’ and a good sociolinguistic tool to justify prejudice and violence against disadvantaged social groups. It is even more interesting to note how the 20th century saw some (upper caste) critics, teachers, reformers and politicians bending over backwards to somehow explain away the deep hatred and contempt displayed by Tulsidas towards those who lived in villages, worked with their hands and found themselves of the wrong gender.

The languages that we use today retain — through ‘popular’ sayings, quotations from oral and written literature, similes and metaphors, jokes, wisecracks, stereotypes, manners of speaking, etc. — the same kind of history of prejudice, hatred, contempt and violence along gender and caste lines. This is a fascinating view of history as it seems to chart our journey from cruder forms of social organisation to democratic, egalitarian ones.

For example, it came naturally to someone like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, a great and masterful user of Urdu prose for popular communication in his times, to find examples of condemnable, ugly, ridiculous and wrong behaviour in Julahas, Sunni village maulvis and women in his sermons and writings. However, some of the later developments in society made it, gradually, less and less easy for sermonisers like him to be as frank in expressing their views towards, for example, kam-zaat (lower caste) people and women. As our society moves — surely but, perhaps, extremely slowly — towards individualism that is the basis of democracy, there is increasing pressure from below, which expresses itself by contesting the ideas contained in our languages.

In the earlier days — the era ‘before 1857’ which is variously glorified by Muhammad Hasan Askari and his innocent, as well as clever followers as ami-jami ka zamana (the period of stability), the golden days of the ‘Hind-Islami tehzeeb’ and so forth — there was a general consensus on the features of social hierarchy on the basis of birth; each social group knew its place in society and accepted its ‘innate’ fate and everyone (from the ruling elites, that is) lived happily. In those days, it was a matter of routine to put people in the categories of shareef and razeel (or zaleel) without danger of retaliation.

The basic difference between classes of people was whether they worked with their hands — i.e., whether they were kammi, khidmati or shudra — or they monopolised land, wealth (gold, silver and gems), physical and political power (shamsheer, khanjar, etc.), and knowledge and spiritual power — i.e., whether they were zamindar, sahukar, sahib-e-shamsheer, sahib-e-qalam (some combined the monopolies to call themselves sahib-e-saif-o-qalam!) or pir and gaddi-nashin.

The social attitude towards women — belonging to the three neatly demarcated categories of elite, commoner and prostitute, was fundamentally marked with suspicion regarding their sexuality. This suspicion came into play in the display of extreme respect for, and total segregation of, elite women, even a public mention of their existence was considered a social sacrilege. (The respect did not, however, stop elite men from abusing, beating and occasionally killing them.) On the other hand, the same suspicion expressed itself in phrases loaded with deep contempt for women falling into the other two categories. Such expressions are found extremely offensive by today’s empowered, urbanised women. Which is why, for instance, the maulvis and conservative social commentators appearing in TV debates these days have to generally hold their tongue and not use the expressions they would use off-screen.

The force of the changed circumstances made the ruling elites — of both society and language — use euphemisms instead of direct insults. I find the study of such euphemisms most interesting as they tell the tales from the battleground of inclusion and exclusion, or the caste politics.

Many of us would remember an oft-repeated scene from the Bombay Hindi films of the 1940s, 1950s and perhaps, 1960s: the hero lying unconscious on the roadside or a riverbank (as a result of an accident, a failed drowning or excessive drinking) and a couple of passers-by (poor folks) commenting: kisi achhe ghar ka maloom hota hai! (looks like he is from a ‘good family’!)

The reference to a ‘good family’ background could be seen as an attempt to reinvigorate a social value that the cruel process of socioeconomic change had thrown on the wayside by the 1930s and 1940s. The fact that the line was typically delivered by an actor playing a rural or urban poor man (or woman) is also quite revealing. It was meant to emphasise the existence of a social consensus about caste hierarchy that had, in principle, ceased to exist. A number of individuals watching the film in a cheap category (typically from urban working classes) were entirely capable of whispering into their companion’s ear as a reaction to the above line: Tau ham kya bure ghar ke hain? (Are we from a bad family, then?)

Similarly, there was a time when someone caught in a difficult situation (such as a street brawl or an altercation with a traffic policeman) would easily wriggle out by saying: Ham shareef log hain! Or, Ham izzat-dar log hain! (We are respectable people!) Today, such a person is likely to face an audacious retort such as: Ham badmash hain? Or Hamari izzat nahin hai kya? (Are we bullies? Are we without respect?)

What the latter person is doing is to challenge the meanings traditionally attached to the words like shareef and izzat. Such people who are the products of the process of change, would like to replace the traditional meanings of these and other loaded words with their literal meanings. Our everyday language, thus, is a highly contested domain.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2012.


Sinclair | 9 years ago | Reply


Regarding reservations for downtrodden Muslims, I think there is an equal opposition from the upper caste Muslims also. The argument being that Islam does not recognize caste, and hence reservations should be extended to all Muslims (and not just the lower castes). In some states the backward castes in Muslims already get reservations under categories, but that is because they recognize the equivalency of caste (between Hindus and Muslims). This is a pandora's box Muslims do not want to open.

Rakib | 9 years ago | Reply


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sure....Having waited for Catharsis for thousands of years one can wait some more time for it to happen but follow IPC & CPC & other Constitutional provisions to address issues in the interim. BTW, many modern Indian laws flow from Abrahamic laws,traditions & custom/usage. Lord Macaulay the Law Giver of India was of Unitarian Church. First major departure from his 1830s IPC (which is still followed) was with regard to laws in respect of LGBT. India is learning Catharsis!

Reg Reservations One thing I find unjust about present system is the way intermediary castes of Hindus have cornered the quotas for themselves to the detriment of lowest of the low & the way some of them display gross niggardliness of spirit when talk of extending the facility to marginalised among Muslims & Christians comes up.I have discussed this earlier here & would not want to go thru it again.

Reg Reformation. Urbanisation and resultant complexities of life causing greater interdependence of communities is one way forward. ..No point in looking up to Govt. Policy makers always have an interest in status quo. Only in the first flush of independence whatever could be done was done. Now even a Raja Rammohan Roy will find it difficult to find a William Bentinck to help him.

Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ


Most Read