Times change the acceptability of words

Times change the acceptability of words
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In an order last week Justice Rajiv Narain Raina of the Punjab and Haryana High Court severely criticised the police for referring an African national in court papers as a "Nigro", obviously a misspelling of 'negro'. He wrote "This is a highly offensive word across the globe and no one has any business to use it, and much less the police". He directed that the police should not use this "unprintable" word in any police document. He went on to say that such usage brought "shame on India". Stating that nationals of African countries are our friends Raina observed that they should be simply referred to by their countries of origin when necessary. These are wise words for doing so would not only be accurate but also inoffensive.

Times change the acceptability of words. Words that pass muster during one period do not do so in others. Apart from the normal evolution of languages this is also because certain words and terms become particularly associated with disparagement and contempt. This happens with the rise of consciousness in a depressed or exploited social group. Thus, in America, the word negro was socially and politically acceptable till the 1960s. However, with the civil rights movement of that decade black Americans associated it with servitude. Opposition began to identify themselves as 'black' and gradually by the 1970s, in deference to their objections, the word negro became socially and politically incorrect. Later the word black too was replaced by the term African-American and that is now in general usage in America. In other parts of the world the word black is in more common usage but great care has to be exercised while using the word so as to avoid an adverse meaning.

The application of Justice Raina's comments should not be limited to the legal field or officialdom. It should also lead to social introspection. As a former diplomat I have an interest that this should take place in India not only for that would be eroding our own prejudice on colour but also because it has a bearing on our approaches towards Africa.

Independent India became a staunch supporter of the decolonisation process of African countries. Indeed, the leaders of movements struggling against colonialism in these countries appreciated Indian efforts in the 1950s and the next decade especially at the United Nations. India also took a very strong position against the apartheid South African regime. Indian support to the front line African states earned it great goodwill.

During this period India also began its assistance programme focussing on human resource development of newly independent African countries. A two-pronged approach was pursued: Indian experts in different fields were sent to these countries and their officials and students came to India for training. The experience of these countries with our experts was good. However, some African students who came to India for studies later complained of social discrimination even though Indian officials and the educational institutions themselves took care to make them comfortable and at ease.

A dispassionate scrutiny of Indian society inevitably reveals an obsession with fairness of skin. It is associated with beauty and goodness. Till recently creams and lotions were regularly advertised for being helpful in reducing darker skin tones. African students in India would have observed all this. They would also have seen how Indians behaved differently towards Europeans and towards Africans or for that matter other Asians. Thus, while Indians were against the prejudices of the Caucasian people against those of darker skin colour some of them exhibited the same prejudices in their social attitudes.

There is a difference between officially sanctioned discrimination and beliefs as were prevalent in Europe in colonial times and social prejudice. The former was aimed at showing that non-white people were inherently inferior, even uncivilised; that colonialism was good for it brought progress to the colonialized; that it was the 'white man's burden'. The tragedy is that many colonialized people began to consider themselves truly inferior to their colonial masters and their own cultures as backward.

The success of the West and its colonisation of the Africa and Asia rested on the foundations of advances in science and technology not in any inherent superiority of the white man. Indeed, during the medieval period, the three greatest empires were the Mughal, the Ottoman and the Persian. They dazzled Western travellers. However, they lost energy and did not put a premium on new knowledge. Consequently, they lost out to the West with the industrial revolution consequent to scientific and technological advances.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. It was a product global attitudinal changes after the Second World War. It is one of the foundational documents of the global order for it generally sets the high objective of non-discrimination, including on grounds of colour. However, like all such declarations it is essentially aspirational in nature and has to be implemented through the legal processes of the member-states. It is here that many countries fall short for domestic politics and global power play get involved. Also, societal attitudes take time to change.

It is here that Justice Raina's order provides an opening to our own National Human Rights Commission to work to ensure that pejorative attitudes in institutions and society flowing from skin colour are removed. Such work would be in keeping with India's present democratic ethos and would add to its international stature.

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