There’s little in common between bigotry and “bhaijaan”, an Urdu word evoking love and respect for a brotherly figure. But in the haze of TV news electrosmog, even a word with such positive connotations as “bhaijaan” is being incubated as a pejorative.
“Border par badhe bhaijaan,” read the headline on Aman Chopra’s show as a News18 India episode in August suggested that the increasing population of Muslims, or the "bhaijaan", in certain regions was a threat to India’s internal security. A few weeks later, “bhaijaan” returned as the inherently depraved Muslim male ensnaring unsuspecting Hindu women during Navratri, in a fantasy termed “garba jihad” by nearly all channels. “Garbe mein bhaijaan ka kya kaam?”. What business does “bhaijaan” have at a garba, they asked.
So if a bhaijaan didn’t belong to either an Indian state or at a Hindu festival, what was his rightful place? An India TV ticker more recently offered a sneak peak. While reporting on a BJP MP’s call for boycott of Muslims – in the wake of Hindutva mobilisation following a Dalit man’s murder in northeast Delhi – a ticker on the channel preferred the word “bhaijaan” over accused. “Hatya ke 6 bhaijaan”, it read, suggesting what the word could mean: a suspect or criminal.
It has been a steady downward spiral in Noida’s TV studios, which have begun deploying the term for Muslim politicians and clerics in recent years, ostensibly taking a cue from BJP leaders such as Tejaswi Surya. BJP leaders have often marked out the treachery of their political opponents while associating it with the Muslim community through terms borrowed from everyday Muslim conversations like “abbajaan”, “bhaijaan” and “begum”.
The alliteration in TV headlines, meanwhile, has been heady – “Kya bole bhadkau bhaijaan”, “Kyun bhadke bhaijaan” – in shows portraying Muslim leadership as needlessly instigated or instigatory over good-willed policies of the BJP, the chief political representative of the Hindu majoritarianism.
Pejoration, mock speech and race
Pejoration and amelioration are types of semantic changes through which negative or positive meanings, respectively, are associated with words over time. A prominent example in English is the word “mistress”, which until the 17th century meant the female equivalent of master, but now denotes “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”.
Over time, consistent degradation in the indexical value – or what a linguistic expression refers to within a context – can reduce a word to a slur or pejorative. This is especially true for marginalised groups. Take, for example, the use of words such as “chamar”, “kanjar” or “bhand” in the context of Dalit and tribal communities – although there has been little research so far to locate the precise process of transformation of the indexical value of these words.
Studying the motivations behind semantic change, German linguist Andreas Blank in 1999 pointed to sociocultural shifts among six primary factors, noting that such transformations are closely linked to goals of the speakers, with language being a “consequence of inherent characteristics of man’s mind and human social interaction”.
One of these goals is to assert superiority over a racial or ethnic group, and slurs come in handy – affirming such messaging within peers besides those they are targeted at. “In a nutshell: racists don’t use slurs because they’re derogative; slurs are derogative because they’re the words that racists use,” observed American semanticist Geoffrey Nunberg.
It is not just slurs. Mock language – or the use of expressions not native to a speaker – is also deployed to such ends. American anthropologist Jane Hill illustrated how mock language has been used to place White speakers above marginalised African American or Spanish communities. The adoption of words and phrases such as “gangsta” and “I’d hit that” by White speakers as an index of hypermasculinity reinforces the belief that Black men are aggressive and dangerous.
Mullah and the media narrative for Hindutva
It is in this context that the use of “bhaijaan” by TV channels platforming Hindutva narratives is concerning. The context in which the speakers, or sections of the mainstream media, deploy this term signals that the both speakers of the language as well as the males Muslim society respect are a potential threat to Hindu society and the Hindu state.
Over time, such use may narrow the indexical value of the expression of endearment, just as has happened to the term “mullah”. The repeated use of the term within majoritarian settings and communities has restricted its meaning in what semantics describes as narrowing. Defined as a Muslim learned in Islamic theology, the term “mullah” has now come to denote an indoctrinated Muslim, even becoming a slur that the minority can be silenced or assaulted with. Consider the several instances when ordinary Muslims or Muslim journalists have been assaulted while being called “mullah”.
Such pejoration has been part of a consistent lexical effort to propagate the power of Hindutva, which is unique among supremacist movements but involves similar politics of language and othering. The use of mock language, imposition of Hindi and renaming of Urdu-sounding cities or sites is engendered in its imagination; and erasure and enregisterment become metapragmatic practices key to the branding of Hindu Rashtra.
“Toponymic saffronisation constructs a pre-colonial imagery in which India was free and pure and the people of India (read: the Hindus) were ruling their own country,” linguistic ethnographer Jaspal Naveel Singh notes on the BJP’s symbolico-political attempts to brand contemporary India as a distinctive Hindu superpower.
A noisy section of the mainstream media very much thrives on such erasure of Muslim and secular narratives and enregisterment of Hindutva symbols while aggressively promoting a certain kind of politics in its prime time delirium. A Newslaundry research earlier this year tracked 10 “nationalistic” shows on seven TV channels from July 1 to July 31, and found that their flag-waving was little else than a Morbius strip of dogwhistles and communal agendas on screen.
Participants in a conversation interpret signs depending on which features of the context are salient at the moment of utterance, according to Stanton Wortham, an American linguistic anthropologist. And it is clear in what way signs are intended to be interpreted in the world of Indian television media’s endless “debates” on communal issues with a near-amnesia of certain realities.
Ahead of the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Adityanath of the BJP hit out at Muslim-ness, deploying the word “kathmulla” in an interview with Aaj Tak anchor Anjana Om Kashyap. Adityanath’s explanation of “kathmullapan”, unopposed by the anchor, signified the other – those who opposed the BJP’s hijab ban in Karnataka or its criminalisation of instant talaq. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had also been criticised for using the term during a television debate in 2018.
Allahu Akbar, jihadi and bhakt
There have been concerns about the mistranslation of religiously charged terms such as jihadi and bhakt, and religious phrases such as Allahu Akbar and Jai Shri Ram. And the lines between justified scepticism and ill-informed paranoia have been blurry.
Consider the example of Allahu Akbar, widely reported as the war cry of Islamist terrorists and militants in increasingly negative media contexts post 9/11. It triggered such levels of mistrust of Arabic phrases that there were several incidents of innocent Muslims being accused of ill intent, on flights and otherwise. The same could be said of the words “jihad” and “jihadi”, which have lost their meaning over time to accumulate negative connotations. So much so that majoritarian TV anchors now rarely find it difficult to plant new seeds of jihad conspiracy theories every season.
Hindu majoritian voices, meanwhile, argue that words such as bhakt – increasingly used on social media to denote “illogical” supporters of the BJP government – have undergone similar pejoration over the years, but these are still far from being slurs in the absence of practices and institutions of discrimination against a group referred to as “bhakts”.
In fact, in the current sociopolitical climate, far from pejoration, a section of the mainstream media has been defending even the weaponisation of phrases such as “Jai Shri Ram”, trying to cover up when the same are deployed by Hindutva footsoldiers while waging violence against minority groups. Consider the recent Ram Navami violence in several parts of India, following which prominent TV anchors asked Muslim panelists what was wrong if “Jai Shri Ram” was chanted outside Muslim homes during Hindu processions. Television’s contextualisation was clear in its focus on the objection to a slogan but not the weaponisation of the phrase – through the armed nature of the mobs or the bulldozing of Muslim properties by authorities in states governed by the Hindutva party.
Assault on Urdu or its speakers?
Marking out the other, or the enemy, with Urdu terms isn’t new to Hindu nationalists. Their political opponents are often labelled “mullah”, “maulana”, “shahzada”, “begum”, “abbajaan”, and “bhaijaan”. On social media, Hindutva voices troll journalists and activists with words such as “mohtarma” and “bibi”.
Coming from prominent politicians, such messaging is replicated and amplified by sections of the mainstream media. It may not be different from – or could be even closely linked to – the image of the “Muslim other” produced through Hindi cinema’s stereotypes, beginning after the conclusion of the industry’s Nehruvian decades in the post-liberalisation era.
In his book Imagining Indian Muslims: Looking through the Lens of Bollywood Cinema, Maidul Islam points to four key themes dominating the representational scheme of Muslims in the films “released in the 1990s and after – the ‘Muslim Other’ as an enemy of the nation; an imaginary notion of a ‘Hindu-ized nation’ where ‘Muslims are relegated to a lower citizenship status; Muslims as a source of terror within the nation-state; and a conflation of Muslim-terrorist-Pakistani.” Hindi cinema has shown very little of the secular Muslim over this period to challenge the dominant stereotype of the Muslim other, travelling far from the decades when Urdu was its primary language in the colonial era.
Urdu “is the language of war and martyrdom” in Hindi films, it is the language “men die in”, noted Mukul Kesavan in his 1994 essay “Urdu, Awadh and the Tawaif: the Islamicate roots of Hindi cinema”. But now, in the bland formulations of political rhetoric and its TV studio mimicking, a language which is now associated with the Muslim community has become a deep well to draw back dead horses for prime time whipping sessions.