April 05, 2020
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Wordplay In War Theatre

Language too is a handy weapon in the Maoist-state conflict

Wordplay In War Theatre
Wordplay In War Theatre

Welcome to heaven”... One would assume that to be a sign ushering visitors into a placid beachside resort. Instead, that’s how crpf soldiers are greeted each time they return to their camp in Chintagufa, not far from where its men were attacked in Chhattisgarh. Wouldn’t hell be more appropriate, though? Most would argue yes, but that’s irrelevant. Soldiers have to be desensitised from violence, hence the euphemisms. That’s why daisy-cutter is nothing benign but a 900-kilo bomb.

A day after the attacks, papers brandished gory headlines: ‘Savaged’, ‘Massacred’, ‘Bloodbath’, ‘Naxals butcher’. The nation was suddenly “under siege” in this “total war”. The Naxals were “predators” and “cowards”. Sympathisers overnight were labelled accomplices. And, Naxalism was no longer a problem to be solved but a menace that needed to be wiped out. Hammering it in, Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan used “wiped out” at least six times while addressing the press after the attacks. As for the Maoists, they don’t see this as a war. It’s a “struggle” for their rights, a “people’s revolution” against “comprador bureaucratic capitalism”.

Says professor of linguistics at iit Delhi Rukmini Bhaya Nair, “Language and thought are inextricably linked. With such a reductionist rhetoric, there is a concomitant failure in thought process. There is a complete breakdown of dialogue. Instead, there are two monologues. The two sides are not talking to each other but at each other.” And that’s not by accident. Linguistic absolutes remove any ambiguities and seek clear divisions. Wrote Sue Meng in The Harvard Crimson, “It’s about anaesthetising ourselves to the ambiguities of language—because good language complicates more than it mobilises, questions more than it condemns.”

The two sides have used symbolism too. If the government named its elite commando units after the cobra and the greyhound, hoping their lethal attributes would inspire their soldiers and make the Maoists quiver with fear, the latter in repartee named their elite unit, nevla (mongoose). That’s when the government decided to stop this name-game because its soldiers were being demoralised. Words and symbols, it’s evident, are also implements that come in handy during war.

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