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War Over Words: After Opposition, Linguists, Academics Question Dossier On Unparliamentary Words

A controversy surrounding unparliamentary words in the country’s apex legislature erupted again last month, when the parliamentary secretary released yet another updated compilation of 'unparliamentary words', with some quarters, including linguists, claiming that some words included in the list did not appear 'unparliamentary'.

Police personnel gathered in front of the parliament building in New Delhi
Police personnel gathered in front of the parliament building in New Delhi Getty Images

In 2015, Shiv Sena MP Hemant Godse faced a unique predicament. 

His surname, ‘Godse’, was listed as an unparliamentary word way back in 1956. 

Effigy of Mahatma Gandhi
Effigy of Mahatma Gandhi Image Credit- Getty Images

Eight years after Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead by Nathuram Godse, a Lok Sabha MP had referred to Mahatma’s assassin by his surname in the course of a discussion on the States Reorganisation bill. The Lok Sabha deputy Speaker at the time, Sardar Hukam Singh had then suggested the deletion of the word ‘Godse’ from the day’s proceedings. ‘Godse’ was later incorporated into the compilation of unparliamentary words and expressions. 

Decades later, Hemant Godse, an MP from Nashik in Maharashtra, had to write to the presiding officers of both Houses to delete his surname ‘Godse’ from the list of unparliamentary expressions  “with immediate effect”; a request which then Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan obliged. 
 
A controversy surrounding unparliamentary words in the country’s apex legislature erupted again last month, when the parliamentary secretary released yet another updated compilation of “unparliamentary words”, with some quarters, including linguists, claiming that some words included in the list did not appear “unparliamentary”.

The list of unparliamentary expressions included words like ‘disgrace’, ‘donkey’, ‘drama’, ‘eyewash’, ‘fudge’, ‘hooliganism’, ‘hypocrisy’, ‘incompetent’, ‘mislead’, ‘lie’ and ‘untrue’. Besides that some Hindi words like, ‘gaddar’, ‘girgit’, ‘goons’, ‘ghadiyali ansu’, ‘apmaan’, ‘asatya’, ‘ahankaar’, ‘corrupt’, ‘kala din’, ‘kala bazaari’ and ‘khareed farokht’ ‘danga’, ‘dalal’, ‘daadagiri’, ‘dohra charitra’, ‘bechara’, ‘bobcut’, ‘lollypop’, ‘vishwasghat’, ‘samvedanheen’, ‘foolish’, ‘pitthu’, ‘behri sarkar’ and ‘sexual harassment’.  

According to linguist and academic Anvita Abbi such words listed in the parliamentary secretary’s formal compilation were at best “unethical”, but raised questions over whether many of the words included in the list really were unparliamentary in nature. 

“…some of the words do not seem unparliamentary… Their use could be unethical in parliament,” Abbi says. 

In 1999, the office of the parliamentary secretary had published a booklet of “unparliamentary words” and expressions. The 2004 edition of the booklet titled  ‘Unparliamentary Expressions’ ran into 900 pages with a more exhaustive list of such words. This list was again revised in 2010.

The repository of ‘unparliamentary’ words and expressions puts a limit on what a parliamentarian can speak and in what context inside the legislature. 

According to Article 105(2) of the Constitution “no Member of Parliament shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament or any committee thereof”. 

The Constitution also provides certain discretionary power to the Speaker under rule 380 and 390 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business. It empowers the Speaker of the House to expunge certain words from a speech, which are indecent, defamatory, or unparliamentary. The Speaker of state assemblies too hold similar discretionary powers, which enable them to dissuade members from using unparliamentary words and expressions. 

The Speaker is also empowered to penalise legislators for violating these provisions. In March this year, Gujarat MLA Punja Vansh was suspended for seven days, because he said that the Home Minister of Gujarat, Harsh Sanghavi “uses tapori type language” – an unparliamentary expression, during the Question Hour. 

Incidentally, words that are deemed unparliamentary aren’t banned from use in Parliament. But they are expunged from the record, if used in a context that does not square with the dignity of the House. For instance, what if an MP uses the word “rape”, which is a listed unparliamentary word. Since it’s usage cannot be avoided in discussions related to violence against women, it will depend on the discretion of the Speaker to keep the word or expunge it from the record.

But despite inbuilt regulations related to conduct of lawmakers in legislatures,  MPs and MLAs do tend to use words, which are otherwise unparliamentary. 
 
During a debate over the Rafale deal recently, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being involved in alleged corruption in the fighter-jet deal. 
“Chowkidar nahi Bhagidar hai" (he is involved (in Rafale deal) not a watchman),” Gandhi had said in the Lok Sabha.  
 
Technological advancement in recent times has changed how parliamentary proceedings are recorded and disseminated. Therefore, experts believe that the newly released booklet of unparliamentary words will not deter parliamentarians from using unparliamentary words or expressions “…but it will unreasonably curtail freedom of expression of members of Parliament,” says Professor of political science, Aditya Misra.  

Writer and Professor Rakhshanda Jalil finds that the recently released list of such words defies logic, especially when words like “sexual harassment” are listed in it. 
“(This) is tantamount to turning a blind eye to a lived reality for countless Indians regardless of gender. Other (words) such as abused, apmaan, incompetent, tanashah/tanashahi in the additional list defy common sense,” Jalil said. 

The Opposition has described the fresh list of unparliamentary words released by the parliamentary secretary as an attack on freedom of expression and an effort to "gag" them. 
“If these words are taken out of the general vocabulary, the very essence and the impact of expression would be minimised…" Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said in a letter to the Speaker.

Responding to the hullabaloo in Parliament, Lok Speaker Om Birla has clarified that the release of the booklet containing unparliamentary words is a routine practice since 1954, and no words have been banned. A word is declared unparliamentary on the basis of the context in which it was used, Birla explained. 

PDT. Achary, former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, in an article for TheWire after the controversy erupted, said that all MPs who speak in their respective Houses receive an uncorrected version of their speeches, within hours, as a matter of routine, which allows them to make necessary corrections, before it goes to print.  
“How could it escape their notice?” Acharya asks. 

The preface of the controversial booklet itself clarifies that it is a routine exercise in the Parliament to declare some words and expressions unparliamentary. 

“From time to time, some words and expressions are declared unparliamentary by chair in different legislative bodies in India. Such words and expressions and also those declared unparliamentary in commonwealth parliaments are compiled by Lok Sabha Secretary for ready reference in the future,” the booklet said. The published document however does not specify whether the use of the listed words is prohibited or not.

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