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Weaponising words?

The controversy around people being forced to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Jai Shree Ram has many dimensions worth exploring. One of these is about how a specific set of words come to carry such special significance. Why Jai Shree Ram not Jai Shree Krishna? Why not Jai Hind? Politically, this insistence appears to be about a show of brute power, but the underlying phenomenon, that of how words acquire power beyond their apparent meaning is worth examining.

It is as if a certain set of words harden into something more than the meaning that they contain. They take on a life of their own, over and above their primary purpose. Perhaps this happens because the trouble with words is that they can be a torrent of liquid eloquence that is difficult to dam. We have too many words that say the same thing, too many games that we can play with words. They flow out of our mouths, wrapping themselves around ideas, steeping themselves in emotion and expressing themselves through sounds and gestures. All of this is very useful, but not as easy to contain or retain. Memory’s sieve enjoys the sensation of words running through it, but only things that have something gritty can get retained. Everything else flows in and out.

As a result, a variety of linguistic devices have been invented for us to squeeze more out of the language we use. An oath, for instance, hardens words into resolve, crystallising intent. By invoking something sacred, it gives words an accompanying warranty card and converts a promise into a resolute undertaking. An oath contains an implicit promise of punishment for the self in case the promised action is not undertaken. It is interesting that courts swear witnesses in, making them take an oath on something that they consider sacred.

On the face of it, it feels superfluous, for the court should not this additional layer of guarantee that people in the courtroom speak the truth- the prospect of being charged with committing perjury should be incentive enough. And yet a need is felt to spell out one’s resolve to speak the ‘truth, and nothing but the truth’ by swearing on holy texts such as the Bible, the Geeta and Koran. The oath is a feature of elected officials assuming office and of doctors entering the profession, in both cases, deliberately undertaking to act in a prescribed way.

Given the fact that words are a weak way of expressing intent, the search for ways or words to go beyond their fickle character takes many forms. A pledge or a promise are versions of oaths that do not quite invoke something sacred or larger, but are assurances rendered in a concrete form. A ‘vachan’ or a vow, carries with it, a ringing declaration of earnest intent. Giving one’s word in a way that is much more than casual; Implicitly one stakes one’s one sense of self behind such a promise. Not fulfilling one’s vachan is to let one oneself down irredeemably. A variation of the vow is the ‘kasam’, the idea of pledging an action by invoking the name of a very dear person. In an everyday sense, the kasam is used to underline an assertion- By God/ by you/ ma-kasam are all expressions that emphasis the genuineness of one’s words.

The ‘shraap’ or the curse is another device where words are weaponised quite literally. Here words, take on a ferocity that is steeped in a sense of righteous grievance. If spoken by those that have earned the right to their anger, then words become implacable action, from which no escape is possible.

The bio-diversity on display when it comes to such linguistic devices is staggering. A slogan strings together words to express an idea that has continuing relevance. It captures the essence of something that is valued and becomes a form of currency. It sharpens arguments and narratives into a single thought that evokes much more than its brevity suggests. A catchphrase or a ‘takia-kalam’ serves the purpose of providing emphasis as well become an identifier of the speaker.

A mantra elevates a set of words into a form of timeless wisdom It carries with it the aura of sacredness, and derives its authority not just from the meaning of the words, which in many cases is not even known, but from the world from which it is drawn. It can be used as a chant, which deepens its power through repetition and through its aural quality creates a certain self-generated sense of transcendence. A chant as a structure can be less lofty as well, and is often used to inspire action, or to create a sense of a collective, by tapping into some common shared emotion. A motto is a goal made manifest. It takes an ideal, of how things ought to be and enshrines it in a set of words that help guide action.

The creation of word assets is rife in the digital world too. The hashtag is a powerful tool for creating a junction, a destination that aggregates opinions and ideas. Hashtags create a point of convergence and enable recirculation. The use of #metoo, is an example of how words when used in conjunction and converted into a hashtag, can animate a massive movement. The password is a set of words or characters that plays a specialised role in acting as a gatekeeper that guards one’s privacy. The @ symbol is enormously hardworking, helping us find a sense of place in an unbounded, infinite digital universe.

In a digital world, where text becomes a central building block of an alternative reality, such forms will proliferate, for the need to get much more out of language will only increase. When we celebrate inventions, we tend to think of technological leaps and scientific advances. Perhaps we should also focus on the little devices that nestle inside our everyday world, which help us extract so much more from the tools we have created.

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