Indian Parliament fighting a losing battle against 'unparliamentary words'

While Parliament insists on expunging more innocuous words than the vicious and uncouth ones used often by politicians outside, our Parliamentarians can learn a thing or two from the House of Commons

Parliament of India (IANS Photo)
Parliament of India (IANS Photo)

Sujata Anandan

Amid the raging controversy over the usage of unparliamentary words, I wonder if the presiding officer has included in this booklet words like ‘Jersey Cow’, ‘Hybrid Calf’ and ‘50 crore girlfriend’. Admittedly they were spoken outside Parliament but shows us as hypocrites. The words were used by a certain former chief minister to describe two women and a young lad at the time, one of these women was not even a politician. I wonder if those words, if ever spoken in Parliament, will be less parliamentary than, say, ’abuse’ or ‘ashamed’, though every one of those words was meant as an abuse and their utterer should have been ashamed of himself.

Or if labelling a feisty woman opposition politician as Shoorpanakha has been listed as unparliamentary along with ‘apmaan’ for it is certainly the apmaan of both a woman and a Member of Parliament.

Or if stating that one will slowly bleed the MGNAREGA scheme to death is as unparliamentary as the word bloodshed or ahankaar, for it was certainly some ahankaar that led to the statement in view of the fact that the same leader’s government has now allocated huge funds to that scheme to escape the consequences of the collapse of our rural economy.

And is labelling opposition leaders as lying machines is less parliamentary than calling someone a ‘jumlajeevi’ or if exhorting one’s supporters not to use social media for abuse is less ‘hypocritical’, a new unparliamentary word, when those very supporters label an assassinated journalist as a “kutiya” and nothing is done to either reprimand that person or or unfollow that handle on social media.

I have long been fascinated by the wit – genuine wit and not just smart-alecky abuse – of politicians across the world.

My most favourite of these is from Winston Churchill who, of course, uttered many real insults against women MPs which today will be taken as sexist and misogynistic, earning him much opprobrium. But I couldn’t but feel sympathetic when in response to a British MP speaking in the House of Commons, he came up with a classic repartee.

“Mr Churchill, must you fall asleep while I am speaking!” exclaimed the MP.

Churchill snapped awake and replied without a second's hesitation, “Oh no! It is purely voluntary!”

As a political correspondent, how many parliamentary debates have I attended where members have droned on and on, leaving me doodling and yes, involuntarily - not voluntarily, like Churchill – falling asleep!

Quite disgraceful, I would say, both on my part and on that of the member of the House to put me to sleep. But now disgraceful is an unparliamentary word in India and, well, we can continue to fall asleep, I guess, without Iabelling that as a disgraceful act.

Then there is this one from John F Kennedy when he was running for US President:

“I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: "Dear Jack, Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide."

Now I thought that was a searing indictment of the spoils system of the US electorate. But while something like that is now freely and frequently happening in India, can I call it a corrupt electoral practice? No! Because corruption is now an unparliamentary word in India. I might have to now call it graft or a ‘dishonest act for personal gain’. I wonder how long it would take for that mouthful to end up on the unparliamentary list.

Churchill and Kennedy were, however, highly intelligent and not beyond sarcasm. But there were some politicians who made quite the gaffes that were neither unparliamentary nor sarcastic, simply dumb or unerudite. Like this one from George Bush Jr. :

“We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease." (Said in Sweden, 2001)

The complete lack of erudition on that one quite reminds me of our own Diyar Leader, telling IIT students how to get gas out of gutters or spelling ‘strength’ to the Chinese as S.T.R.E.A.N.H. But I cannot now say both premises are untrue because ‘asatya’ is now an unparliamentary word!

Ronald Reagan had once said facts are stupid things ! I guess our parliamentary officers subscribe to that view for it remains a fact that the words they have now outlawed as unparliamentary are common usage even among not so witty English language speakers in the country. And the Hindi words they have outlawed are the kind that any North Indian who did not mean to be abusive or impolite but nonetheless unambiguously expressive would use quite frequently. It is no wonder then that our opposition parliamentarians are protesting so vociferously and describing the new line as a gag order.

Even without such lists sometimes writing about humourless politicians can become a trial. I recall a time I had quoted an Oxbridge-educated police officer in describing a particular politician who had begun life as a small-time thief of goods from containers docked in ports before unloading as a “dock rat”. That was to escape calling him the more defamatory term of thief or smuggler.

The politician was absolutely furious. Imagine my utter shock then when I realised what really he was furious about - not describing him as a smuggler because that would have put up his stock but a rat which he thought he most certainly was not. He thought he was a tiger and that I should have used that animal description - if at all a tiger suited his activities in the docks, I did not know that expression in English!

So what would our parliamentarians say about this latest witticism, absolutely my most favourite now, coming out of British parliament this week? As his Conservative party members one by one abandoned Boris Johnson, Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, said “Mr Speaker sir, isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ship deserting the rat?”

Unparliamentary? Well, nobody has yet expunged it from the records!

( The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai)

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