This article first appeared on Sep 2 2018.
What is a tag? It is essentially a grouping — a way to identify things, ideas or people under a single umbrella. Why are tags used? To make order out of the chaos. To understand trends, to count faster. But what happens when tags start being used to even out contrast or label an ideological adversary?
In the last week, a new term entered the ever-growing political lexicon in India — ‘urban Naxal’. With its familiar ring and ominous undertones, the term was used, both in legacy and social media, to refer to social activists who were arrested on Tuesday under contestable conditions by Maharashtra Police. It was ambiguous enough and yet familiar enough to cause an instant reaction.
And it did.
In 2018, filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri wrote a book titled Urban Naxals, in which he described a class of ‘invisible enemies’ who are actively involved in radicalising urban youth to take up arms for the Naxalite cause.
In an essay written by Agnihotri on the same topic, the filmmaker describes ‘urban Naxals’ as “urban intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance”. He also suggests that these invisible spectres indoctrinate youth by “pretending to be concerned about social issues”.
Soon, some TV news channels and social media influencers started using the term ‘urban Naxals’, in referring to individuals or groups. With the arrests last week, ‘urban Naxal’ has now become a buzzword for controversy. Media houses are freely flinging the term around, social media is buzzing with comments, hashtags in support and outrage of the term added to the frenzy, and voila, ‘urban Naxal’ is the new ‘anti-national’.
Another cautionary tale added to the list of dangerous terms, which already includes the ‘love jihad’, ‘saffron terrorist’, ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘lib-tard’ and ‘bhakt’.
A quick perusal of international political history as well as India’s own past, however, would tell us that branding or labelling a certain group or groups has always been a convenient instrument in mobilising consent and drumming up support.
Name-calling has always been an important part of propaganda and anti-propaganda machinery. A successful name-calling campaign would include terms that can easily rile emotions, are ambiguous, and could be used to describe an amorphous group of people as perceived enemy.
Celebrated intellectual Noam Chomsky in his book Manufacturing Consent, detailed the elaborate structure of the media machinery that churned out carefully controlled defence of government activities and shaped public opinion toward them.
Take the example of McCarthyism — a phenomenon named after the infamous Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who carried out a series of investigations and hearings in alleged attempts to ‘expose’ traitors with ‘Communist’ contacts in 1950s Cold War-era America.
The vilification of Leftist political dissenters of American policies as ‘commies’ or ‘Reds’ has since been established as a propagandist practice to increase internal American support against Communist ideology.
Much like the list of ‘urban Naxals’, McCarthy also claimed that he had a list of all the people in the then US government with alleged links to the USSR. Even though McCarthyism is a term synonymous today with slander and defamation, the fears the preceding World War I and II propagandas sowed and subsequent sanctions of the Cold War years nurtured, have become visible again in the Trump era.
The current American President regularly uses terms like ‘Fake Media’ and ‘Very Fake Media’ to tag journalists and institutions that try to question him.
Present-day Republicans target socialists and Left-wing liberals as ‘lib-tard’, which Professor Shibashish Chatterjee, who has been teaching International Relations and Political Science in Jadavpur University for 15 years, explains as a portmanteau word combining ‘liberal and retard’.
Terms like ‘Raghead’ and ‘Osama’ are constantly used to dismiss Muslims. Liberals, too, do not shy away from name-calling. Democrats resort to calling Right-wingers ‘wing-nuts’, to signify them as ‘nutty’ or ‘Rethug’, which is an amalgamation of ‘Republican’ and ‘thug’. These words appear in print, on TV news, radio, social media, protest placards and often on the lips of leaders themselves.
“During the 1994 Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi tribe by the dominant Hutu tribe, Rwandan radios used the word ‘cockroaches’ for the Tutsis to dehumanise them in the eyes of the population that supported the genocide,” Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy says.
Speaking to News18, the lawyer said that that such terms have always existed in India as well, regardless of political regimes. She said that the term ‘anti-national’ first became popular in India during the Emergency era under Congress when it was used by the government to persecute intellectuals like Subramaniam Swamy, as a recent video on The Wire by journalist Raghu Karnad recapitulated.
“We must remember that persecution of free speech is not just something the present government seems comfortable with but previous regimes have also been complicit in such tactics,” Karnad said.
The ghost of Indira Gandhi’s 'anti-national' came back to spook the country in 2016 when some students in Jawaharlal Nehru University were arrested for taking part in alleged ‘anti-national’ activities — alleged anti-India sloganeering and accusations of ‘links’ with separatist foreign powers.
Those who spoke against the seemingly autocratic arrest of students were also tagged anti-national.
However, the term lost its potency again after a dominant mass of people started to object to it and started identifying themselves as ‘anti-national’. ‘Urban Naxal’ is more problematic because it links individuals to actual criminal activities associated with the Naxalite movement, much of which is vastly uncovered by mainstream media.
Nundy explained that this is the problem. “By creating these labels, we don't just criminalise those who are allegedly against the law (without any conclusive proof) but also those working to investigate whether the former were in fact guilty of the crime — people who pursue fact finding missions for instance. What about a lawyer who works with tribal people and is representing a tribal who may not in fact have Naxal links? Under such labelling, even that person gets tagged as an ‘urban Naxal’. And once that lawyer is arrested even the lawyer's lawyer is being accused on zero credible evidence. The attack is, therefore, anti-factual and at the heart of rule of law."
A similar effect was seen in Germany against Jews and those who sympathised with the Jews, who were persecuted as equally. The word ‘Untermensch’ (subhuman) was used to for Jews, but also for gypsies, the specially-abled, the elderly and dissenters of the Nazi regime.
Ironically, Israel is another state that has allegedly used a historically loaded terms to stifle dissent. Many critics of Israel such as the American political scientist Normal Finklestein feel that the Israeli government uses the historic abuses against the Jewish population to stifle dissent against the questionably aggressive tactics of Israel in its dealings with Palestine.
Dehumanising and vilification of dissenting voices by political media machinery is not just a 20th century phenomena. Though the many wars that the world fought in the century led to increased polarization and the rise of nativist and xenophobic movements in Western as well as Eastern cultures, instances of labelling dissenters can be seen even in the French Revolution.
Maximilien Robespierre, the tyrannous leader of the 1776 Revolution soon lost credibility post the Revolution’s success after he launched a series of attacks on those that opposed his political tactics – ‘ennemi du peuple’ or enemy of the people. Heads rolled as Robespierre sent many an intellectual and free thinker to the guillotine in the name of exterminating ‘enemies’.
The ‘enemy of the people/nation’ concept has been used in various regimes including the Soviet Union where they were called ‘Soviet dissidents’, Iran post the Islamic Revolution, and other states, especially during war time.
Image Makeover and Political Campaigns
Makeshift words do not just have the ability to secure public consensus for persecution of dissent but also help in revamping brand images. Take the United Kingdom for example, and the ‘New Labour’ era from the late 1990s to 2010. Here, a term was used to describe not a type of person but a type of political movement. It was a re-branding for the British Labour Party which wanted to shake off the image of a traditional socialist-democratic party and wanted to portray an image of a reformed party that attracted a wider and more economically inclusive support base.
The makeover, helmed by the phrase ‘new labour’, helped the party win three successive elections and make substantial headway among middle and upper class voters who had traditionally seen the Labour party as a pro-labour, pro-poor party.
Another example of how some media terminology can help change the connotation of concepts is the new umbrella label that has gained currency in the last quarter of the century, especially in Western media – the ‘Alt-Right’ or ‘Alternative Right’.
In the US and UK, the term is often used as an umbrella to address fringe-right elements such as neo-Nazis, political separatists, religious hardliners and propagandists. The window includes a wide variety of zealots, anti-abortionists, Islamophobes, Holocaust-deniers, white supremacists, neo-fascists and other politically incorrect groups.
With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, this motley crew of dissenters have found a common political representation in the ‘alt-Right’ identity. Some political scientists claim that the growing strength of the ‘alt-right’ identity has helped many of its adherents to come out and openly declare their often homophobic, misogynistic and xenophobic agendas.
A 2017 study by psychologists Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily found that out of 447 self-identified alt-Righters in the US who appeared for the study, most scored high on dehumanisation scores, admitted to prejudices and phobias against Black people, immigrants and Muslims and wanted whites to be on top.
Is it Problematic?
“Like any stereotyping, the use of political insults is both undignified and hurtful. However, the consequence depends on how polarised the country is and how vulnerable the targeted groups are. If the group is numerically small, such coinage can have fearful consequences and may mobilise zealots against soft targets,” Professor Chatterjee said.
Coming back to the Indian context, a pattern can now be discerned. Popular terms that drive public sentiment such as ‘anti-national’, lib-tard, ‘urban Naxal’ are all examples of political identities that are being used by the mainstream media.
The flip side of the trolls are the ‘bhakts’ and ‘Sanghis’ who also suffer the same problems of generalization as their Left counterparts. To many ideological and political critics of the BJP, praising PM Modi’s initiatives makes one a ‘bhakt’ while others call religiously motivated people ‘Sanghis’.
Armed acts of terrorism by Hindu groups are often disregarded as ‘saffron terror outfits’ without asking deeper questions about the attacks, the political motivations of the groups perpetrating them or the socio-cultural make-up of these groups, each of which is different from the other.
With a gradual rise in the incidents of mass violence and lynchings, many such as Chatterjee feel that the increased aggression could be an indirect result of ‘reckless parochialism and a politics of abuse’.
However, BJP spokesperson Tajinder Singh Bagga was adamant in his defense of use of the term.
“These are people that live in cities and help Naxal terrorists. What else will you call them? It was not just a random term that was used. And even if we don’t call them that, then they can definitely be called intellectual terrorists. The point is, the name does not matter. If you are doing anti-national activities and helping terrorists and separatists, rest assured the government and police will come for you,” he said.