‘Secular’ the most misused word? Not quite the same meaning these days
I have just published in India a book on ‘Words’ and, in its introduction, admitted that I am no linguist, etymologist or compiler of dictionaries. I’m not even much of a semanticist though I constantly quarrel with my computer programmes’ spellcheckers as they insist on spelling ‘programme’ as ‘program’ and ‘synthesize’ as ‘synthesise’, etc.
I have been provoked to set out my (non)credentials in this respect as a reaction to Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s foray into semantics or linguistics when he declared that ‘secular’ was the most misused word in political discourse. I thought I’d challenge that view on the linguistic grounds that ‘most misused’ may be the wrong quantitative phrase.
Regardless of some Cambridge linguists’ opinion that by mid-century Indian English will be the most popular form of the language, incorporating some of the distortions that Indian usage has invented or adopted, I still feel some of them are ugly and should be expunged.
Now ‘expunge’ is a verb that British or American English dictionaries will recognise, but not one in common contemporary usage. When Indian newspapers say that a ‘miscreant is absconding’, one gets the echo of Edwardian pomposity and the meaning but the expression for a criminal being on the run is faintly ludicrous.
Even the verb ‘to recuse’ is reserved in British English for recondite, legal jargon. A stylist as renowned as VS Naipaul asked me, when we came across it together in an Indian report which had nothing to do with judges, what the word meant. We looked it up. Good old Shorter Oxford!
The words that the world should take issue with don’t include the one that Rajnath Singh finds is misused but two others that arise from the Constitution. One is, at best, a technicality that has been turned into an adjective and the other is, I would have thought, downright politically incorrect. I mean the words ‘scheduled’ and ‘backward’.
If one says “the meeting is scheduled for 10 o’clock!” most speakers of English around the world would understand what one meant. A schedule, according to the dictionary, is a plan of procedure, a timetable for action. Flights are scheduled, meetings are scheduled, but in India castes are also scheduled. This doesn’t mean that the caste will arrive or depart at a particular time. The usage arises from the fact that these castes, categorising millions, are listed in the appendices, lists or ‘schedules’ of the Constitution. They mean those who are recognised as having a certain socio-economic status on the list. The noun turned adjective in this case — ‘scheduled’ — is not in itself insulting. The word ‘backward’ as used in ‘backward castes’ is. Yet it has been accepted by precisely those liberal Indians who object to other expressions that may be interpreted as discriminatory or denigratory. Shouldn’t there be a movement of the Indian chattering classes (The Chapatteratti?) against this description of millions of equal citizens? Secular liberals wake up! Or at least call the Union home minister’s attention to the use or misuse of this word to describe people.
As for his bugbear, the word ‘secular’, it certainly means to the exclusion of religion. Soviet Russia didn’t adopt the word in their constitution — they went further and abolished god, getting rid of any official conflict between their Orthodox Christianity and the Islam of their fringe nations, though that hasn’t stopped religiously fuelled dissent in Chechnya. So also with Muslim Uighurs in Western China who are not happy to be Confucian, Buddhist or atheist.
The American constitution requires that religion be excluded from schools, banning Catholic or other denominational prayers at assemblies or in the classrooms. Even so there has been a continuous battle over whether schools should teach the theory of evolution or stick to the doctrine that God created the world in six days and relaxed on the seventh.
If India adopted this interpretation of ‘secular’, the schools run by Catholic or Anglican missions would have to stop prayer assemblies in the mornings and the singing of Christian hymns. If the Constitution as guided by BR Ambedkar had included this secularist provision instead of leaving it to the Congress amendment of 1976, I wouldn’t know the Lord’s Prayer or be able to sing the Christian hymns I know by heart without in any way being attracted to abandon Zoroastrianism (one can do that for other reasons) and turn Christian.
Are the Union home minister’s words a signal that the government will reinterpret ‘secularism’ and so abolish or undermine the Christian schools, which have produced several generations of India’s intellectual elite? If any resulting new regulation adheres to strict ‘secularism’ there will be no madrassas recognised as ‘schools’, though they will undoubtedly be attached to mosques as ‘Sunday’ or rather Friday schools.
And while there can be, under the strict rules, no bhajans or Vedic prayers in school assemblies, won’t there undoubtedly, considering the present dispensation of the country, be debates about whether the Brahmastras of the Ramayan and Mahabharat were actually weapons powered by nuclear fusion and whether Lord Ganesh had his head transplanted by Vedic surgeons?
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed are personal