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  • Meena Kandasamy

When Language Excludes: Caste & Covid-19

(These are my talking notes from my contribution at the 17th OHCHR Covid-19 global webinar on "Descent-based discrimination & when language excludes" (12 October 2020) organised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). It was an invite-only event, and I'm sharing this text here with the permission of the organisers)

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak in this Webinar on LANGUAGE THAT SERVES TO EXCLUDE AND DISCRIMINATE. I am excited for two reasons: as an academic whose primary area of research interests is the intersection of society and language (sociolinguistics), and as someone who is very alive and raw to discriminatory language based on descent. My father’s father comes from a tiny, marginalised nomadic community called andi pandaram—who were faith-healers, witch-doctors who also were involved in ritual begging. Today, in everyday slang, whether it is in Tamil or Malayalam (two South Indian languages), the word pandaram is a slur, a word of abuse that is meant to insult beggars and would mean the most wretched.


At this meeting, I want to sidestep the personal and to highlight a major humiliating usage of caste-based coinage in the international media. The name of a Tamil community, the Paraiyar—whose word origin exists in ancient in Tamil literature from the common era (2000 years ago) originally had absolute neutral references (the primary meaning of the word Parai meant to speak, and also in reference to any variety of drums played by the people). Through the abhorrent practice of caste and untouchability that permeated Tamil society in later centuries, the name of this caste group, the Paraiyar, especially in its anglicized form, as Pariah, has become a stand-in today to mean outsider, untouchable and ostracized.


Today, the Paraiyars are the most numerous Dalit caste group in Tamil Nadu and the fact that this word ---- is an everyday caste-slur in Tamil – a language spoken by 70 million people – must make us sit up and avoid its usage. No one can claim to be portraying the social landscape of isolation when this word in its original context is demeaning, humiliating and encodes caste violence.


Only in the last 24-hours, I looked up on the internet to see how it was used globally: and here we have, "Unjust to treat Sudan as a pariah state" (Financial Times).


I thank the organisers in particular for taking steps to examine discriminatory language through the prism of the Covid-19 pandemic which heightens and sharpens the intent of such usage. The New York Times this July famously headlined a story, “Sweden Tries Out a New Status: Pariah State” to talk about the alienation of Sweden among its Nordic neighbours for its lax strategy towards the virus. Exportation of the indignities of the caste system, particularly untouchability, into English has made caste a global phenomenon.


My first recommendation at this meeting: The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could make an appeal to media houses internationally to avoid uses of terms like pariah and untouchable.


Coming to the second topic under discussion, how does discriminatory language and practices play out in the context of the pandemic, I want to point out three aspects

o Entrenching the semantics of oppressive and discriminatory practices, allowing concepts of purity and pollution to achieve a field of operation and currency beyond the system of Hindu-religious caste patriarchy. It also ends up reinforcing pollution related to death. Tamil words like samuga idaiveli, samuga vilagal directly end up referring to exclusion and setting apart. Also, the aspect of quarantine and self-isolation, are not only caste practices—but also practised on menstruating women across their position in the caste system.


o Secondly, sometimes this has allowed those who carry out these discriminatory practices for caste reasons to validate themselves and to create the urban legend around such discrimination by arguing that it was done in the name of science and disease-prevention. It lets caste-practising Hindus to claim: This is why we don’t shake hands, this is why we follow such practices.


o Thirdly, we find that the culture of fear and public health also allows for state systems to employ the language of terrorism, by targeting a particular community, exercising Islamophobia-such as CoronaJihad.


My second recommendation: While campaigns by the medical community, the WHO, and state health departments have concentrated on insisting upon distancing measures such as standing apart and avoiding shaking hands—it would do good to carry alongside the scientific basis of the campaign, the humanitarian aspect of it. The distancing measures that we as a society employ to avert a virus are borne out of love for one another and come from a humanitarian angle of protecting each other. As far as an intent is concerned, this is diametrically opposite to discriminatory practices like caste, untouchability and menstrual pollution. Perhaps it would do good to have one single campaign (at least in South Asia) to highlight this stark difference. Caste distancing is done out of hate, the COVID distancing is done out of love. Menstrual isolation is done out of blind superstition, COVID isolation is done out of science and social responsibility.

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