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Mind Your Language

Words have the power to make or break one’s career, relationships, reputation et al. They hold more significance for people in the public eye.

Shobhika Puri

Mind Your Language! As many would think, this article is not about the famous British sitcom of the late seventies but, something that we all often hear as a child. Unfortunately, as we grow up we forget to say this to ourselves. Words have the power to make or break one’s career, relationships, reputation et al. They hold more significance for people in the public eye like the politicians, especially in this day and age of 24X7 media channels hungry for breaking news.

The recent remark of Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, that called the Naxals ‘cowards enacting dramas’ and ‘not friends of the poor as they claimed’, may have infuriated the latter. It is quite possible that the killing of 76 CRPF jawans a day after the remark may have been an offshoot of the same. Not to say that the remark caused the attack but, it may have added fuel to the fire. If true, then a huge price has been paid for a few words that could have been said more wisely.

It is not the first time that politicians have let their tongues loose. Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav recently remarked that if the Women`s Reservation Bill is passed, it will fill Parliament with the kind of women who invite catcalls and whistles. Speaks volumes about his attitude towards women.

Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor has become more famous for his tweets than his political actions. In September 2009, he tweeted that he would travel "cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!" and all hell broke loose. There was uproar in the media and the Parliament. He had to later apologise for the same, saying that he was new to the Indian sentiments, explaining the real meaning of his words.

The most shocking words came from Maharashtra Home Minister, RR Patil, during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. While addressing the media he casually remarked, “Bade sheharon mein aise ek aadh hadse hote rahte hain. Woh 5,000 logon ko marne aye the lekin humne kitna kum nuksan hone diya.” [Such small incidents happen in big cities. They (terrorists) came to kill 5,000 people but we ensured minimal damage.] How irresponsible is that? He may have offered numerous explanations for this but, his words are inexplicable. He even resigned after that but we all know that he is back at the same post after the controversy faded.

Way back in May 2007, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who is known for her impeccable English and manners, too blurted out something unacceptable. While expressing her concern over the rising population in the capital due to migration from neighbouring states, she had said that people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh come to Delhi and settle down here and that we have no rules and regulations to stop them. She hurt the sentiments of many, but she was quick to apologise.

This is not just true of Indian politicians. World over there have been politicians who have become victims of their own words. In 2006, Barack Obama, who was not the US president back then, delivered a controversial speech on politics and religion to a respected Christian progressive organisation. The liberals were very disturbed to hear him say that they must put aside their religious biases and reach out to others. Conservative leaders were quick to use this lapse and created a turmoil, saying that the Democrats disliked and disrespected the Church.

The current US Vice President, Joe Biden, in 2006 remarked that one cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin` Donuts in Delaware unless one has a slight Indian accent. He was forced to explain his remarks later.

Words are like chameleons that reflect the colour of the environment, so one should be very careful of what one says or writes. We all are prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time but, we can get away with it. The people in the public glare cannot. The politicians need to be extra careful because their words and actions have a bearing on the lives of the public. Their words go down in history.

As Lady Dorothy Nevill, an English writer, once said, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer and an LSR (DU) and IIM Lucknow, Noida Campus alumna.)