Why Calling ‘Divyang’ is Going To Hurt Disabled (Know the Politics Behind It)

“It should not come as a surprise that such lofty ideas of being divine, having divinity, being superior to men or other people have been historically used against the oppressed people. In this sense, it can be said that ascribing divinity is a disguised tool for subjugation.

by | Jan 3, 2016

There was yet another instance of ‘Mann ki Baat’, there was yet another conclusion of a foreign trip, and there was yet another self-imposed onus of giving another Mantra on Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, or PM Modi, as affectionately called by almost all media houses, not to talk of his fans and sycophants.

If it had been a lesser mortal, on the dais, he would have succumbed under the enormous pressure to perform at yet another event. However, after successfully taking euphoric middle-class from one event to another, PM Modi (It seems, I love this guy too!) did not let us down on Sunday, December 27 when he came up with yet another clever-sounding catchword: instead of calling ‘Viklang’ (disabled), call the disabled ‘Divyang’ (divine organ). And no sooner did he utter these words, media went gaga over the ‘clever remark,’ to the effect that, Minister for Social Justice and empowerment Thaavar Chand Gehlot told Economic Times that ministry-level discussions had begun. “We have already started discussions on this. Divyang is a very good word. The PM has himself suggested it. We will consult the PMO in the coming days to see how this can be taken forward,” he added.

Such is the frenzy caused by every word spoken by the man on a divine mission that it also makes it an occasion to stop and think what this seemingly minor change in nomenclature actually means to those who are disabled and need a just society to live in. To do that, we should step back about a hundred years to point at one similar event in early 1900, when during a social gathering Mahatma Gandhi called Untouchables ‘Harijan’.

Though a historical comparison was necessary to explain the monstrosity of the neologism, and to show how the new coinage (Harijan) did not translate into any benefit (real or imaginary) for the oppressed class, enough has already been said about the despicable term ‘Harijan,’ so I will not waste more words than was required to make a passing comparison with PM Modi’s Divyang. The term was nothing more than a historical gimmick to shift focus away from the real problem that the class of people faced (and are still facing). The euphemism did not do more than humiliating the oppressed class, as aptly described much later by P. L. Mimroth, convener of Centre for Dalit Human Rights, in a memorandum to Justice Sayed Sagir Ahmed, Chairperson of RSHRC. He wrote, “You will appreciate that `Harijan’ word has already been considered derogatory, insulting and against the dignity of millions of Dalits and oppressed people in India….”

On the meaning of Vilkang and Divyang

Before we talk about Divyang, let us know what Viklang means, then we will go further detailing why our PM wants to use Divyang instead.

The meaning of Viklang

Viklang, in the English language means disabled. Viklang is a person who suffers from a physical or mental condition that limits the person’s movements, senses, or activities. And as far the legal definition of the term goes, the Persons with Disability Act, 1995, defines ‘disability’ as: (i) Blindness; (ii) Low vision, (iii) Leprosy-cured, (iv) Hearing impairment; (v) Loco motor disability; (vi) Mental retardation, (vii) Mental illness.

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This definition was not usable for Census of India 2001, so, it categorized disability under five headings. Disabilities related to: (i) Seeing, (ii) Speech, (iii) Hearing, (iv) Movement, and (v) Mental.

Before we go any further, I would like to quote World Health Organization on this, which defines disabilities as:

“Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.”

By the above definitions, it is clear that disability is a value-neutral term. It is a bodily condition, not even a health condition. It is a somewhat permanent state of body; of a body that has special needs, and which expects the state to facilitate its functioning by including its needs when framing public policy or designing public space and utility.

Then why PM wants to call a Viklang a Divyang?

It would be easy to brush off the new coinage, as yet another slogan like several others (‘Swachh Bharat’, ‘Make in India’, ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’, ‘Per drop, more crop’, JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile), etc.) which PM Modi has been scattering right, left, and centre, since he came to power, but there is more than one problem with the term, which calls for its careful examination.

Divyang means divine organ, so by calling a disabled Divyang, we are essentially saying that a disabled person is a possessor of a divine organ. It, by extension, means that the person has some superior gift from God (in this case Hindu God), which PM himself eloquently elaborated by saying viklangs are possessor of “divine ability”, and “people who have a limb or several limbs with divine powers which we don’t have”; so they cannot be treated as someone who needs ‘special condition’ to perform their normal bodily functions like other able-bodied individuals.

This argument is in the same vein as was the ones that ascribed divinity to women to keep them away from gaining equal rights in society. Such arguments were used everywhere before feminism ushered in to claim an equal place for women in society, and not just a notional existence in the euphuistic definition of the term. Similar arguments were used against Harijans, who were said to be closer to Gods because they clean the waste (and excrements) of fellow mortals.

It should not come as a surprise that such lofty ideas of being divine, having divinity, being superior to men or other people have been historically used against the oppressed people. In this sense, it can be said that ascribing divinity is a disguised tool for subjugation.

By saying, “We often address the physically challenged people as handicapped, disable and specially-abled persons. But sometimes when we get introduced to them, we get to know that they are endowed with ‘extra power’ which can’t be seen with bare eyes,” the prime minister added fuel to already prevalent bias among middle-class, forward-caste Hindus against marginalized. This statement will further shrink the discursive space allotted to minorities. Attaching brahminic idea of divinity to disability can be seen as an active act of promoting Brahmanism and Hindu Rastravad, in the sense of considering Hindu as an all-encompassing set containing all kinds of ideas and ideals imaginable (such idea of Hindu can often be sensed in the words of RSS panellists in different TV discussions), which Arundhati Roy also alleged the government of promoting. Talking of this kind of inclusion, you must have suspected that it is not the real one. It is a conditional inclusion. The condition being accepting Brahmanism (and its way of life) in the way it has been, and the way it is accepted by middle-class, forward-caste Hindus.

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There is another problem the term Divyang brings forth. By calling them “people who have a limb or several limbs with divine powers which we don’t have,” the prime minister is perhaps referring to something called ‘phantom organ’ possessed by the disabled, which any neuroscientist can say, is not a nice thing to have. A phantom arm or a phantom leg is a pain rather than a divine manifestation. Talking of which, V. S. Ramachandran, a noted neuroscientist, opened his book Phantoms in the Brain, with the following description of divinity:

“A man wearing an enormous bejeweled cross dangling on a gold chain sits in my office, telling me about his conversations with God, the “real meaning” of the cosmos and the deeper truth behind all surface appearances. The universe is suffused with spiritual messages, he says, if you just allow yourself to tune in. I glance at his medical chart, noting that he has suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy since early adolescence, and that is when “God began talking” to him. Do his religious experiences have anything to do with his temporal lobe seizures?”

So much for divinity!

He appears to be a disenchanted man. He sees neurological problems in those who possess “several limbs” that actually are missing from their physical body, and which was ascribed divinity by the Prime Minister. The author has kept his study limited to the scientific and mental effect of missing limbs, but the pain he described goes beyond mere mental pain felt by sufferers.

Hiding behind Divyang

Since the current government came to power, the state has been trying to justify its reason for existence by fudging history and muddling with course books (particularly history books). Changing names is one important step in that direction, though not the only one. By doing this, the state wishes to straighten the curve of history, and create dialectical confusion among the fellow citizens. In the very words of George Orwell (1984),

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc –should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

The situation may seem exaggerated, but perhaps not so to all eyes. There are many who are worried. Like NewSpeak of 1984, the language of discussion is being changed to make it obtuser, which is not only visible in the way the new mantras and new terms are invented, but also in the way government is trying to appropriate key events.

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One instance of such obfuscation can be felt in the way the GDP has been misrepresented to have grown by 7.4%, which in the words of Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BofA-ML) has not grown more than 5.2% under old methodology. To make it look good, the government has changed the scale itself, which is the kind of thing Orwell wrote in 1984. Similar act, but of omission was undertaken during India-Africa Forum Summit, when BJP along with the PM stayed silence on Nehru’s contribution to building strong relationships with Africa. “But leader after leader from Africa today heaped praise on Nehru just after Modi had spoken. The Prime Minister listened, then swivelled back and forth on his chair and finally left for bilateral meetings planned along the margins of the Africa summit,” as The Telegraph noted.

By changing the terms of a dialogue, the government is trying to use ‘ungood’ in place of bad (to speak in the manner of NewSpeak). Once the idea of disability will begin to dilute, the voice for equal rights for disables will start dying down. Middle-class, which already do not have time or inclination to look beyond their immediate surroundings, will collude, unwittingly, with its chosen government to cut down on the expenditure a state should ideally make to make the place habitable for viklangs. The government spending on improving the public space and public utility is almost negligible, despite the fact that 1.2 million disabled people call India their home.

To quote August 29, 2014 report published in The Times of India:

“While the total population the disabled increased by just over 22 per cent over a decade, from almost 22 million in the Census 2001 to 26.8 million in 2011, the number of disabled people living on their own has nearly doubled, jumping by 84 per cent in the same period.

This is revealed in the latest figures on disabled people and household size released by the census. About 6.3 lakh disabled people lived alone in single member households and 2.7 lakh two-member households had two disabled people each (about 5.5 lakh in all) staying on their own in households without any non-disabled person.”

There is a huge task ahead of the government to accommodate viklangs in the mainstream by providing them necessary support, but instead, the Prime Minister sees divinity in the disabled. In place of formulating a policy to assist disabled make their lives easy, our PM sees “several limbs with ‘extra power’ which can’t be seen with bare eyes.” We should now know where our priorities are: in providing equal opportunity, or in notional existence in some lofty ideas!

Bikram Kumar Singh

Bikram Kumar Singh

Bikram K. Singh is a freelance writer who after a brief stint with a leading media company got disenchanted with the corporate scene, and began his solitary journey thereafter. He tries to maintain an independence of thought and a critical outlook on the things that happen in the highly institutionalized world of ours.

email: bikram@probinglens.com

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