The word has been used a lot this past week in relation to the controversial National Register of Citizens drawn up in Assam to separate Indian citizens from Bangladeshi settlers who migrated to the state after 1971. It is a deeply misleading term, since the vast majority of migrants, Muslim and Hindu, crossed the Bangladesh-India border seeking only a better life for themselves, as migrants have done throughout history. The term “infiltrator” demonises them, turns them into evil persons intent on destabilising India. Right-Wing parties bent on dividing to rule can be expected to employ “infiltrators”, or its Hindi equivalent “ghuspaithiye”, as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s president Amit Shah did. Unfortunately, the term has been absorbed by mainstream newspapers, and is even being adopted to describe Rohingya refugees driven from their lands in Myanmar, though it ought to be restricted to characterising militants crossing the Line of Control in Kashmir. It is possible to oppose illegal immigration without demonising the migrants and equating them with spies and terrorists.
If the movement of humans across borders is the foremost geopolitical issue of our time, the movement of goods is not far behind. Donald Trump believes the United States is being taken advantage of by other nations, and has raised tariffs to defend local manufacturers, leading to a cascade of adjustments in global trade, some more predictable than others. East Asian steel that might have gone to the United States now finds a more profitable market in India. When foreign goods sell cheaper than Indian ones, India’s newspapers tend to cite dumping as the cause, and this time is no different. According to one report, India has become a “steel dumping ground” following the Trump tariffs. Dumping refers to cases where a country or company exports a product at a price that is lower in the importing market than in the exporter’s domestic market. The World Trade Organisation has a specific definition of dumping and is open to remedial action by affected nations. However, it is worth exploring whether Japanese steel or Chinese solar panels are actually being dumped in India, or whether Indian companies seeking anti-dumping duties are simply greedy or inefficient. The uncritical and widespread use of the word “dumping” creates a sense of India being under economic attack, just as the misleading employment of “infiltration” conjures up a physical assault on the nation’s territory.
While we make foreigners sound threatening, we cover up the inequities of our own society through the use of euphemisms. In the normal definition, a scavenger is a person who searches for and collects discarded items. In India, such people are called ragpickers, but never scavengers, for scavenging has a special meaning here, describing a dehumanising form of employment that continues to be widespread though illegal. “Manual scavenging” describes the removal of excrement and faecal sludge from pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers. A number of developing nations have inadequate plumbing, and offer inadequate equipment to those hired to empty pit latrines. However, it is only in India that the job is restricted to a particular community, one placed at the bottom of the caste ladder. We ought to find a term to convey the horror of that profession as one way to hasten its end.
This is a word I have used frequently, but always with some discomfort. The echoes of its historical association with words like “primitive” and “savage” will never completely die out, and it feels hopelessly dated. “Tribal” continues to be widely used, and we even have a Ministry for Tribal Affairs, but a few publications like Scroll.in have wisely switched to the Indian word “Adivasi”, which is a modern construction coined to describe communities that our Constitution classifies as “Scheduled Tribes”. In the North East, however, members of native tribes hold on to the English word and reject the Sanskritic version. Where “Adivasi” seems inappropriate, perhaps we could settle on “indigenous groups” or “indigenous people” rather than “tribals”.
Person of colour
Sarah Jeong, a Korean-American tech journalist appointed to the New York Times editorial board in early August, was immediately caught up in a storm related to racist-sounding tweets she had composed in the past. Trying to explain those statements, she began, “As a woman of colour on the internet, I have faced torrents of online hate…”.
I could forgive her the racism, but baulked at her self-description. What substantive meaning could “person of colour” possibly carry, encompassing as it does every human on earth who is not white? It can mean nothing, except to those who divide the world (or the United States) into white people on one side and everybody else on the other, which is not a division that makes much sense to me. American affirmative action programmes, for example, disproportionately help African Americans at the cost of Asian Americans in institutions like Harvard, which Jeong attended. To those who believe in commonalities of experience binding every non-white person in the United States, I suggest they seek a less ridiculous-sounding descriptor than “person of colour”.
The terms I’ve discussed so far are all politically loaded, but I’m throwing in a last one unconnected to politics. I’m including it because it appears constantly in newspapers and never fails to set my teeth on edge. “Living-in”, an informal term rarely used any longer in Anglophone nations, has been formalised in India as the ugly phrase “live-in relationship” and adopted enthusiastically by the media and even our courts. Googling the term reveals, unsurprisingly, that all the top entries are Indian. There’s a perfectly simple word that can be used instead, “cohabiting”, which means living together and having a sexual relationship without being married. I hope, in the near future, fewer Indians will live-in and more will cohabit.