On March 29, just a couple of days before West Bengal’s Nandigram constituency went to the poll, Suvendu Adhikari, a Trinamool Congress turncoat and the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate running against chief minister Mamata Banerjee launched a vicious attack on her. Among other things, he said: “Begum will turn Bengal into mini-Pakistan if she wins.”

His reference to Pakistan, drawing on the right-wing ideological trope of equating Pakistan with Islamic fundamentalism, is clear. What is not clear is why Adhikari called Banerjee “begum”, an Urdu word for queen or princess?

In Turkish, begum is an aristocratic title used to refer to ladies of rank such as daughters and wives of rulers and kings. This meaning is reflected in Urdu in names such as Azimunnisa Begum, wife of Nawab Siraj-ud-daula who is buried in Murshidabad, West Bengal. The word, having undergone a semantic extension in Urdu, is also used as a name and an honorific term added to names. An example of this is the Bollywood actress Mumtaz Begum, known in the industry as Madhubala. Her name was Mumtaz, with Begum suffixed as an honorific.

Although begum is no longer popular, for Urdu speakers it continues to have a positive connotation. Therefore, it is confounding why Adhikari used it as a term of disparagement against Banerjee.

This is not the first time an Urdu word denoting respect and regard has been used by the BJP to attack their opponents. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his political rallies in 2013, and many times afterwards, has called Rahul Gandhi “shahzada”. The common understanding was that Modi was using shahzada, meaning prince, to criticise the dynastic politics in Congress whereby political positions are inherited rather than earned. Modi himself clarified that he would stop calling him shahzada when Congress stops dynastic politics. The real meaning, however, was deeper than that.

The Urdu word shahzada is of Persian origin and means prince. For example, in the popular film Mughal-e Azam, Akbar’s son is referred to as shahzada Saleem. Beyond its literal meaning, the word is used as a name for Muslim men, as well as an epithet of love and affection. Thus, one may affectionately describe a friend’s son as shahzada. In such contexts, the word clearly has positive meanings.

A wider repertoire

Shahzada and begum are not the only Urdu words with positive meanings that are used pejoratively in the BJP discourse to attack opponents. On social media, words such as “mohtarma” meaning respected, and “bibi”, also a term of respect for single women, are constantly used by right-wing trolls to verbally assault Muslim personalities. Journalist Rana Ayyub and activist-leader Shehla Rashid have been viciously trolled using these words.

From the context of the word bibi to address Rana Ayyub in the tweet below, it is clear that this word is also being used derogatorily.

Aware of this meaning, in a tweet, Shehla Rashid asked a user to not call her mohtarma. She also explained her dislike for the word bibi – she pointed out RSS trolls used it to underline her Muslim identity.

Urdu words as slur

There are existing words that can be and has been used to attack political opponents. For example, Sonia Gandhi called Modi “maut ka sawdagar”, or merchant of death, after the anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom of 2002. Similarly, her colleague Mani Shankar Aiyer called Modi a “neech admi”, or a lowly person.

These and other such hateful words target an individual in terms of certain moral standards. For example, killing someone is terrible and therefore being called a merchant of death is an act of defining someone in terms of killings, which are immoral. Similarly, Aiyer’s attack on Modi was based on certain standards of morality, against which, according to him, Modi stood low.

The use of Urdu words by BJP leaders and its supporters as slur, however, is different in that it goes deeper. Before it hits the individuals targeted, it actually demonises the cultural and symbolic structures associated with Indian Muslims. This is because the hateful impact of the term of abuse will not even work unless Muslims are defamed and vilified first. In other words, for the word shahzada or begum to function as slur, the Muslim rule and culture, from which these words are lifted, has to be defamed and vilified.

A contemporary example will help. In Delhi, the word Bihari, an adjective referring to someone from Bihar, has undergone a semantic denigration. Once, on a Delhi Transport Corporation bus, I heard a man calling another “abe oye Bihari” – “You Bihari” – to which the other man replied by returning the slur to him, “Bihari hoga tu” – “You must be Bihari”. It is clear that the meaning of Bihari – literally, someone belonging to Bihar – is not relevant here. For this slur to have an impact, the word Bihari has to be vilified first, or else the slur will fail. Replace the word Bihari in the above exchange with Rajasthani, for example, and the hurtful impact is gone.

Language as vilification

This vilification of Muslims at large has been at the core of the ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This is because they do not see Muslims and Christians as fully Indian because they do not consider India as their holy land or punyabhumi. The ideological guru of India’s ruling party, VD Savarkar, defined Indians as those who consider India their punyabhumi. The Muslim period for them is thus a dark phase in the history of India.

Modi in 2014, clearly suggested this when he said India is troubled by “1,200 years of slave mentality“. He was lumping together the 200 years of colonial rule and the preceding Muslim era as an undivided period of foreign rule, which must be constructed as monstrous.

In December 2017, when Rahul Gandhi was appointed as president, Modi said that his appointment would be the beginning of an “Aurangzeb Raj” in the party. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is the biggest historical villain of the right-wing ideology.

It would be simplistic to assume that other Muslim rulers fare better in the BJP discourse. In 2013, during its campaigns, BJP leaders compared the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government with Delhi Sultanate. In doing this, the BJP is first demonising Muslim rulers and then sticks it to the UPA in order to attack.

The attack on UPA will have no impact unless one assumes that the Delhi Sultanate was horrendous. Comparing the UPA government with the British rule, for example, can only attack the UPA, but not Muslims, and this explains why it was compared with a Muslim rule. It is exactly for this reason the use of Hindi word “rajkumar” for shahzada cannot achieve the divisive goal.

Vitriolic deployment of words and symbols clearly shows that languages are cultural symbols that grow in a certain sociocultural milieu. The continuous use of these words make them building blocks of that culture. These cultural blocks that are part of Indian history are being demonised and attacked. My concern in this article is neither Rahul Gandhi nor Mamata Banerjee as individuals but the Urdu cultural-linguistic repertoire mobilised by the BJP for vilification.

Rizwan Ahmad is Associate Professor of sociolinguistics at Qatar University. Twitter: @rizwanahmad1