A coalition of disability rights groups on Sunday criticised the “disrespectful and insensitive remarks” made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi where he took a covert jibe at Congress President Rahul Gandhi with an insensitive joke about people with dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty which can cause trouble with reading, writing, and spelling. It is not a marker of intelligence or creativity.

Modi on Saturday evening had addressed engineering students via video conference at the Smart India Hackathon 2019. During his interaction, a student was talking about her idea of helping students with dyslexia when Modi interrupted her to ask if it would benefit people between 40 and 50.

In the video, the student who asked the question looked taken aback by Modi’s remark. When she attempted to continue, Modi cut her short again, saying that the news would bring happiness to the mothers of such people. Modi’s obvious target was his political opponent Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi. The prime minister’s remarks were later heavily criticised on social media.

In a statement, the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled condemned Modi for “taking potshots at his political rivals” instead of answering the question. “In an uncalled for and totally insensitive response, the Prime Minister tried to portray all dyslexic people in poor light,” it said. “It is all the more unpardonable as it comes from a person holding such a high office.”

The coalition demanded that Modi apologise to persons with disabilities for making such remarks. “The PM should under no circumstances be making such a remark. It also displays scant respect for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, according to which this constitutes an offence,” the statement said. “The least the PM can do is apologise for his remarks.”

The coalition said “this disgusting attitude” came from a person who had equated disability with divinity and coined the term “divyang”. “Even during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Narendra Modi had used terms like blind, deaf, lame, etc. to belittle his rivals,” it said.

The coalition said several other political leaders have also made fun of persons with disabilities in the past, including Gandhi, who had last month described Modi as a schizophrenic.

Siddaramaiah attacks Modi

Congress leader and former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah criticised Modi for his remark, calling him “insensitive” and “heartless”. “Just came across a video of our Narendra Modi taking political potshots using the name of dyslexic people,” Siddaramaiah tweeted. “Shame on you Modi! You just can’t go below this. Your insensitivity can’t be washed away by dipping in any river. They may be slow in learning [people living with dyslexia] but not heartless like you.”