Seeking a new insult

Feb 05, 2014, 08:08 IST | Ranjona Banerji

In the India of the 1990s, the best insult you could aim at anyone who didn’t think that religious minorities should be murdered at will or whim was ‘pseudo-secularist’. This word was coined by LK Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party and he, amongst many others, thought he had been very clever. “You pseudo-secularist” was chucked about, with attendant sniggers, at anyone who dared to argue that destroying the Babri Masjid was overdoing it or killing Muslims in riots was was wrong.

Name-calling: In the India of the 1990s, the best insult you could aim at anyone who didn’t think that religious minorities should be murdered at will or whim was ‘pseudo-secularist’. This word was coined by none other than LK Advani 

What have you ever done for Hindus, you pseudo-secularist was a common refrain. I don’t know if people in Pakistan, for instance, who were opposed to Hindus being persecuted in that country were also called pseudo-secularists by the bigots but if they didn’t, they missed out on a good insult.

But I’ve done it now, haven’t I? By calling the name-callers, bigots, I’ve entered their little game. Well, maybe. As time passed, pseudo-secularist, as happens to all things, went out of fashion. It sounded clunky. This didn’t mean that pseudo-secularists themselves vanished. But the insult had been used too often and became a joke. The sniggers were on the other side now. The way some Black Americans embraced ‘nigger’ or homosexuals started calling themselves ‘queer’.

And naturally, those who had used ‘pseudo-secular’ so effectively needed a replacement. Because two decades later, there were still people who felt persecuting religious minorities was unfair and there were still those quite in favour of it. But the discourse had shifted a bit. For one, some sections of the religious minorities had become less insecure.

And then, the more conservative elements of society — this is a kinder way of saying bigot or semi-bigot — discovered other problems as well.

Women getting ahead of themselves for instance and claiming all kinds of rights like equality. Homosexuals wanting to be treated like humans and not criminals. The underprivileged looking for any semblance of justice and fair play.

Those still burdened by the caste system who wanted the discrimination to go away. Those who were tagged pseudo-secularists were found to be in favour of these sections of society as well. They had no problem with women being out at night. Or homosexuals walking about openly. Or others fighting for the environment. And so on.

The rot had clearly spread much further than demanding rights for religious minorities. Now these erstwhile pseudo-secularists were going all out to support all sorts of fringe elements. The kind you shield your children from and drum out of your neighbourhood. The Internet had been invented by now and word spreads much faster on twitter than any other human method including the smoke signals that were used in my youth. Really. I’m not joking. People smoked in their own homes, in restaurants, everywhere in my day.

Anyway, aside over. The new name currently being used to replace pseudo-secular is ‘left-liberal’. I can hear those jaws dropping at the absolute inanity of this insult. It sounds like nothing. It doesn’t even have a nasty consonant in it. Left-liberal. I agree with you.

A new insult is required and that is why I have put this request out there. Of course, until we all agree on a new insult, there are ways of making it more effective. A cultivated sneer as suggested by Mad magazine in my childhood should be a winner. As I remember it, you stand in front of the mirror for hours, lifting one corner of your lip. Then you say ‘Left liberal’ with one half of your top lip going up. I suggest you brush your teeth before you do this in public because if there’s any spinach left over from lunch, it can produce giggles which can quite spoil the effect.

I have now been called pseudo-secular and left-liberal so many times now that I barely hear it any more. However, on the off-chance that we meet in the street and you want to call me one, just remember this. I practised the Mad magazine cultivated sneer not just for hours but for weeks. As a result I can lift both corners of my lips in quick succession. I can even say ‘bigot’ while I’m doing it. Just so you know.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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