At a meeting in early December last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that he thought persons with disability should be renamed as people who are “divyang”, or possessed with divinity. He repeated the divyang thought in his radio address on December 27, and the Railway Budget this year became the first official document to use divyang. Now, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disability (PWD) under the central government’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, will be called the Divyangan Sashastikaran Vibhag. The change will be only in Hindi.
So what is wrong with invoking the ‘divine’ with disability? First of all, say many activists working with people with disability, it is a deeply uncomfortable idea for those who, because of their disability, feel excluded from several aspects of life.
Also, disability is a state subject — and while the Centre, as revealed in a reply to an RTI query recently, says it sent out letters to states and at least six NGOs working for persons with disability, it took the decision to go ahead with the renaming anyway.
The decision has been criticised also by those who have been battling for equal opportunity and acceptability for the disabled through a rights-based framework — as opposed to a charity/sympathy prism which ‘divinity’ implies. Introducing an element of ‘god’s gift’ implies a fatalist acceptance — which is out of line with the big debates, both in India and internationally, on how people born with mental and physical disabilities are to be brought on an even keel.
There is some debate over the use of PWD as well. Some south Indian states prefer “differently-abled”, which perhaps glosses over the fact that all human beings are differently abled from each other, and that some of us have serious disabilities that make living a ‘normal’ life an achievement. There is also the question of political correctness. There have been campaigns against terms like ‘deaf’, ‘dumb’, ‘blind’ and ‘cripple’, which are seen as insults, and to couch them — for example, ‘visually challenged’ instead of ‘blind’.
But as far as official phrases go, PWD has been the accepted norm, especially since PH (physically handicapped) became obsolete with several learning disabilites coming under the purview of disabilities.
India was the among the first countries to sign and ratify the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which uses the term “Persons with Disabilities”. To the extent that signing the Convention enjoins a country to harmonise its laws in accordance with the Convention, the bid to spin words is against the spirit of the agreement, argue several groups. One reason the name-change is currently limited to Hindi could be the international embarrassment that is likely to accompany a claim of ‘divine’ attributes for PWDs.
Those not in agreement with the name-change have written to the PM asking that the notification be withdrawn. There are protest petitions online. Javed Abidi of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) denies they were consulted on the matter. “We never received any letter, any invitation. We never attended any meeting, any consultation,” he said.
Muralidharan, secretary of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, which too has written to the PM, said, “Dignity, accommodation and recognition of their rights as equal and productive citizens are what persons with disabilities long for and not any change in nomenclature. We would like to reiterate that disability is not a divine gift. And the use of phrases like ‘divyang’ in no way ensures de-stigmatisation or an end to discrimination on grounds of disability.”
Back in the 1970s, during a debate in Delhi’s Constitution Club, a young Mayawati made an impact on Kanshi Ram, as she argued vociferously why calling Scheduled Castes “Harijan” was not okay. Calling a people who had been relegated to a sub-human existence for millennia by the patronising moniker of ‘God’s people’ was not acceptable, she argued — the preferred name should be Dalit or Depressed Classes, which said it like it was, without any charity or attempt at their benign assimilation into the hierarchical framework of caste.
In the case of tribals or Adivasis, the Sangh, keen to cast the Aryan/Hindu as the original inhabitant of this land, refers to ‘Vanvasis’ — literally, inhabitants of forests. In this case too, it is not just a name-change, but a name-change aligned to thinking of the Hindu as the original inhabitant. The other view being that the majority or non-tribals are not indigenous, an idea that strikes at the heart of the argument of non-Hindus alone as ‘foreigners’.
The feelgood divinity thrust upon disabled persons goes against all modern ideas of how those disadvantaged at birth are to be assimilated into the ‘mainstream’ — or how the mainstream is to be broadened to accommodate all kinds of diversity. What needs to be addressed are stigma, discrimination and marginalisation that persons with disabilities are subjected to on account of the cultural, social, physical and attitudinal barriers that inhibit their contribution to and participation in India’s story.