Pariah has cultural nuances; row rages over TN BJP leaders use of word
Scholars have condemned the usage of the word pariah by the TN BJP state chief Annamalai in a tweet

'Pariah' has cultural nuances; row rages over TN BJP leader's use of word

As Annamalai’s tweet triggers slugfest, debates rage over the origin of the word and efforts in the past to get it removed from English dictionaries

The word ‘pariah’ recently dominated Tamil Nadu politics. At a time when the state is striving to wipe out the notion of ‘caste’ by dropping caste names suffixed to street names in Chennai and advocating ‘No Caste, No Religion’ certificates, a heated debate broke out over the usage of the word ‘pariah’.

The debate was triggered by a tweet from Tamil Nadu BJP state chief K Annamalai. On May 30, the politician tweeted:

“From hopelessness to Hope
From parochial mindset to Nation First
From dilly dallying to Conviction
From one sided to Holistic Development
From a pariah to a ViswaGuru
From Dark to Light
8 years & counting with Shri @narendramodi avl as our first servant!”.

While the word ‘pariah’ used in North India, or outside Tamil Nadu for that matter, is interpreted as ‘outcast’, in the state, it is understood to refer to a particular section of Dalits. More precisely, it is used as a derogatory term.

When people called out Annamalai’s mistake, on the evening of the same day, he shared a screenshot of the meaning of the word from the online Macmillan dictionary.

Further, on June 1, he offered another explanation claiming the ‘pariah’ is not the same as ‘Paraiar’.

“The latter denotes the highly respected Siva Sambava Hindu community. I am fully aware that the name ‘Yanaiyerum Perum Paraiar’ is the title Hindu Sanatana Dharma gave to this great community which has civilizational & foundational contribution to Bharat that is India. So to think that I have used the term ‘Pariah’ to demean the community is wrong & mischievous,” he tweeted.

A complaint, however, has been lodged with the Tirunelveli police demanding Annamalai’s arrest under the SC/ST Act.

This word ‘pariah’ had raked up a controversy in the past as well. Back in 1995, when Subramanian Swamy called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran an ‘international pariah’, the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had filed a case against Swamy under the Protection of Civil Rights Act for the slur.

Also read: Revealed: 435 TN villages still practise caste discrimination; state turns blind eye

Origins of the word

While condemning Annamalai’s justification as a ‘double fault’, scholars in the state have taken to explaining the origin of the word on their social media pages.

Dravidian ideologue and author R Ashok said on his Facebook page that the word ‘pariah’ has moved from India to the western countries just like the word ‘catamaran’ (English for the Tamil word kattumaram).

“Even today, stray dogs are referred to as ‘pariah dogs’. When foreigners use this word it is understandable that they are inadvertently referring to the social dimension behind the word. But for a former IPS officer, who is aware about the social structures in our society, to use this word is condemnable,” he said.

The root of the word ‘paraiyar’, the respectful utterance of the word ‘paraiyan’ by adding an ‘r’ sound in the end of the word, lies in another Tamil word called ‘parai’, meaning a drum, a musical instrument. The instrument is made using the hide of the dead cow and the skinning process and related work used to be carried out by the lower, oppressed classes in society. Thus, the word stuck with that section of society. The word is also found in one of the Sangam texts, the Purananuru, song 335.

It’s not just Annamalai who’s getting flak over the word. Before him, Time magazine did.  In 2017, when the magazine carried a cover of #MeToo accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein along with the caption ‘Producer. Predator. Pariah’. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi general secretary and Villupuram MP, D Ravikumar, dashed off a mail to the magazine, condemning the usage of the word.

“There are more than 10 million people living in India who have been and continue to be called ‘pariah’. Their descendants live in many countries of the world. The word is used by others in a derogatory and insulting manner, not unlike the ‘N’ word in your country,” he wrote to Time.

Also read: Ritual of devotion or oppression? Ban on ‘Pattina Pravesam’ sparks ideological war in TN

Demands made to dictionary publishing houses

It is in this backdrop, some scholars like Dr Kannabiran Ravishankar, adjunct professor, Comparative Literature (Tamil), University of Paris, have  demanded that publishing houses like Cambridge Dictionary, Collins Dictionary and Britannica Dictionary mark the word ‘pariah’ as an offensive term.

“The word ‘pariah’, in South India, is used as an offensive slur to demean a person from the oppressed caste. It is akin to the word ‘Negro’ in the west. Request you, to mark the word ‘Pariah’ as ‘Older Use’ & ‘Offensive’ in your Dictionary,” he tweeted.

There have been attempts earlier as well to remove this much-maligned word from the dictionary. In 2018, writer Akil Kumarasamy, while writing about her mother’s experience – who had penned a mail to Merriam Webster Dictionary to remove this word from the dictionary –  in Catapult magazine, said the dictionary is a living archive of the past and the present that is trying desperately to capture our future.

“The Associate Editor of Webster’s Dictionary wrote back to my mom. He said: While we understand your argument for removing the word due to the misguided association of actual pariahs of India as outcasts, the simple fact is that the word has come to refer in English to one despised or rejected since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Removing this established sense of the word from the dictionary will do nothing to erase it from the memory of English speakers’ vocabularies. It would only leave a hole in our effort to cover the language with accuracy…” Kumarasamy said in her piece. And, the word pariah continues to operate in the realm of the outsider.

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