In May 2014, Narendra Modi described the Parliament as a ‘temple of democracy’. He vowed to work for the poor and perhaps that’s why he appointed Thawar Chand Gehlot, the face of the Dalit community from Shajapur, as the cabinet minister for Social Justice and Empowerment.
Fast forward to 2016. It was the last day of the winter session which was marred by the opposition’s resistance on all proceedings. Only one bill had been passed by the Rajya Sabha and now it was in the Lok Sabha. After discussion, Union Minister Gehlot moved that the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities Bill be passed. Standing behind the Prime Minister, he agreed internationally ‘persons with disabilities’ is the standard terminology, but said that the government is going a step ahead by promoting the terminology ‘divyang’ as proposed by Mr Modi. It’s no secret that the disability sector is against the use of this patronising word. Many disability rights activists had written to the PM and asked him to not propagate “the insulting discriminatory, euphemistic and condescending word further.” It was then that the Union Minister crossed the boundaries in Modi’s ‘temple of democracy’ by stating in the Parliament that only one or two states had opposed the word ‘divyang’. This was like adding salts on the wounds of the disability sector. I was watching the proceedings on my computer and I knew that the minister lied on the floor of the Parliament. I had filed an RTI this year to know the response of the states/UTs and the disability sector on the usage of this word.
PM in his radio show Mann Ki Baat last year had proposed that we, the persons with disabilities should be called ‘divyang‘ (divine body). In undue haste, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities immediately sent letters to states/UTs to seek their approval in January 2016. This haste was unjustified as in four states and one union territory, elections were to take place. Only nine states/UTs responded by April and quick reminders were sent again. Out of the total 36 states and union territories combined (29 States, 7 UT), only 23 responded by June end. Delhi, Bihar were neutral but Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya, and Assam rejected the usage of the term ‘divyang‘. It was erroneous on the part of Union Minister to mislead the Parliament. I expressed my fury by tweeting to the minister.
He was also wrong when he said that the disability sector was consulted. Abha Khetarpal, an award winning disability rights activist and I filed another RTI. It revealed that only six NGOs were consulted, out of which five were Delhi based. National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, National Association of the Deaf, National Federation of the Blind, National Association for the Blind and Amar Jyoti. One of them was from Bangalore (Action for Mental Illness). This is not a pan-India representation. Moreover, Padma Shri awardee Mr JL Kaul (All India Confederation of the Blind), disability groups from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal expressed their dissent against the use of this word, but it was not considered. All of the above six denied getting any letter from the Ministry, but it’s on the RTI record of the DEPwD. A closer look at the beneficiaries of government grant on MSJE’s Annual Report 2015-16 will reveal why some of them were specifically chosen.
It is also strange to see that the decision of the only person in history to be a Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD) with a disability, Mr PK Pincha, on banning of the expression ‘handicapped’ has not yet been implemented in the last four years. But the desire of an individual to label the entire disability sector as one with divine-powers is so quickly implemented. One may name an individual but has to ask the community for labelling them in entirety.