The Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew searing criticism from the opposition, for an alleged veiled jibe at his political rival, Rahul Gandhi, during the recent ‘Smart India Hackathon’, where he was addressing students through video conferencing at IIT Kharagpur.
When an engineering student from Dehradun brought up her idea to help tap into the creative genius of students with dyslexia, the Prime Minister interjected and asked if the proposal would work for children aged 40-50 years too. As the hall erupted in laughter, the questioner replied in the affirmative, to which the PM remarked that the mothers of such children would be happy.
India has been infamous for its attitude and approach towards mental health, and other impediments of a complex nature, including dyslexia. Around 18% of India’s primary schoolers are reported to be suffering from dyslexia, although the actual numbers may scale up much higher, owing to lack of awareness and sensitization in rural areas and various small towns across the country. Even today, a child’s issues with reading and writing are interpreted in terms of his unwillingness and phobia towards studies.
After the fiasco that took place at Smart India Hackathon, several opposition leaders, academicians and disability rights groups launched a scathing attack on the Prime Minister, asking him to apologize for his insensitive remark, which was an insult to everyone suffering from dyslexia or trying to overcome the same. Former Karnataka Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, tweeted that it was shameful to take political potshots in the name of dyslexic people. Communist leader, Sitaram Yechury, also remarked that it was shameful and distressing for the PM to make fun of dyslexic people.
As Peter Griffin rightly says, our vocabulary over the years has become recurring and replete with insulting jibes, related to the physical or mental impairment of people. A person not being able to listen properly in the very first instance is met with the remark of, “are you deaf?”
Friends not being able to comprehend a situation are often insinuated as “mentally retarded.” Likewise, a person with a visual impairment or wearing spectacles is often treated as “blind.” Whatever is not normal, or violates existing norms, is often treated as a jibe or a weapon to insult.
What Mr. Modi is probably forgetting is, that many who created history have been dyslexic early on in their lives. Lee Yuan Kew, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Abhishek Bachchan and many others went on to champion their respective spheres. The jibe taken in the name of dyslexic people not only downplays the achievements of theirs but also undermines their struggles and collective efforts to overcome the same.
A few days ago, opposers of the Nehru-Gandhi family alleged that Priyanka Gandhi was suffering from a bipolar disorder. In another instance, even Congress President Rahul Gandhi rhetorically asked if Narendra Modi was schizophrenic. The need for such personal, distasteful jibes arises from our long-standing tradition of and mental health.
Any individual who deviates from the standing ideal of ‘normal’ is thought of incapable to compete in any sphere of life. This further encourages people to believe that differently-abled individuals have no rightful place in the democratically elected offices of power.
Apart from what Mr. Modi did, there is another looming question of the students of one of the most premier institutes in the country laughing the remark off. It sets a brutal optic of Indian students in front of national as well as international diaspora in the matters of basic human decency and empathy.
Historically, while student movements have been one of the leading factors in dislodging the imperialist British empire from India, the evolution seventy years later isn’t what one might aim it to be. Keep aside protest, the students joined in and laughed at the veiled remark.
With no response yet from Mr. Modi or the BJP yet, the matter may be assumed to be done away with. However, this sets the stage for what many claim is taking the differently-abled people’s struggle back by fifty years. An unofficial validation of the long-standing stigma by none other than the Prime Minister himself is not only unbecoming of his position but also denigrates the status of the dyslexic and the differently-abled.
At a time when the youth is constantly striving to make the world a better place and do away with toxic traits of traditional norms, it is time that the Indian students who fit themselves into the conventional idea of ‘intelligence’ follow suit. At the end of the day, the government and the people at its helm must be held accountable.
The culture of questioning and dissent should not die out in the process of political gains and systematic silencing. Disability rights groups must be given a push to the forefront and gain support from the rather dormant public. Only then shall we able to give rise to an egalitarian society in real than just in theory.