One man's relentless struggle to get rid of the colonial slave mentality that is carefully preserved in Malayali's communication with public authorities finally gets an official response.
Palakkad-based social activist Boban Mattumantha had been writing to the Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department (PARD) to get certain words erased from official communication: salutations such as 'sir', 'madam' and 'respected', valedictions written at the end of official submissions like 'yours faithfully' and 'yours sincerely' and even the Malayalam for an application form, 'apeksha', which sounds as if the applicant is pleading for something.
All these Mattumantha dismissively terms as "slave speak". "These were words used by slaves in front of their masters during colonial times or within a feudal structure. We are a free country now," Mattumantha said.
Keep your head held high
The PARD had acknowledged most of Mattumantha's submissions but had till recently not acted on them. Finally, on March 22, it issued a circular to all government offices saying that the phrase 'thazhmayayi apekshikkunnu' ('requesting with my head bend low') should henceforth be avoided in all printed government application forms.
But Mattumantha remains deeply disappointed. In place of 'thazhmayayi apekshikkunnu', the circular says the printed form should use 'apekshikkunnu/abhyarthikkunnu'. According to Mattumantha both 'apekshikkunnu' and 'abhyarthikkunnu', like 'thazhmayayi apekshikkunnu', are jargons that strengthen bondage.
"What the government has done is to replace a phrase that suggests a high level of servility with words that denote a medium level of servility, but servility all the same. It is just that you don't stoop very low while begging for favours," Mattumantha told Onmanorama.
He said that according to the most definitive Malayalam dictionary 'Shabdatharavali', both 'apekshikkunnu' and 'abhyarthikkunnu' mean a kind of beseeching, except that 'abhyarthikkunnu' is a more dignified form of beseeching or pleading.
In fact, Mattumantha's campaign against language colonialism has led to many panchayats rechristening 'apeksha forms' into 'avakasha pathrika' (rights form). “Social security pension or a house under LIFE Mission or medical assistance is our right, not the government's favour for us to plead for it,” he said. So instead of 'apekshikkunnu/abhyarthikkunnu', it has to be 'avashyappedunnu'. "People should feel that they are asking for their rights," he said.
Eternal human bondage
Mattumantha has other issues with the March 22 circular as well. He said the circular wants the 'thazhmayayi apekshikkunnu' phrase avoided only in printed forms. "It has not said that such a phrase should be avoided by the public in their handwritten letters and submissions made before public offices. It is, therefore, clear that the government wants to slyly sustain the colonial era reverence the public still has for various positions of power," Mattumantha said.
He cites yet another "tactical omission" to prove his point that the government is keen to encourage this master-slave bond. "Nowhere has it been written that a person in authority should be called 'sir' or 'madam'. Yet, thinking that they are obliged to, poor people keep calling officials 'sir'. The government just has to issue a clarification saying there was no need to call anyone 'sir' or 'madam'. But the government has not," Mattumantha said.
Cattle class and respect class
He is also irritated with the use of 'respected' ('bahumanappetta') when officials are addressed; 'bahumanapetta' chief secretary, 'bahumanapetta' collector, 'bahumanapetta' village officer. "But when an official addresses or writes to a poor person, 'bahumanapetta' is not used. Does it mean that only certain class of people are worthy of respect," Mattumantha asked.
He said the government was still reluctant to do away with a bigger disgrace: 'mappapeksha' (mercy petition). If an application for a marriage or death certificate or an application for any government assistance is not submitted on time, the public is asked to submit 'mappapeksha'.
At the master's mercy
"In our country, only the President or the courts can grant mercy. Should the people of this country ask mercy from a collector or a village officer," Mattumantha said.
He said instead of 'mappapeksha', an individual can be served a show-cause notice seeking reasons for the delay. "In fact, there is already a fine for the delay in filing the application. Even after paying the fine, they are made to seek mercy," he said.