Pest control and cleansing: Anupam Kher’s language of genocide

Meha Khanduri

To my horror I learnt a few days back that Mr. Anupam Kher, the respected Bollywood actor, who has been awarded one of India’s top civilian honors, the Padma Bhushan in 2016, and whose profile says he is the ‘UN Women champion of Gender Equality”, tweeted something astonishing on 20th Feb. In Hindi he said that “Gharon mein pest control hota hai to cockroach, keede makode etyadi bahar nikalte hain. Ghar saaf hota hai. Waise hi aajkal desh ka pest control chal raha hai” (When pest control is done in the house, then cockroaches, insects etc come out. The house becomes clean. Similarly, these days the country is having a pest control.)

To say that I am shocked is an understatement. I only hope fervently that the actor who has in the past lashed out against academics and writers, doesn’t know the historical context of the word ‘pest’, /cockroaches/vermin being used consistently during genocides. It is also unclear to me whether he was referring to citizens involved in the JNU controversy, the Jat agitation or any other context. However the seriousness of using a term like ‘pest’ to describe any group of humans cannot be over-emphasized.

Some journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai and others, immediately pointed out on Twitter how the word pest was used to by the Nazis during the Holocaust to describe their Jewish victims. However, it goes far beyond that one instance.

Words like ‘pests’  ‘vermin’ ‘cockroaches’ have regularly been used to address the victims before and during practically every genocide. This process is conflict studies is called “DEHUMANISATION” and its purpose is to reduce the victims to being less than human…akin to insects and pests who need to be ‘cleansed’ from the society. By calling them less than human the group/human is deprived of human like qualities and attributes, assuaging the guilt of the perpetuators.

The Rwandan genocide in 1994 where about half million to one million Tutsis were hacked to death by the majority Hutus by machetes, greatly used dehumanization when the Rwandan radio incited the attackers by referring to them as inyenzi’ or cockroach, ‘inzoka’ or snake. The Hutu local radio, Milles Collines, is said to have incited the Hutus to violence by using such slogans:

‘You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches.’
‘They must be exterminated. There is no other way.’

Similarly, during the holocaust the Germans referred to the Jews as ‘vermins /lice, parasite/infections’; and during the Cambodian genocide between 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge referred to the Buddhist monks as ‘leeches’ and ‘blood suckers’; During the 1904 massacre of Hereros, they were referred to as ‘baboons’. There are such other examples during nearly all other mass killings and genocides.

Mr. Adama Dieng, he United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide said in 2014 that –“The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers and the Rwandan genocide did not start with the slayings. It started with the dehumanization of a specific group of persons.”

Genocide Watch has classified 10 stages of genocide of which the fourth stage is of DEHUMANISATION. In dehumanisation:  “Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder. At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radios is used to vilify the victim group.”

However, Genocide watch also points out that none of these stages are linear, can be stopped at any time and that genocidal societies are different from democracies.

Apart from Mr. Kher’s use of words ‘keeda-makoda’ to describe some Indians, I have been reading terminology of ‘cleansing’ on Twitter recurringly, especially in reference to JNU controversy. Claiming to belonging to a right wing ideology, a young man on twitter said that he had been made in charge of ‘internal cleansing.’ On being asked who had made him in charge or what measures consisted of the said ‘cleansing’ he refused to elaborate. A similar claim was made by another young man of the same ideology who talked about need to “cleanse communist filth from within our borders”.  Another comment on a Facebook page referred to student protestors of some universities as ‘little snakes’. Now these may very well be meaningless words said in anger, but the fact that they are being bandied about consistently should make every Indian a little uncomfortable.

I’m by no means saying that a few words take India any closer to any kind of genocide. As pointed out before the machinations of a democracy are different than a genocidal society; with much stronger checks, balances and legal measures; but we need to remember that words have tremendous power and we should watch others and ourselves re the words we use for fellow citizens, even if we don’t agree with their views. Mr. Kher would do well to remember that.

Meha Khanduri is an alum of Columbia University, New York and works on issues of Ethnic Conflict and Human Rights.