On October 14, actor-politician Khushbu Sundar recently interacted with the press in Chennai following the news of her joining the Bhartiya Janata Party and leaving the Congress party. During the course of the press meet, Khushbu called members of the Congress party “mentally retarded” as a response to their comments criticising her decision to join the BJP.
Khusbu Sundar, who started her career as a child artist in Tamil films and became a famous star joined politics in 2010. At the beginning of her political career she joined DMK, which she quit in 2014 to join the Indian National Congress (INC).
Naturally, her insensitive remarks have not gone down well with the disability-rights activists and groups in the country. Although Khushbu issued an apology, her apathetic, ableist remark garnered flak from the disability rights activists’ circles.
It is important to understand here that the term retarded is now not used even by the clinicians who work with developmental disabilities presently. Neither is this term is used in the current Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. Wikihow states “Recognize that the word “retarded” is considered hate speech, and can be alienating and frightening to disabled people.” It is also not advisable to attack someone you don’t like by calling them “retarded” or a “tard”. In the process of calling someone you do not agree with “retarded”, you are equating all negative attributes about this person towards people with real disabilities. It is high time alternative words or phrases to express one’s disagreement and displeasure are used.
Many disability activists however feel that there is no point on protesting as Indian politicians such as Khushbu Sundar keep on using terms that put disabled people in negative light. And protests yield no results, more or less. One of the most prominent example of same is that by none other than the Indian prime minister.
There were several social media outbursts and outrage, police complaints lodged by grass-root activists, complaints with the Central Commissioner of Disabilities when Narendra Modi made an insensitive jibe under the garb of a joke on people with dyslexia in what was his dig on Rahul Gandhi. Hinting, not so subtly, that his political opponent is person with dyslexia, and thus, can be mocked at, was an example of the ableist apathy of the general non-disabled population.
Any researcher analysing the disability movement post the enactment of the Rights of People With Disabilities Act will not be able to deny the fact that it was enactment of RPD Act gave courage to ordinary disabled people (many of them do not use social media or have regular Internet access) to lodge a complaint against Prime Minister of their country. Unfortunately, it is obvious that such complaints did not bring any change in attitude of political personalities, neither did the PMO issue an apology to what is one of the most marginalised communities of the country.
It is important to understand here that the protest is not against any one particular political party. It is against a statement made by Khushbu Sundar that reveals the ableist mindset of the society. However, given the strong political affiliations and mobilisations that we have now come to witness, it is not surprising to see the activists’ criticism of Khushbu Sundar’s remarks as a criticism of the BJP. A comment under my own Facebook post on this issue reads “True statement. When a party is guided by a mentally retarded person, then eventually it becomes a mentally retarded party. What’s wrong in it?” shows how people confuse issues.
The fact remains that there had been and will be many such comments against disabled community by political leaders across political parties. Which is why it is important that we protest tirelessly. It is extremely sad that Khushbu Sundar used a terminology that denigrates the integrity of the disabled people to respond to her previous party’s patriarchal and misogynist mindset. Further, if Khushbu Sundar was subjected to misogyny in her ex party, she should talk about it but, not at the cost of insulting another marginalised group.
This is why it is important to raise our voices because even if a 0.5 percent of the 1.3 million Twitter followers of Khusbu Sundar start thinking that ableism is not acceptable, it is a step in the right direction.
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