In mid-December 2020 as the anti-farm laws agitation was peaking around the borders of New Delhi, in a close-knit social media group I was a member of, a close colleague of mine posted a toxic video which spoke of all Sikhs being anti-nationals.

For quite some time in that social media group there was a stoic silence as none of the members thought that in a well-meaning group in which all the members have known each other closely since decades, all are technically qualified and have done reasonably well in life, would someone post such a video.

After a prolonged period of deafening silence few colleagues protested against this toxic video and the member quite reluctantly deleted it, after trying to justify the posting of that video. But the justification had no logical reasoning and all the reasons given were flimsy and face-saving and thus he had no option but to delete the video.

But the damage had been done.

A nasty or a toxic word spoken/written/posted echoes much longer than one can ever imagine. And when such acts are done by the educated and the well-placed it leaves one completely bewildered - was there an error in knowing that person for so long, or has that person been so radicalised by the pitch of the political and religious fervour of present times that decades of friendships and relationships don’t matter anymore? All that matters to such persons is their political and religious ideologies winning at any cost, even if it entails calling the others anti-national.

I have grown up thinking that the phrase anti-national is an unpleasant word and those who work against the nation are anti-nationals. As a child I remember whenever the phrase Anti-National Elements (ANEs) was used by the media or the statutory agencies, it would send a shiver down many a spine that these persons would have caused incalculable harm to our nation and hence they are ANEs.

It was only a few days back that I came to know that the phrase “anti-national” is not defined in the statutes. On 21 December 2021 the Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai informed the Lok Sabha that the phrase “anti-national” is not defined in the statutes except for a brief period during the 1970s.

While the phrase anti-national may not have a legal dimension no well-meaning person will call others anti-national nor expect anyone to call him anti-national unless adequate proof exists.

These days it has become fashionable to use the phrase for anyone with whom one differs in political and religious ideologies or has personal or professional grudges.

Quite a few of us are well educated and well placed. We all are entitled to our opinions based on our education and experiences. Dignified written/spoken language is a key component of giving respect to another human.

We as a nation have always prided ourselves as a nation of immense culture. Perhaps all our ancient texts and scriptures have a dignified language. It does make one wonder where have the few of us who profess to being so spiritual and learned use such words. These few will leave no stone unturned to berate and deride those political and religious leaders who are not in their political and religious frames, but when the others speak about their leaders then they will not hesitate to use nasty phrases including anti-national.

Many of us have gone to the finest schools and been in the finest institutions with our parents having given us the best possible - so the reasons some of us bay for each other’s blood over religious and political issues and make no bones about it by writing/speaking in various fora, needs serious introspection. The recent examples of the calls on social media for a repeat of the 1984 genocide of Sikhs after the PM’s security breach in Punjab are haunting and scary.

A few weeks back it was shocking and saddening to hear a retired Major General of the Indian Army call the pre-1947 soldiers of the Indian Army as mercenaries. Such a word used by a senior Veteran left many dumbfounded.

The praxis of the “anti-national” label has clearly changed in the last few years. The only solace is that people who profess such hatred and toxicity against others are minuscule in number. But the day these numbers increase, it will grossly churn the social fabric of our nation.

It is ripe time that those who use the phrase “anti-national” with alacrity understand the implications it has for the person and/or community against whom it is used. The use of such labels is the surest way to alienate a person or community. Some words are better left unused in written/spoken conversations unless clear proofs exist.

Lt Col JS Sodhi who retired from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army is an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He is an MTech in Structures has also done MBA and LLB and is a prolific writer. The views expressed are personal.