Prem Phyak and Bal Sharma: Citizen linguistic landscape and semiotic ideology during the COVID-19

"Citizen linguistic landscapes in the pandemic have surfaced unequal power relations that exist between ‘tenants’ and ‘house owners’; between ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’; and between the ‘familiar’ and the ‘unfamiliar’."

The multimodal analysis (Kress, 2009) of the data shows that the pandemic-related CLLs categorize place as ‘danger’, ‘safe’ and ‘infected’ by using multiple semiotic resources such as bamboos, flex boards, metal rods, and plastic ropes. CLLs humanize the entire physical place as ‘infected places’ and prohibit the mobility of the people by creating metal, bamboo, and rope bars in the neighbourhoods (Figure 1). Such CLLs use the shape of the ‘corona virus’ with the words such as ‘hosiyaar’ (beware), ‘prabesh nishedh’ (No entry), and ‘sankramit chetra’ (infected area) to warn the public about the pandemic. More importantly, such CLLs split neighbourhoods as ‘infected area’ and ‘prohibited area’ by using the ‘red’ pieces of clothes and plastic ropes.

Figure 1: Lockdown and no entry signs (Translation: Sign 1 on the left: No Entry; Sign 2 on the right: Save yourself and save)

This kind of categorization of places constructs and circulates the assumption that the humans with a COVID positive also infect the entire place. On the other hand, the construction of ‘safe’ place is appropriated by the neoliberal marketplace. As seen in the image, local stores appropriate multiple COVID-related semiotic resources such as ‘sanitizer’, ‘namaste’ (greetings in Nepali), ‘mask’, and ‘social distance’ to position their identity as a ‘safe place’ to run the business (Figure 2). The stores also commit that they would maintain all the ‘safety’ and ‘hygiene’ protocols so that their customers would feel that they are in a ‘safe’ place to shop.

Figure 2: Contesting ideologies of the signs as soon as the lockdown eases

The categorization of place intersects with the categorization of people. CLLs use ‘unfamiliar people’ as a threat to the local community and prohibit their mobility in the neighbourhoods (Figure 3). Written in Nepali, such CLLs unfamiliarize the ‘tenants’, ‘persons from outside-the-valley’ and ‘returnees from abroad’ and discursively position them as super-spreaders of the virus. The unfamiliarization of people affects the mobility of the tenants and the returnees from outside-the-valley and aboard. In interviews with the creators of CLLs, we knew that even the tenants and other ‘unfamiliar’ people who live in the local community are interrogated and stopped from walking in their own neighbourhood. One local man said “we guard this entry point twenty-four hours. We don’t want unfamiliar people to enter our area.” They have created a bamboo bar on the main road to stop the vehicle and they took turns to guard the place to restrict the mobility of the people on foot.

Figure 3: Signboard of a local neighborhood. (Translation: “LOCKDOWN”. Corona Virus 1. Unfamiliar people. 2. Individuals from other villages. The people who go out without any work and unfamiliar persons will be punished. “Bhaltaar Padaalee Tol Development Organization” Mahalaxmi-9, Lalitpur.

While unfamiliarizing people, CLLs create and reproduce a hierarchy of power built around social class and the place of belonging. They position the ‘house owners’ and ‘local people’ as responsible agents for keeping the neighbourhoods ‘safe’. But these CLLs other ‘tenants’ as ‘unfamiliar’ subjects to be policed, interrogated and punished. We have observed that, in our fieldwork, tenants, mostly the daily wage laborers, were stopped at the streets and asked to show their identification that proved them as local. In some neighbourhoods, the locals even went to the tenants’ rooms to check whether they lived with any ‘unfamiliar’ people. One tenant, living with his family in Kathmandu, complained that ‘a group of local people misbehaved and warned to send me to the police station’ just because ‘they didn’t recognize my sister-in-law’ and thought that she was an outsider. In this sense, CLLs in the pandemic have surfaced unequal power relations that exist between ‘tenants’ and ‘house owners’; between ‘locals’ and ‘outsiders’; and between the ‘familiar’ and the ‘unfamiliar’. As the pandemic affected their livelihood, the citizens were frustrated due to the lack of support and ineffective governance. Rather than focusing their attention to the pandemic, the ministers made different controversial decisions which infuriated the citizens.

Consequently, the people created different CLLs to express their frustrations toward the government regarding the impact of COVID on their livelihood. In Kathmandu, thousands of people are surviving by driving a taxi. Taxi drivers protested the government’s decision that did not allow them to drive taxis, although private vehicles were not restricted. They created placards, pasted them on their taxis and carried with them in public spaces. Such placards used language such as ‘dying of hunger’, ‘shelter of street’ and ‘load of debt’ to express taxi drivers’ emotions and frustrations during the pandemic (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Taxi drivers’ protest signs (translation: [We are] dying of hunger; Living in the street , Government! [we] paid the tax; What’s the arrangement [for us]? Government!)

Likewise, ‘Enough is Enough’ was an activist group of youth that questioned the government when the citizens would be quarantined in ‘safe places’ with ‘PCR tests’. This group displayed creative CLLs appropriating diverse semiotic resources such as a famous nursery rhyme ‘Jonny Jonny, Yes Papa, eating sugar, no Papa’ to remind readers of the government’s inability to control the pandemic (‘PCR Test, No Papa’). These processes of resemiotization and interdiscursivity of the signs connected the global popular cultural resources to accomplish local goals to fight the pandemic and resist the government.

To learn more about their research, you can watch Prem and Bal's workshop presentation here:

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