Time For Gender Neutral Official Terms?
Frenzied furore followed a senior Congress leader's " Rashtrapatni" remark
It hit the nation like a bolt from the blue: the furore following Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary's inadvertent remark addressing the President of India as " Rashtrapatni."
The incident occurred while the Congress members of Parliament were trying to march towards Vijay Chowk in order to register their protest with the President, as the BJP government was not allowing them to raise issues of public concern like price rise, inflation and unemployment in the House.
Apparently a reporter asked the Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary where they were planning to march. He replied "to meet the Rashtrapatni."
All hell broke loose in Parliament the next day. Senior ministers Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharamn, along with a few others went ballistic. They shouted their lungs out, targeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi for "sanctioning " this insult of a poor tribal woman who had risen to the country's highest constitutional office through sheer determination and hard work.
Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani, herself dropped all honorific prepositions like "esteemed" or "honourable" while uttering the President's name. However she specifically targeted Sonia Gandhi saying by not apologising herself Gandhi had 'sanctioned the humiliation meted out to a woman at the highest constitutional office in the country. Irani described Sonia Gandhi as 'anti adivasi, anti dalit and anti woman."
Finance Minister Nirmala Sithraman was equally shrill in attacking Sonia Gandhi. Demanding that Sonia Gandhi should personally apologise, she said ' calling the President of India Rashtrapatni was not a slip of the tongue. It was a deliberate sexist insult against the person who comes from a tribal background."
Surprised at her name being brought into the discussion, Sonia Gandhi had walked over to senior BJP leader Rama Devi after the House was adjourned, to know why her name was being mentioned. It was then that she was surrounded and almost heckled by a number of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP Members of Parliament (MPs), including Irani, who, disrupting her while she was talking to Rama Devi, said it was she who had taken her name and Sonia Gandhi should talk to her.
According to those who watched the interaction, Sonia Gandhi gestured towards her, angrily retorting by saying " don't talk to me." The Nationalist Congress Party's (NCP) Supriya Sule and All India Trinamool Congress' (AITMC) Aprupa Poddar were seen escorting a flustered Sonia Gandhi out of the scene.
The BJP was not content with just this much brouhaha in the House. It fielded three senior leaders, Kiren Rijuju, Sarbanand Sonowal and Bharati Pawar to lambast Congress at a press conference later in the day. They demand that Sonia Gandhi should apologise. They said ever since Droupadi Murmu's name was announced as the Presidential nominee, the Congress party had been "targeting her maliciously calling her a puppet and a symbol of evil".
The slanging match continued for four days with Congress also targeting the BJP MPs for subjecting Sonia Gandhi to "brutal heckling, verbal assault and physical intimidation." The Congress demanded an apology by none other than the Prime Minister. The National Commission of Women and 13 state women's commissions too joined in the fracas. They jointly issued a statement saying Adhir Ranjan's remarks were "deeply insulting, sexist and constitute an attempt to humiliate the honourable President."
With four days of Parliament sacrificed over such an inconsequential controversy, Adhir Ranjan had immediately retracted his statement saying he said it due to his unfamiliarity with the Hindi language. He apologised as well. Many parliamentarians , both from the treasury and Opposition benches, wondered quietly why Smriti Irani had gone so ballistic. "Maybe it was because the previous day her daughter's name was mentioned by the Congress leaders in connection with a license issue for a bar in Goa," was the proffered explanation.
"Unfamiliarity with the Hindi language could have been a reason. But people like us who are in the public domain should take care while talking about public figures and keep the nuances of a language in mind," said D Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India. He said the BJP was making an issue out of a non-issue because it wanted to evade uncomfortable questions the opposition parties are asking.
Shakti Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesman said the issue was unnecessarily blown out of proportion by the BJP because it had nothing else to talk about . "The aggression displayed by Smriti Irani was also uncalled for. Adhir Ranjan had made a mistake for which he had apologised immediately but to heckle a senior leader like Sonia Gandhi was unbecoming of the BJP leaders," he said.
This ugly exchange of words between the BJP and Congress leaders makes one wonder whether the time had come to coin certain gender neutral terms for public offices like Rashtrapati and Sabhapati.
Interestingly, while writing the Constitution, a debate had indeed taken place whether the President of India should be called the Rashtrapati in Hindi. Some members had then suggested that the term Rashtradhyaksha be used for the Hindi translation of President but finally everyone had settled for Rashtrapati, not imagining that one day this might give rise to any controversy.
The issue had come up for discussion again in 2007 when Pratibha Patil was elected President. The Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had then suggested that the President be addressed as Rashtradhyaksha in Hindi, but even then no final decision could be taken.
Ordinary citizens who spoke to this writer, however, wondered even though 'Rashtrapatni' is not to be used for Rashtrapati as this remains the accepted term for the head of nation, but how does it become derogatory, or insulting. "While Rashtrapati or Rashtrapita is considered honourable, why should we consider Rashtrapatni pejorative? Is being called a patni an insult," wondered Rashmi Agrawal, a school teacher, and a wife. For her, it was food for thought that the collective psyche in India considered female-oriented terms of address as derogatory in nature.
"This reflects the patriarchal thought system of our society which associates power and authority with male denominations, and subordination, subjugation and humiliation with female-centric denominations," said a furious Richa, an MA English student. "Is being a patni an insult" she wondered aloud.
Many like these outspoken women are wondering whether being addressed as a 'patni" is indeed insulting. Time to coin gender neutral terms of address for high public offices as women are conquering new horizons each day?