If an individual wishes to avoid contact with persons of the female gender, he is at liberty to do so, in his personal, private spaces. However, such a person insisting that girls and women should be banished from his vicinity or field of vision in a public place, is to insist upon gender segregation.

It would show gender discrimination, and denial of equality of status and of opportunity to women, and perhaps even misogyny. Sadly, this is what happened recently in an international space.

An International Conference for CA Students with about 3,600 participants, was held in Kolkata, on 22-23 June 2024. It was organised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), a statutory body under the Chartered Accountants Act of 1949.

The ICAI, a national body with about four lakh professional members of whom about a third are women, invited Swami Gyanvatsalya of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha to be the chief guest at the international conference.

While on his way to the venue of the international conference, Swami Gyanvatsalya reportedly demanded that no women or girls should sit in the first five rows of the hall, and threatened to leave if his request was not followed. His demand was reportedly complied with and even exceeded, by an ICAI Committee Member announcing on the public address system: “No ladies, no girls, no girl volunteers in sight, folks! Hustle up, he’s on his way!”.

Another report reads that the announcement was: "No ladies, no girls, no girl volunteer should even stand during the session, please hurry up as he can come anytime". There were no objections from among the organisers or participants at the conference venue. The girls and women apparently complied with the announcement, and the function began.

Ranjeet Kumar Agarwal, ICAI’s president, spoke at the international event, about the increasing number of women CAs in India. It was in accordance with the data released by ICAI in 2023, that 43% of CA aspirants who qualified in 2023 were women, and a little under 30% of the total 4,00,000 CAs in India are women.

It is ICAI’s commendable goal to encourage women to become professional, practicing CAs, and play an increasing role in the nation’s financial-banking-economic system. Interestingly, during his public address, Swami Gyanvatsalya spoke about making India 'Viksit' and a 'Vishwaguru' by 2047.

Meanwhile, social media is flooded with adverse comments on the conduct of both Swami Gyanvatsalya and the ICAI officials, the former for threatening to walk out if his eleventh-hour demand to exclude women was not complied with, and the latter for having invited a swamiji in the first place and then complying with his demand.

However, a few people have made excuses in favour of the Swamiji, including informing critics that swamijis of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, the Hindu sect to which Swami Gyanvatsalya belongs, take a vow of lifetime celibacy and other abstinences.

The controversy is clearly focussed on girls and women, and their right to be present in public spaces. It questions whether a vow of celibacy means keeping females out of the mind, or merely out of the senses or ‘indriya’, which are the access points between a human’s inner and outer experiences, and which are at the core of spiritual practices of religious holy men. It also questions the appropriateness of national statutory organisations inviting religious holy men to professional functions.

In any case, some questions concerning the controversy which has arisen at the international conference, need answers:

  • Why did a statutory professional body like ICAI invite a religious person to be chief guest at a professional international function?
  • Was Swami Gyanvatsalya not aware that a body like ICAI had female CA practitioners, and that at an international conference venue, women would be present?
  • Why did he not inform ICAI that he would be unable to accept its invitation to be Chief Guest, because he would not want girls and women to be in his presence?
  • How did the Swamiji become aware that females would be among the audience, only while on his way to the conference venue?
  • When Chief Guest Swami Gyanvatsalya made his eleventh-hour demand for banishing girls and women from his presence along with threat of leaving the venue in default, did the ICAI president politely inform the Swamiji that complying with his demand would cause deep embarrassment to the ICAI, and would convey a very negative message among the international community at large, and the CA professional community in particular?
  • Was ICAI’s compliance with Swami Gyanvatsalya’s demand, genuflection by a national professional body before the agenda of majoritarian forces? When Swami Gyanvatsalya‘s demand was announced, was the silent acquiescence of ICAI Council and Committee Members present, their complicity? Was their silence because of fear of dissenting with the decision taken to comply with the Swamiji’s eleventh-hour demand?
  • Did the ICAI Committee Member who announced over the public address system, that ladies, girls and girl volunteers should stay out of sight, violate the spirit of the Constitution of India?

It is also for consideration how the controversy may affect India’s reputation in the international community, as a Republic with a Constitution that forbids gender discrimination. For example, the UN-linked Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), has not accredited India with ‘A’ status, one of the reasons being that India’s NHRC lacks gender representation on its member panel.

How the ICAI controversy will play out in domestic and international political-economic fora and in cyber space, will be closely watched worldwide.

Major General (Retd.) Dr. S. G. Vombatkere, was an Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG's Branch. He holds a PhD in Civil Engineering (Structural Dynamics) from I.I.T Madras. Views expressed are the writer's own.