It is good that Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury was forced to apologise and withdraw his utterly inappropriate and gender insensitive reference to the President as Rashtrapatni. There are far too many examples of elected leaders across parties who seem to make a habit of using language insulting to women, or of thinking that they are being funny by making sexist jokes. It is time that parliament and state assemblies draw out a code against sexist language for their own members and take action against them for violations. The legal route for women who want to call out such leaders in court is blocked by the cumbersome procedures, weak laws and an even weaker judicial system on such issues. So it is best that parliament and assemblies set up their own mechanisms. Parliament has the Privileges Committee when a breach of privilege by a member for misbehaviour can also be heard and action taken. Sexist comments have not been listed in any list of misbehaviour, nor is it considered serious enough to merit scrutiny. A committee or a mechanism could surely be created to look at comments and public statements of members which demean or insult women. Naming and shaming members for sexist language would also promote self-regulation. Most importantly it would have a salutary effect on the standards of public discourse if parliament sets the example of calling out its own members for such comments.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury (File photo)
In this case, Adhir Chowdhury has put out a weak self-defence of not being fully conversant with the language. How different would it be in Bengali, the language he is familiar with? Who in their right senses would refer to a woman President as Rashtrapatni? The Speaker could further ask him to formally apologise. The issue could have been resolved. But Smriti Irani's aggressive attack on Congress President Sonia Gandhi, holding her responsible for the comment, echoed by her colleague Nirmala Sitharaman in the Rajya Sabha, seemed wholly contrived and hardly brought any credibility to the Treasury Benches or their claimed concern against sexist comments. Indeed, Irani's comment that "Congress could not tolerate that Narendra Modi could make a poor tribal woman Presidential candidate" was extremely patronizing and disrespectful. Also, the reported verbal exchange that followed between the women leaders was petty, not political. A "tu-tu main-main" scenario, as was staged by the BJP women versus Sonia Gandhi, would have certainly made the patriarchs happy. It undermined what could have been a strong cross-party disapproval of the way Chowdhury referred to the President.
There were multiple versions of the dramatic exchange between Sonia Gandhi and Smriti Irani
There are occasions and issues when women across parties can overcome bitter political differences and speak in one voice on matters of concern for women. In the past, we saw such examples. I remember the discussion in the Rajya Sabha on the requirement for a special legislation against so-called "honour crimes". In spite of the differing views of many male MPs of both the UPA and the NDA, women across parties made a strong case for the necessity for such a law. It was after that debate, and the unanimity among women members, that the government set up a committee to frame a law. It is another matter that the draft was weak and the term of the government ended before it could be passed. Women members across parties had also petitioned through a joint letter the then Chairman, Dr Hamid Ansari to ensure that issues of particular concern to women should be listed in the Business Agenda. Among such issues, a united effort to call out members who make sexist comments should certainly find a place. Once, during a discussion on the recruitment of stewardesses, when some members made sexist comments, all the women present, regardless of which side of the aisle they were, vociferously protested until the Chair was forced to intervene and get a statement of regret and withdrawal of the remarks. But now, the misplaced aggression of BJP women members targeting not the person guilty, but instead the woman President of the main Opposition Party, and the ensuing developments, have hardly helped the cause of women.
President Droupadi Murmu and PM Modi
However, apart from these issues, a more fundamental question is why should a woman President be known as Rashtrapati? I had raised this issue during the UPA period when Pratibha Patil was elected India's first woman President. It was Pranab-Da - Pranab Mukherjee, the expert on parliamentary and other such matters of protocol - who mentioned that in Indian law, "he" always included "she" and therefore there was nothing wrong in assuming that Rashtrapati is equally valid for a woman President. It is quite appalling that we have to accept what is so clearly a male description or translation of President of the nation as Rashtrapati for a woman President. It is true that Section 13 in The General Clauses Act, 1897, states "Gender and number. In all 22 [Central Acts] and Regulations, unless there is anything repugnant in the subject or context, (1) words importing the masculine gender shall be taken to include females; and (2) words in the singular will include the plural and vice versa."
BJP MPs including Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman protest against Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury's "Rashtrapatni" remark
Why should we accept this as at all valid today? Shouldn't this law be changed? If at all there has to be one word, then "she" encompasses "he." There was a time when the only word for those who headed committees was "Chairman". When women broke the barriers and got elected to the Chair, the word was changed to "Chairperson". This is not a minor question of semantics. Patriarchy is reflected in language that often invisibilizes women. It needs to be challenged and changed. India's woman President is not the first and surely, she will not be the last. So it is only fair that a woman President is addressed in a befitting manner replacing Rashtrapati with gender-sensitive nomenclature. That would be a more fruitful discussion that what was witnessed in parliament yesterday.
(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.