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In a rapidly ascending tone of voice, Smriti Irani, leading light of the parliamentary BJP and Minister for Women and Child Development as well as Minority Affairs, demanded an apology from her fellow MP and Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi, nine times – once in English, and eight times in Hindi (I counted) – on the morning of July 27, 2022. These demands were made from the floor of the parliament, in the space of just two minutes and 50 seconds.
The last ‘maafi maango’, (literally ’plead to be forgiven’) was enunciated with such force that Irani lost her voice as she stumbled on the ultimate ‘maango’ of this crescendo. It was exhaled more than it was voiced, just before the speaker of the Lok Sabha adjourned the house. It was quite a performance; sterling proof, if any was ever required, of Madam Minister’s vocal range and respiratory prowess. And of her cultivated ability to waste the parliament’s (and thereby, the taxpayer’s) time.
As a postscript to this histrionic episode, Gandhi walked across to speak to a senior BJP leader, Rama Devi. She was then accosted by BJP parliamentarians, and surrounded, as per TMC MP Mahua Moitra’s eyewitness account, in a manner reminiscent of ‘hyenas and pack-wolves’ encircling their prey. Irani tried to intervene, and was rebuffed, politely, by Gandhi.
Irani’s demand for an apology was triggered by a video of Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who had referred to the newly-elected President of India, Draupadi Murmu, as ‘Rashtrapatnī’ while answering a question put to him by a journalist, Ankit Gupta of ABP News, on July 27 – during a protest organised by opposition leaders in New Delhi.
Earlier, Congress members, including Chowdhury, had been intent on proceeding up to the president’s residence atop Raisina Hill to let her know what they thought about not being able to place their demands for a discussion in parliament on rising prices and the imposition of GST on essential food items like curd and puffed rice.
As it happens, they were not allowed to walk up Raisina Hill to meet the recently-elected president. Sometime after this, an intrepid reporter asked Chowdhury why they had assembled, and what they were protesting about. In replying to him, Adhir Chowdhury used the word rasthrapati twice, and once, rashtrapatnī, as the addressee of their petition.
And then, all hell broke loose.
‘How can the president of the republic be called rashtrapatni, the wife of the state’?
‘Was this not an insult to women, to India, to Adivasis’?
The allegation levelled by Smriti Irani implied that Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s use of the term ‘rashtrapatni’ carried with it the endorsement of Sonia Gandhi. And that is why she must apologise nine times.
And so on.
It’s a difficult objection to understand. Because it it not immediately clear as to where the insult lies, but it seems to hover around the suffix ‘patnī’ added to the term ‘rashtra’.
Is the state insulted if a woman, and specifically, an Adivasi woman, is referred to as its wife (rashtra-patnī), as Irani and her party colleague seem to suggest, in a way that it is not, if a man is referred to as its husband (Rashtra-Pati)?
And if that is the case, how can the woman too be insulted if she is referred to as the spouse of the state? How can the target of the insult (the state) and the bearer of the insult (spouse/wife) both be insulted in the same instant? It is possible that Madam Minister Irani understands the intricacies of this labyrinth of alleged insult hurled and offense taken, but I don’t.
The utterances of Irani’s boss, the prime minister himself, are not known for the respect they bear for women colleagues. Modi once famously uttered a patronising comment on the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, saying, “…it is heartening that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, despite the fact that she is a woman, is openly saying that she has zero tolerance for terrorism.”
The words ‘despite the fact that she is a woman’ clearly implied that he thought that it was unnatural, normally, for a woman politician to have the capacity to be tough in response to terrorism. This is symptomatic of the unreflective disrespect that Modi has for women in positions of power. And yet, neither he, nor his colleague, Irani, ever thought an apology for this remark to be obligatory, or even necessary.
As it happens, Chowdhury has now apologised for his ‘rashtra-patnī’ comment (though I don’t see why he had to, and that is what I am going to talk about in this article) and explained away his ‘slip of tongue’ as being caused by the difficulties that any Bengali faces when speaking in the alien, and highly gendered Hindi language.
Being a native Bengali speaker myself (albeit born and raised in the heartland of Khari Boli Hindi and refugee Punjabi in West Delhi) I can sympathise with Chowdhury’s predicament somewhat.
The ruthless and relentless inflection of everything in the Hindi language, especially verb endings, along gender lines, leaves any native speaker of the gender-agnostic Bengali language uneasy and bewildered. For life.
Not only do we Bengalis never get Hindi verb endings right, (as listening to any recorded, and impromptu utterance in Hindi of the former rashtrapati, Pranab Mukherjee, would reveal) we also sometimes carry our habitual transgendering of verbs even onto nouns. We turn ‘Malkins’ into ‘Maliks’ and ‘Patis’ into ‘Patnis’, even though nothing says that anyone has to ever change anything, least of all gender, when dealing with a noun.
Why do we do this? Because, being hyperaware of the fact that Hindi is a highly-gendered language, and self-aware to a fault about our grammatical incapacity for handling gendered speech, we insert gender even when we don’t have to, as a form of overcompensation. Hence, Chowdhury’s reference to ‘rashtrapatnī’ is the kind of mistake that any uncle of mine would have made.
This leads to much hilarity amongst Hindi-speaking folk, and occasionally, as in parliament the other day, to rage. Who can ever stop sniggering at my compatriots’ invariably contextually inappropriate usage of ‘karta hai’ and ‘khati hai’? I try to avoid it as much as I can, but when I am tired, my inner gender fluid Bengali sometimes wins over my outer West Delhi gender apartheid enforcer. And I use the wrong verb ending, or a garbled noun, and bite my slipping tongue.
Indeed, rashtra-pati and rashtra-patnī are not verb endings. They are compound-nouns, of the kind that makes Sanskrit (the source of these two words, in all Indic vocabularies) a notoriously complex language capable of an exceptionally high degree of precision. It means that you just slap nouns on to each other to make seemingly endless combinations of increasing semantic precision.
‘Rashtra’ means state, that is obvious. But ‘pati’ and ‘patnī’ (and it is the confusion between these two words that caused Smriti Irani’s blood pressure to rise in parliament) can mean more than one thing. Which we will come to in a moment.
In Hindi, the word ‘pati’, still retains its polysemy. ’Pati’ can mean, lord (‘bhupati’ – lord of the land), master (‘sabhapati’ – master of the gathering), chief (‘senapati’ – head of an armed force, general) or even possessor/owner – (‘nripati’ – king – owner of subjects, or ‘punjipati’ – capitalist, owner of capital).
Of course, in Hindi, it also means ‘husband’, which denotes, traditionally, the possession that a man has over his spouse, once he marries her. In that sense, rashtrapati, can mean lord of the state, possessor of the state, master of the state. That is why, in many Indian languages, a synonym for pati, the husband, is swami, the lord and master. But still, which sense of pati is in play depends on who is speaking about what, or whom. Pati can mean what you want it to mean.
But ‘patnī’ doesn’t. At least not in Hindi. In Hindi, ‘patnī’, has just come to mean ‘wife’, it has lost the sense of sovereign mastery that ‘pati’ retains in Sanskrit. And being the perfectly patriarchal (and caste inflected) language that Hindi is, a ‘wife’ can conventionally never be seen to be as equal to a ‘husband’. So if ‘rashtra-pati’ can mean the ‘lord of the state’ or ‘chief of the state’, the word ‘rashtra-patnī’ can only mean ‘the wife of the state’. If rashtra-pati, in Hindi somehow gives off an air of superiority and grandeur, rashtra-patnī, in Hindi, must do the opposite. It must snigger and snark and scowl. Because for some Hindi speakers, conditioned by the ‘sense’ of their language, wives can never be equal to husbands. Rashtrapati is honorific, rashtrapatnī is innuendo.
But must we be burdened forever by the inability of Hindi speakers to develop their language in the direction of greater gender equality? And can minister Smriti Irani, being half Bengali herself (on her mother’s side), not find it in herself to at least have a sense of humour, if not compassion, for a Bengali parliamentarian’s slip of the tongue, which, even if ‘odd’ to the Hindi speaking ear, is perfectly logical and consistent with which how compound words form in Sanskrit, and how they carry over into Bengali?
The Vedic patni was not just a ‘wife’
In Sanskrit, the word ‘patnī’ doesn’t just mean ‘wife’. There is a specific word for ‘wife’ and that is ‘bhāryā’. But ‘patnī’ wasn’t just wife for a long time. ‘Patnī’ can also mean an eminent person of the female gender, a ‘lady’. a ‘mistress’ (feminine of ‘master’, not, in this instance, the ‘unmarried female romantic or sexual partner of a married man’). We get a clear sense of this in the famous and beautiful ‘Hymn to Dawn’ in the Rig Veda. It is as follows :
अव स्यूमेव चिन्वती मघोन्युषा याति स्वसरस्य पत्नी ।
स्वर्जनन्ती सुभगा सुदंसा आन्ताद्दिवः पप्रथ आ पृथिव्याः ॥
ava syūmeva cinvatī maghonyuṣā yāti svasarasya patnī.
svarjanantī subhagā sudaṃsā āntāddivaḥ papratha ā pṛthivyāḥ.
‘Like one letting the reins go slack, bounteous Dawn drives, mistress of good pasture
Generating the sun, she of good portion and wondrous power stretches all the way to end of heaven and earth’
Here, ‘patnī’ is only a qualifier that tells us that Dawn/Usha is a lady, a ‘mistress of the good pasture’, or encampment, (svasarasya patnī) not who’s wife she is. ‘Patnī’, here is honorific, just as ‘lady’ or ‘khatun’ (in English or Urdu) is not a marker of being property of a man, or even of a relation with a man, with any man.
The people who imagined and spoke the Rig Veda into being had a more generous, imaginative and poetic way of thinking about words than the present custodians of the Hindi language happen to have. They could do a lot more work with words than the contemporary champions of Hindutva can. And that should not come as a surprise.
The Rig Veda is composed before the terms ‘pati’ and ‘patnī’ come to denote the idea that a husband had a proprietorial right over his wife. There are two Vedic hymns to marriage, parts of which are still in use in the liturgy of the Hindu wedding ritual, which feature two slightly different versions of a highly allegorical account of the wedding of Suryā, the daughter of the Sun (Surya) to Soma, the moon. They form part of the ‘पाणिग्रहण’ / ‘panigrahan’(‘hand-holding’) ceremony of the wedding rite.
The text features the words ‘lord of the house’ (grihapati) and the ‘lady of the house’ (grihapatnī). But the words for lady of the house and lord of the house (‘grihapatnī’ and ‘grihapati’) denote no difference in status. They are equal to each other.
One fragment, Atharvaveda, 14:1:52 has
‘भगस्ते हस्तमग्रहीत्सविता हस्तमग्रहीत् , पत्नी त्वमसि धर्मणाहं गृहपतिस्तव’
‘bhagasté hastamgrahītsavita hastamgrahīt, patnī tvamasi dharmanaham grhapatistava’
‘The prosperous God has clasped thy hand. The all creating God has taken thy hand. By rule and by law thou art my wife, the master of thy house am I ( ‘गृहपतिस्तव’ / ‘grhapatistava’ ).’
The term grhapati, (‘lord of the house’) has its exact feminine equivalent, grhapatni, (‘lady of the house’), which occurs within a very similar pass, this time from the Rig Veda:
पूषा त्वेतो नयतु हस्तगृह्याश्विना त्वा प्र वहतां रथेन |
गृहान् गच्छ गृहपत्नी यथासो वशिनी त्वं विदथम् आ वदासि ||
pūṣā tveto nayatu hastagṛhyāśvinā tvā pra vahatāṃ rathena |
gṛhān gaccha gṛhapatnī yathāso vaśinī tvaṃ vidatham ā vadāsi ||
‘Let Pūśan lead you from here, having taken you by the hand. Let the Aśvins convey you forth in their chariot. Go to the house, so that you will be mistress of the house ( ‘गृहपत्नी’/ ‘gṛhapatnī’) . Exerting your will you will announce the ceremonial distribution.
This clearly shows that both ‘grhapatnī’ and ‘grhapati’ are co-eval. The ‘lordship’ or ‘ladyship’ is a relation, jointly, of custodianship, of ‘ruling the household’, not a sign denoting the ownership or superiority of one human over another. So if, grhapati and grhapatni can be equally used to signify equal forms of sovereign power within the household, why can rashtrapati and rashtrapatnī not do the same in relation to the state? Even if Adhir Chaudhary had said ‘Rashtra-Patnī’ deliberately, he need not have in any way used it to mean something ‘lesser’ or more demeaning, than ‘Rashtra-Pati’. He need not have apologised.
When ‘pati’ came to be the master/owner of a ‘patnī’
Those who read Sanskrit slowly, haltingly, carefully, like I do, know that the reference to the origin of the custom of wives being the ‘property’ of their husbands occurs, not in the Vedic corpus, but in a conversation between King Pandu, and his wife, Kunti, in the Sambhava Parva of the Mahabharata.
In this conversation, Pandu tells Kunti that the anger of sage Svetaketu – who figures in three Upanishadic episodes and in the Mahabharata, but nowhere in the Vedic corpus – at his mother’s sexual autonomy, and his father Uddhalaka’s indifference to her spending time with other men (as was ‘customary’, according to Uddalka) led him to draw up the rules of marriage. This is where the concept of the masculine possession of women as property so as to ensure their exclusive ‘father-right’ over any children born to the woman emerges. Here lies the perfect intersection of patriarchal control over women’s reproductive agency and sexuality, and the needs for controlling the paternity of heirs to property.
This is how a ‘pati’ came to be the master/owner of a ‘patnī’ and of her progeny. Before Svetaketu, it makes sense to speak of mothers, fathers, partners, consorts, friends, co-custodians but not of husbands who are also masters of their wives and owners of their children.
Irani chooses Svetaketu’s patriarchy over the Vedas
So, when Smriti Irani thinks that the word ‘patnī’ in the term ‘rashtra-Patnī’ is an insult, (which means she is implicating herself as the notional target of the insult, because she too is a married woman) she is tapping into the father lode of proprietorial, possessive, patriarchy, as instituted by Svetaketu, not into the grand and magnificent sense of the word ’patni’ used to describe Usha, the lady of dawn, or even the equal partner of the pati in the Vivaha Suktas of the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda. Anyone who think that rashtra-patnī as an insult cannot but consider wives and women to be chattel.
But let us leave aside this sense of a nuanced meaning for how pati and patnī gloss in Sanskrit. In all fairness, one cannot expect Smriti Irani, to have any understanding of this matter. As far as I know, her stint at Yale, which yielded her now famous ‘certificate’, did not include being enrolled for a course in introductory, intermediate or advanced Sanskrit offered at the South Asia Studies Council of Yale University’s Macmillan Center. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing Sanskrit. Most people don’t. But there is something wrong in a politician deploying her ignorance as a weapon with which to insult and publicly humiliate a senior colleague from the opposition benches. And that too over a non-issue.
If anyone actually needs to apologise, it is Irani.
That said, we might pause, for a moment, to consider that in a contemporary, democratic context, ‘rashtrapati’ is as inelegant a term as ‘rashtrapatnī’ would be. And not for reasons of gender, or of gender relations. It surprises me that no one seems to have minded, or even had half a thought about this, until now. It’s as if it took the flaring nostrils of Smriti Irani to get us to pay any attention to what the term ‘rasthrapati’ actually means. And it isn’t even the right translation, or analogue, for the term ‘president’. A ‘president’ is one who ‘presides’. A rashtrapati, or rashtrapatnī is one who is the master, or mistress, of the state.
That says a lot.
Shared roots of rashtrapati and despot
The condition of having to preside over a circumstance, a state or a situation need not ever be indicative of mastery. That the word ‘pati’ and ‘patni’ in Sanskrit, denote ‘lordship’ or ‘mastery’ of some kind can be seen in the context of how cognates of the word occur in related Indo-European languages that can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European construct ‘poti’ – which glosses as ‘powerful, lord’.
Old Avestan has words like dmana-paiti, which mean exactly what the similar sounding Vedic Sanskrit dam-pati (masters of the house, a conjugal pair) which is still with us today. Ancient Greek has πότνια (pótnia, “lady, mistress”) often used to address goddesses, as well as δεσ-πότης (‘des-potes’, “master, despot, lord, owner”, from which we get the familiar English ‘despot’. It’s the same root that gives us ‘potency’ as well as ‘potential’, suggestive of power and capacity, of some kind of mastery over the present and/or the future state of things.
It is to these senses of the words ‘pati’ and ‘patnī’ that I want to turn to now, because I think it is of relevance to how we imagine and conceive of politics today. The fact that words rashtrapati and despotism have shared roots should give us reason to pause.
Those who think that the term ‘rashtrapatnī’ is insulting (because of how it glosses matrimony) might like to consider how, from the point of view of an ordinary citizen, the term ‘rashtrapati’ is, to put it plainly, contemptuous. And that too of what it means to be a citizen.
The ‘first’ citizen of a democratic republic cannot be the ‘pati’, the ‘lord and master’ of all other citizens of that democratic republic. It hardly matters, from the point of view of the citizen, whether the rashtra has a pati or a patnī, a master or a mistress, as far as she (the citizen) is concerned, the gender of the claimant of the position makes no difference to the fact that in ceremonial, rhetorical terms they are ‘overlords’ or ‘despots’, in relation to her.
What this tells me is that even in ceremonial and rhetorical terms, the democratic instincts of those who imagined the Indian Republic were weak.
Ambedkar on ‘rashtrapati’ vs ‘president’
There was, as it happens, a lively discussion on the exact wording of the title of the Indian head of state in the Constituent Assembly.
This discussion took place in December 1948, at Constitution Hall in New Delhi. The constituent assembly members were debating the language of Article 41 of the draft constitution. Hari Vishnu Kamath, formerly of the Indian Civil Service, latterly of the Forward Bloc, and finally a Congress member of the Constituent Assembly, was well known for lengthy interventions. He had proposed, among other things, that a provision for powers to do with ‘Inter-Planetary Travel’ be placed in the Union List, as opposed to the State of Concurrent Lists of the Constitution.
On the morning of December 10, 1948, Kamath took Dr. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee, to task for the fact that the word ‘rashtrapati’ (in Roman characters), parenthetically attached to the word ‘president’ in the phrase ‘The Head of the Federation shall be the President (Rashtrapati)’ – which had been part of the first and second reports of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly in August 1947 – had been dropped, and the phrase itself altered to ‘There shall be a President of India’ when it appeared in Article 41 of the draft constitution presented to the Constituent Assembly, in February 1948.
Kamath wanted to know the reason for this deletion, considering, as he noted, that the term ‘rashtrapati’ had been such an intrinsic part of the vocabulary of the Congress party for its own organisational purposes. He wanted to know whether this was due to an allergy to Indian terminology on the part of the members of the drafting committee, or whether it was due to any prejudices against those Congress party members, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been referred to as ‘rashtrapati’ previously within party circles.
Dr. Ambedkar avoided giving wind to the sails of controversy in his reply. His only defence was that the text of the draft constitution presented for consideration to the Constituent Assembly was a technical, English text. We can surmise that this was done as to avoid any ambiguity and misunderstanding arising out of issues of language while the draft was discussed threadbare by the committee.
Dr. Ambedkar’s exact reply was as follows:
“…Now, Sir, this action of the Drafting Committee has nothing to do with any kind of prejudice against the word ‘Rashtrapati’ or against using any Hindi term in the Constitution. The reason why we omitted it is this. We were told that simultaneously with the Drafting Committee, the President of the ConstituentAssembly had appointed another committee, or rather two committees, to draft the constitution in Hindi as well as inHindustani. We, therefore, felt that since there was to be a Draft of the Constitution in Hindi and another in Hindustani, it might be as well that we should leave this word ‘Rashtrapati’ to be adopted by the members of those committees, as the word ‘Rashtrapati’ was not an English term and we were drafting the Constitution in English. Now my friend asked me whether I was not aware of the fact that this term ‘Rashtrapati’ has been in current use for a number of years in the Congress parlance. I know it is quite true and I have read it in many places that this word ‘Rashtrapati’ is used, there is no doubt about it. But whether it has become a technical term, I am not quite sure.Therefore before rising to reply, I just thought of consulting the two Draft Constitutions, one prepared in Hindi and the other prepared in Hindustani. Now, I should like to draw the attention of my friend Mr. Kamath to the language that has been used by these two committees. I am reading from the draft in Hindustani, and it says:
‘Hind ka ek President hoga…..’
The word ‘Rashtrapati’ is not used there.
Then, taking the draft prepared by the Hindi Committee, in article 41 there, the word used is ‘Pradhan’. There is no ‘Rashtrapati’ there either.
…And I am just now informed that in the Urdu Draft, the word used is ‘Sardar’…”
The records of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly as published indicate that this statement was followed by ‘laughter’. Though what exactly was funny about the word ‘Sardar’ being invoked is left unsaid.
In a couple of years, Article 41 of the draft text of the constitution became Article 51 of the Constitution of India, which describes and outlines the power and responsibilities that come with the position of the President of the Republic. It still opens as,
‘There shall be a President of India’
The Hindi text of the constitution says:
‘Bharat ka ek Rashtrapati hoga’.
The syntax of the Hindi statement has an implicit masculine edge. The verb ending ‘hoga’ leaves no room for ambiguity. Obviously, the tacit misogyny of the Hindi language did manage to find its way back into the language of the constitution. There is not even a glimmer of the word ‘rashtrapatni’ though, as we have shown, there could very easily have been.
The words ‘pradhan’, in the draft Hindi translation, or even the romanised ‘president’ of the draft Hindustani translation, or the ‘sardar’ of the draft Urdu translations must have fallen by the wayside of the highway of the textual evolution of the Constitution of India. I don’t even know if a ‘Hindustani’ as opposed to a ‘Hindi’ translation of the Constitution exists anymore. Finally, it was a ‘rashtrapati’ that ruled, and still rules, the land.
What I can’t help wondering, however, is whether or not Dr. Ambedkar would have been aware of, and sensitive to, the hierarchical sense of ‘mastery’ built into the term rashtrapati. My sense is that he might well have been aware, and therefore was reluctant to have it in the text of the constitution. Of course this is speculation. But I do not think that it is empty speculation, because of the way in which the word ‘rashtrapati’ got dropped when Dr. Ambedkar presented the draft text to the Constituent Assembly.
We know that Dr. Ambedkar was especially sensitive to the meanings of words; he had singlehandedly written a lexicon of Pali, only for himself simply because he wanted to understand terms in Buddhist philosophy with clarity. Such a man would not be indifferent to how the meaning and ‘sense’ of a word can haunt whichever context it appears in. I like to think that he would have preferred an alternative to the ‘rashtrapati’ that we are saddled with till today. it is clear that he did not like ‘lords’ and ‘masters’.
As it happens, Urdu has an even better term for ‘president’ than ‘sardar’ and that is – صدر ریاست or sadar-e-riasat – which simply means ‘head of state’. It is objective, neutral and gender neutral – and means exactly what it says, without the implied deference and obsequiousness of lordship or mastery. Maybe the elision of the gifts that Urdu syntax could have offered to our political imagination is just another way in which we are paying for the erosion of Urdu from our cultural landscape.
Contrived anger to serve a purpose
If we go back to the origins of the present controversy in parliament, we will realise that it is because opposition MPs are not being given an opportunity to table their questions about price rise and the imposition of GST on foods vital to the nutritional requirements of the working poor.
The government of the day does not want to have a conversation about hunger and the cost of food. It is during a protest on this issue that the word ‘rashtrapatnī’ emerges and finds its way into public attention. And then Smriti Irani effectively prevents another attempt at discussing the price of food by filibustering the proceedings of parliament with her utterly unnecessary histrionics in response to a fake instance of injured sentiment. The word ‘rashtra-Patnī’ is exactly as objectionable, or not, as the word ‘rashtrapati’ is.
Meanwhile, hunger, and the rising prices of food, continue to find no mention in parliament.
We badly need a new language of, and for, politics in this country today. Each passing day makes that clearer.
Shuddhabhrata Sengupta is with the Raqs Collective in New Delhi.