Just saw your post condemning The Telegraph’s representation of Smriti Irani as ‘Aunty’. I understand your indignation, though I am curious to know why few people like us stand up and protest when the people who supporte her, the sanghis, throw vile abuse at dissenters and feminists, label them prostitutes, and threaten them regularly with rape and disfigurement. My daughter was recently threatened in Delhi and warned not to behave like a ‘JNU randi’; senior women teachers from JNU were showered with similar abuse, shoved, groped, and hit at the Patiala House, and many of them have received direct and indirect threats. JNU women have been portrayed in the most despicable terms recently, before which Telegraphs’s characterisation of Irani as ‘Aunty’ is tame indeed even if unacceptable.
But would you deny that her behaviour in Parliament was not ‘aunty’-like? In Malayalam, the equivalent would be ammaayi, and we do acknowledge that this is a powerful, if gendered, position. However we also often hint that the ammaayi’s power is unwarranted interference – and that’s why we have the admonishment, ellavarudeyum ammaayi chamayalle! (Don’t strut and pose like everybody’s auntie). Here, often ammayi-chamayal connotes not a gendered position, but a certain mode of exercising power – referring to unwarranted interference and manipulation posing as concern and consolation! Now, was not Irani’s behaviour close to that? Was she not overplaying her ‘Ideal-Indian-Senior-Family-Woman card yesterday, drawing on codes of upper caste Hindu femininity that are instantly recognizable to anyone raised in an upper caste family in India? I mean, calling a grown man whose suicide was caused by her unwarranted interference – if that is not a twisted form of ammaayi-like behaviour, then what is it? The way in which she shouted over and over again to assert the ‘truth’ of what she was saying – throwing a veritable tantrum, saying stupid things that she will cut off her head and so on – without providing the facts or arguments that would have established her case, is that not ‘ammaayi–like’ behaviour? And now that it is clear that she was lying through her teeth, the ‘ammayi-like‘ quality of her speech stands fully conformed.
And, Kaviraj, you perhaps know perfectly well that the community you and I were born into, the Nair, especially upper- and middle-class Nairs, have suddenly developed an interest in the BJP. Thousands of Nairs now profess great admiration for Ms Irani – not surprising, and she could perhaps pass off easily for a Nair woman by her looks. Just the other day, I had an interesting exchange with two well-off Nairs, one a technical expert based in Bangalore, and a UK-based Nair woman. My attention was drawn to their FB writing, especially the woman’s, which spewed pure venom against feminists even as she went into a crazy high seeing Ms Irani’s histrionics. She called feminists ‘sickulars’ and ‘menstrual’. I looked at her picture – she looked every bit as middle-aged or as ‘menstrual’ as most well-off Malayalee women of her age – sagging body, ageing face, and certainly not in good shape. So what makes many of us treat such abuse of feminists, which is almost everyday, routine, normal, not worth commenting on FB or elsewhere, and even when we don’t do that, makes our heart bleed for a woman who has indeed behaved in an auntie-like way, and seems hell-bent on destroying the underprivileged young people of this country?
Why, indeed, I wonder! I have met you and my sense is that you do respect women like me who are truly ‘prostitutes’ if Irani is the ideal Indian woman! In other words, we are friends who respect each other. So what makes you rather slack when it comes to protesting against violations against women who are your friends? Do you feel we need no support, while women like Irani who exercise tremendous power and bolster it with a daily drama of being ‘Indian woman’ staying within accepted Hindutva cultural codes deserve it? Why is that so many of us are insensitive when it comes to a woman like Soni Sori? Why is it that so many of us are, at least a tiny bit, like Rupa Subramanya, a right wing Hindutva-leaning ‘economist’, who proudly produced the most egregious tweet possible about the disfigurement of Sori, and then, when criticised, began to cry and complain that she was targeted by racists and sexists? Is that why we are unable to recognize that this is a strategy that smart ladies in the Hindutva brigade routinely use ?
How come you hardly notice that we feminists have never unleashed unfair criticism against her? Well, this Irani as a young person was hardly the ideal docile Hindu woman – she wore make-up, short skirts and sexy clothes like many perfectly ordinary young women these days, wanted to and entered show biz, participated in beauty contests. None of this looks like a problem to me – though Irani’s followers rarely concede that about young women in this country who have similar desires and tastes. None of us have probed her marriage, nor have we given ear to vile sexist rumours that circulate about her, which all women in politics have often to deal with. Indeed, the space which Irani occupies today was produced not by the Sati-Savitri brigade, but by the women’s movement in the country which has campaigned hard and long against sexist attacks on women politicians. Even the criticism of her lying about educational qualifications even as she controlled higher education in this country was not advanced without criticism from feminists. The only nickname she had acquired – Manusmriti Irani – is a political one, that points to her politics. The UK-based Nair woman who was screaming about how ‘Smriti is THE Woman’ has no clue about such things; she is no doubt as much as free rider as Irani herself and an ignorant boor, immensely proud of her ignorance. But I hope that people like you, who are certainly thinking, sensitive human beings, will think a little more.
Perhaps there is a reason why highly educated, upper class Nairs are so enamoured of Modi and Irani and their ilk. If they had any sense of how the RSS ideologue Golwalkar thought of the Nairs, they would have had no truck with the Parivar – assuming that they have self-respect. Because the man believed that Kerala was the laboratory for eugenic experimentation by Brahmins, and that every Sudra woman slept with a Brahmin to produce a ‘high-quality’ progeny before she produced her husband’s progeny. No self-respecting community would have taken that as a compliment. But the present globalized generation of Nairs would indeed sacrifice self-respect for material gains! They constantly think that reservations were their undoing, overlooking a mountain of statistics that affirm their huge grip on government jobs in Kerala and their considerable access to property and other resources assuring upward mobility. The tech expert-Nair who I encountered last night claimed to be of a ‘humble background’ – which meant that he made best use of Kerala’s once- excellent public health and education. He got it cheap and now with his support to Irani, he wishes to deny it to the lower castes. These are people who have climbed up using that ladder and now want to knock it down so that they alone stay privileged.
But they are woefully outnumbered in this country and it is only a matter of time before the underprivileged masses rise against the masters who try to keep them down below and sell them cheap to globalized predatory capital as poorly-paid and poorly-skilled labour in the name of ‘Make in India’ or whatever else. They will soon demand skills, opportunities, resources, and access which are real – they will also challenge the system which allows upper caste criminals to violate the law with impunity wearing the cloak of Hindutva. Does that make me a commie? No actually, as you’d know, but please, we all need to work hard at telling people proximate to us precisely that. Smriti Irani’s image as ‘Ideal Hindu Woman’ is akin to Modi’s lower-caste status. It is lately acquired and totally opportunistic . There is no reason why we should spend precious energy on it.
[This was first posted on J Devika’s FB page]