Confront the Rupa Subramanyas Within : A Note to a Nair-born Friend

Dear Kaviraj,

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 ‘ammaayilike’ 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.
Warm regards
[This was first posted on J Devika’s FB page]

4 thoughts on “Confront the Rupa Subramanyas Within : A Note to a Nair-born Friend”

  1. No one holding HRD ministry portfolio is as much controversial’ as Manu smriti Tulsi Irani’ till now.Every other day she is involved in things which would do no good to the young.Now I understand, why this country is needed atleast one educated minister but not from ‘YALE’.


  2. Great article. It exposes the clever use of a senior respected woman profile of the family by Smriti Irani, the experienced badi bahu who manipulates the facts with guile and honest indignation. The speech was spellbinding and took away the power to think. Unfortunately, most people do not care for the facts and are wonderfully entertained and probably think she is right. The opposition needs to hire a smart bahu themselves or they are in deep trouble.


  3. Great article, Devika. You have given us a way to think through this charge of sexism that is being levelled with great pride by some of the most anti-women, anti-feminist people in India today.

    Irani’s Parliament speech brought back the horrified fascination I had felt in my first and only live encounter with the Minister at Delhi University a year ago:

    From that piece, about her ‘debating techniques’:

    “Irani violated every rule of a debate, cutting short the questioner from the first question onwards, abusing her obvious authority as Minister and as chief guest to insult the anchors, to take the debate to the salivating audience, often literally by getting up from her seat and walking up to the edge of the stage in the manner of circus masters and rock star emcees, to elicit the loud cheers and claps that drowned out the question almost every single time, to focus on irrelevant details in every critical question as a way to avoid answering altogether, to never allow any serious and critical issue facing higher education to arise by filibustering about minor issues at length…”


    “the HRD Minister rais(ed) and lower(ed) the fanboy audience’s temperature like a master conductor. Not a single substantial discussion on education took place. What we got instead were juicy tidbits of the Ministry’s self-proclaimed achievements in e-learning, raps on the knuckles to all and sundry asking uncomfortable questions, supremely timed alternations between petulant and imperious tones, and mastery over rhetoric and innuendo. All of this building up to a crescendo of sympathetic outrage amongst the audience…”

    “The anchors made a valiant attempt to bring the discussion back to national politics as it were, but Irani was not going to let this chance go – she had them by the collar with her abundant bahu-beti charm and mastery of the kind of pointless, party-centric polemic that marks all so-called ‘debate’ in India.”

    At that time too, some commentators objected to my labelling her charm as ‘bahu-beti’. The feminist Nancy Chodorow created the term “patriarchal maternalism” to describe this particular form of female power – it serves patriarchy very well indeed. So of course, Jaitley cannot tolerate real female power as expressed by a drunk Durga with bloodshot eyes picking up the sword to kill mahishasur…


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