By Madhura Damle
The President of India; should he or she be called Rashtrapati or Rashtrapatni? The gender-infused term brings a larger issue to the fore. What is that?
Droupadi Murmu, who was recently elected as the President of India, is the second woman to hold the office. Soon after she assumed her office, a politician referred to her as ‘Rashtrapatni’, leading to a political row. This incident opens up the issue of the gendered nature of the terms used in political vocabulary.
After the controversy, a number of commentators and journalists looked at the history of the term Rashtrapati. The term gained currency in the decades before independence since the President of the Indian National Congress was called Rashtrapati. The term was sometimes used in the constituent assembly to mean the President of India, especially by the Hindi-speaking members. Thus, even before it was adopted officially, Rashtrapati was commonly used to mean the President of India. A few other constituent assembly members had suggested alternative appellations and proposed a discussion on the Hindi equivalents of the constitutional terms. The discussion was postponed as the matter was referred to the translation committees.
The Hindi Translation Committee (1948) used the word pradhan in the translation of the Draft Constitution, which was not retained in the final translation. During the initial sessions, there was anticipation among the members of the constituent assembly that Hindi would be the national or official language of the independent state of India and, therefore, Hindi translation of the constitution would be discussed at length in the house. Owing to the urgency to publish the Hindi translation before 26th January 1950, which was believed to serve as the authorial text on constitutional terminology for Indian languages, the matter was left to the committee of experts, and the postponed discussion on Hindi equivalents never took place.
It was also argued that the costs of calling the assembly sessions only to discuss the translation would be disproportionately high. Coining and settling on terminologies and preparing translations of the Constitution in Indian languages were considered matters of linguistic expertise. The question of gendered connotations of the term Rashtrapati did not surface at all. No woman member of the constituent assembly participated in this debate, and none of them was a part of the concerned committees.
Languages, however, are gendered – not just in the sense that words are assigned specific genders in grammar but also because they reflect as well as reproduce patriarchal structures. These two senses are not always distinct from each other. In several languages, feminine gender denotes a diminutive meaning. For example, the word dabaa in Marathi is of masculine gender and means a container, while its feminine form dabi implies a smaller container. The feminine and neuter genders sometimes have sexual or derogatory connotations.
In Sanskrit nata means an actor or a dancer, whereas nati stands for a female actor or dancer, but also a courtesan. In several other ways, grammatical gender is not merely a matter of morphological inflection but signifies certain socio-political structures. Mastarni or daktarni in Hindi can denote the wife of a teacher or a doctor, though the terms are also used to mean a female teacher or doctor. It is a well-known fact that many job names in English end with ‘man’ and are now replaced with ‘person’ or similar gender-neutral terms.
Numerous Hindi terms in political vocabulary such as sarpanch, mantri, nagarik, saansad, vidhaayak or rajyapal are also of masculine gender. However, they are regarded to be gender neutral and are used for addressing women without much discomfort. At times, the women speakers of Lok Sabha were addressed as adhyakshaa, feminine form of adhykasha but no other term mentioned above has been used in its feminine form. Why, then, rashtrapati was not perceived as a gender neutral term?
The word Rashtrapati seems to connote a vivid masculine imagery, which might be the reason why the politician, consciously or unconsciously, tried to evade the usage. This is not the first time the word rashtrapatni was used. When Pratibha Patil was elected as the President of India, people wondered if it would be appropriate to address her Rashtrapati. In Sanskrit, pati means a master, lord, owner, possessor, governor or ruler. It also refers to a husband. The reason why the same word is used to mean husband and ruler is apparent.
Like a ruler presided over, guarded, protected, and governed a country, a man was considered the master of the household and the wife. Women, according to Manusmriti, ‘should be guarded against even the lightest evil inclination, for when they are left unguarded, they bring grief to both families. Seeing that this is clearly the highest Law of all social classes, even weak husbands strive to guard their wives’. The term patni, feminine counterpart of pati, does not convey the same sense as pati but suggests servitude.
Since the nineteenth century, the politics of borrowing and coining words for Indian languages has been revolving around religion and caste. Making Indian vernaculars capable of transmitting western, modern ideas to the Indian masses was one of the most important concerns of nineteenth-century intellectuals. The questions such as to what extent terminologies shall be borrowed from other languages, which languages shall be looked up to for coining new terms and which terms shall be scrapped were debated upon. Except for Urdu, in which case new terminology was coined with the help of Persian and Arabic, the Indian literati borrowed heavily from Sanskrit.
The Brahminical and Hindu nationalist inclinations behind this choice were evident. The non-Brahmin scholars, especially in Southern India, opposed Sanskritization and advocated the usage of deshi (vernacular) terminology. The issue of gender-sensitive language did not appear in the Brahminical discourse on the modernization of vernaculars which included the creation of scientific terminology. It was Jotirao Phule, the prominent leader of the non-Brahmin movement in western India, who pointed out the genderedness of languages. For instance, he rhetorically asks why the masculine equivalent of the term sati does not exist. In his writings, he invariably used the terms ‘all men and women’ or ‘girls and boys’ when it was customary to use ‘men’ to mean humankind.
It is time to reconsider political terminology in Indian languages and coin terms that are more sensitive to gender and more inclusive. The terms that reflect paternalistic attitudes towards the citizens need to be replaced. Languages do not merely mirror societal realities – they participate in the construction of realities. Using gender-sensitive terms will not empower women/ other genders overnight, but it would definitely be a step ahead towards that.
(Madhura Damle is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Presidency University, Kolkata.)
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