Controversy in India on how to address its woman president

By Indira Guerrero

New Delhi, Jul 28 (EFE).- Droupadi Murmu recently became India’s second woman president – and its first from a tribal background -, sparking debate on how to address her in the absence of a precise female word for the country’s top position in one of its main official languages.

The use of “Rashtrapati”, the Hindi word for the president of the nation, is a masculine word and its feminine form may be considered as offensive for addressing the country’s first citizen.

“This word is a combination of two words, ‘rashtra’ and ‘pati.’ Rashtra means nation and pati means husband or owner. Rashtrapati itself sounds like a masculine word,” Professor Alam, who teaches Indian languages, explained to EFE.

The female equivalent for “pati” is “patni,” meaning “wife.”

This week, opposition leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of the grand old Congress Party referred to Murmu as “Rashtrapatni,” triggering sharp reactions from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that in in power, which claimed the word was derogatory.

According to Alam, “if we call her Rashtrapatini, it don’t sound good. Calling a woman the wife of the whole nation sounds a little abusive.”

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday demanded an apology from Congress President Sonia Gandhi, as a woman, for the address she believes deliberately sought to offend Murmu.

“I demand an apology from the president of the Congress party who herself is a woman,” she said in the parliament, starting a chain of reactions.

The National Commission for Women sent a notification to Chowdhury to appear before it in person and provide a written explanation of his comments.

Chowdhury released a video the same day, describing his use of expression as a “slip of the tongue,” and offered an apology for the use of expression, while claiming that the reaction it generated was disproportionate.

India has already witnessed a similar outcry in the past, during the presidency of Pratibha Patil (2007-2012), who became the first woman to occupy India top post.

At the time, several feminist organizations called for the use of a gender-neutral or appropriate word, considering the Hindi equivalent of president to carry a patriarchal influence and gender bias.

Legal and constitutional experts, however, see no major problems in the use of the term that is also used in the name for the presidential palace, or the “Rashtrapati Bhavan.”

For Ranjana Kumari, one of the most recognized women’s rights activists in India, the use of rashtrapati “has constitutional validity, and she (Murmu) has the same power as any male president.”

However, the attempt to refer to her as “Rashtrapatni,” or the wife of the nation, is “totally unacceptable,” Kumari underlined to EFE.

“It is really a kind of insult to a woman that you want to show her relatedness because she is someone who is subordinated, someone who is the wife of some men (…) calling it that, you know, you are the wife of the country is absolutely ridiculous,” she explained.

However, she remarked that it was “quite silly” that the matter had gone on to create such a controversy.

According to activist Rita Banerji, founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign – that seeks to spread awareness about femicide -, this debate is “ridiculous” especially in a nation that still fights for fundamental rights for women, who are discriminated against their entire lives.

“Given the range of issues effecting women in India, not least of all mass femicide which has annihilated 20 percent of women, that actually warrant serious discussion, it’s ridiculous they are focusing on this,” Bannerji told EFE.

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