It started with a sarcastic remark by Bihar's education minister Ashok Choudhary on Twitter, asking his counterpart in the Centre, Smriti Irani, when the new education policy will be put in place. Choudhary addressed the minister as "dear" -- a common enough salutation in official communication. However, Irani, who took offence at Choudhary's language, hit back in a series of tweets of her own.
This was the exchange.
@smritiirani at least decide your stand.. I just shared you your ministery's link of our consultantion.. pls see that tweet again.— Dr. Ashok Choudhary (@AshokChoudhaary) June 14, 2016
The matter did not end there. No fights on Twitter that involve celebrities ever do. Both Irani's and Choudhary's followers started trolling the two leaders. One user even dug up an old screenshot of Irani addressing journalist Bhupendra Chaubey as 'dear' and asked why it is wrong for Choudhary to use the salutation for her.
The world over, it's usual practice to begin a formal communication using 'dear' as a salutation. There's absolutely nothing wrong in that. However, when it's used in a patronising and chauvinistic sense to put a woman opponent 'in her place' and set limits for her, then it is a problem. David Cameron faced a volley of attacks for telling a woman MP to "calm down, dear" in 2011 during an exchange in the House of Commons. Cameron's disparaging remark was rightly called out by feminists as "head-pattingly" condescending, and implying that a qualified politician is incapable of holding a reasoned debate because she's a woman, and hence hysterical.
Whatever Choudhary's beef is with Irani on the National Education Policy -- a new initiative by the Human Resource Development ministry to map India's education requirements through a grassroots consultative process -- his tweet, though a dig at her efficiency, was not sexist.
Irani wrote back: "Since when did you start addressing women as 'dear', Ashokji?" Irani herself said she addressed her colleagues as 'adaraniya', a Hindi word, when translated means, 'respected'.
However, clearly, the matter wasn't over. On Wednesday, Irani wrote an impassioned Facebook post detailing her rise as a girl from a "middle class environment", who was taught, like many Indian women, not to respond to sexual harassment from the opposite sex in the interest of self preservation, to a fiery politician who held nothing back when it came to spirited sparring with her opponents.
Ask any working woman, what do you do when your colleague does not finish their assignment on time brushes off your attempt at ensuring accountability and if push comes to shove is cocky enough to gang up with other boys in the club to paint you as either too wound up, to dumb or not competent enough.
The trigger for the post is obviously Choudhary's "Dear @smritiirani ji" comment that has clearly rankled the loquacious leader.
"You, the creature who on every podium exalts the right of women to speak their mind is told don’t speak your mind. Ignore the trolls no matter how high they serve in their political systems. Ignore public attempts to humiliate you through sexual innuendos," Irani wrote in her Facebook post.
There was a dig at journalists too.
"So to those girls walking with their heads down, look up and speak up; those women cracking the whip in their offices and asking their counterparts to finish the work assigned in the time frame prescribed, lead on. As for me, next time you blog – remember the sagely advice given when you joined politics, till you don’t have your own coterie of journalists, don’t expect support to come pouring in through editorials 'kyunki nuksaan tumhara hoga unka kuch nahi bigdega'," she wrote.
Choudhary's attack on her, if it can be called that, was as a politician, not as a woman, and Irani has been in politics long enough to know that politicians, especially those who use social platforms as important tools of communication, are also constantly open to questions of accountability from the very audience they address.
Even though Irani does make a strong point about challenging patriarchy in spaces where women lead, and no one is disputing that she does, she seems to have confused accountability with prejudice. Irani never hesitates to hit back at those who criticise her style of functioning on Twitter and is more than capable of handling trolls.
So it's interesting that she used a political rival's tweet to write a lengthy catalogue of all that she has achieved as minister. From her post it can also be assumed that constant digs at her educational degree is also a sore point with the minister. In 2015, A Delhi court summoned the records of her educational qualifications from Delhi University and the Election Commission, acting on a complaint that the leader had submitted different educational qualifications in three affidavits filed before the Election Commission (EC) while filing nominations for the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha elections.
"...and yet some “intellectual” says “anpad” the minute you are given the opportunity to serve as HRD Minister. And suddenly the rules change. You, the creature who on every podium exalts the right of women to speak their mind is told don’t speak your mind."
Irani herself has been at the end of several sexist attacks because of her career in TV, from both her political opponents and users on social media. She has been called 'aunty national', a play on the word anti-national that was being bandied by people of her party to label those who do not conform to their ideology on several matters pertaining to civil liberties.
She is right when she says that hardworking women have to fight for every inch of space they earn, just to be heard, to break into the "boys club". And it must not have been easy for her to be able to do that. But part of our online life is also about choosing our battles carefully and accepting criticism -- often from sarcastic opponents looking to score a point or provoke trolls.
Sometimes, as Irani says, you have to keep on cracking the whip, but mostly let your work, and not a Twitter repartee or a lengthy Facebook checklist, do the talking for you.
This is the entire text of Irani's post.
As the politician mumbled apologies and explained his “position” regarding the twitter spat to my state leader on the mobile while our contingent drove back from Bhagalpur last night; I watched his supporters trend a hashtag in my name, irrespective of their neta’s public apology. As those who scream murder and whip themselves up into a feminist frenzy at the drop of a hat tried to “endear” themselves to me on Twitter, I reflected on the near “Jerry Maguire” like moment that was upon me.
Growing up in a middle class environment (Lutyen’s zone excluded), many girls who would walk to school / college and back home every day, go to the bazaar to get groceries and adequate sabzi in a given budget, would often be told if accosted by a boy or a bunch of them, don’t look up and keep walking straight. Don’t respond or retort no matter how humiliated you feel. But there would be those rebellious kinds (yours truly included), who would question why? Why not respond? Why zip it? The standard answer such a question begets is “It is not worth it. Nuksaan tumhara hoga , ladke ka kuch nahi bigadega”.
Cut to - you grow up and become a TV star. But while you still struggle to make a mark you are advised that if you go to parties and mingle enough, you shall get work. You stoutly refuse as you believe that your talent and hardwork are the only precursors to success, how full your social calender is should not matter. You are scoffed at and brushed off as naive. But lo and behold, you do succeed. You bag all the awards that matter, TRPs soar through the roof and all the naysayers grudgingly accept that you have arrived (though they do take occasional pot shots as their work profile demands).
And then politics happens. Not when you are a fading star, not when you are unemployed but when you are at the peak of your success. You are given the hard battles to fight, you accept (Chandini Chowk & Amethi were no cakewalk my friends). You work from the grassroots up. Serve as Youth Wing Vice-President in State, become State Secretary, 5 times National Executive Member, 2 times National Secretary and once the National President of Women’s Wing. You become possibly the youngest ever woman to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha, speak on issues ranging from the budget to women’s security.
You represent your Nation in the International Parliamentary Union, get unanimously elected to represent the Asia Pacific region, become part of the drafting committee on the Syrian crisis and yet some “intellectual” says “anpad” the minute you are given the opportunity to serve as HRD Minister.
And suddenly the rules change. You, the creature who on every podium exalts the right of women to speak their mind is told don’t speak your mind. Ignore the trolls no matter how high they serve in their political systems. Ignore public attempts to humiliate you through sexual innuendos “kyunki nuksaan tumhara hoga unka kuch nahi bigadega”.
Ask any working woman, what do you do when your colleague does not finish their assignment on time brushes off your attempt at ensuring accountability and if push comes to shove is cocky enough to gang up with other boys in the club to paint you as either too wound up, to dumb or not competent enough; the successful women always tell you that they continue to crack the whip. For there will come a time when the colleague says “Fine! I’ll get the work done”.
So while many working women battle this challenge in confined working spaces, I spat it out on twitter for my office travels with me. But then there are some who say why talk about yourself at all, surely one day they shall realise the amount of work you have done.
To them is dedicated the following checklist which is otherwise drowned in the noise:
• Over 4 lakh 17 thousand school toilets made in one year – check
• First time ever all NCERT school text books from classes 1 to 12 available free online - ePathshala- check
• First time ever all Kendriya Vidyalayas are providing SMS to alert parents of student attendance and lesson details- Shala Darpan- check
• First time ever benchmarking of student performances in CBSE schools-Saraansh- check
• First time ever, school evaluation system focused on learning outcomes-Shaala Siddhi- Check
• First time ever, a mentoring and scholarship program to send our girls to technical institutes- UDAAN- check
• First time ever, all teachers trained in inclusive education to facilitate students with special needs- check
• First time ever, 10,000 undegraduate scholarships and exposure visits for students from the Northeastunder Ishan Uday and Ishan Vikas- check
• First time ever, focused interventions to improve Math and Science levels- Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan- check
• First time ever, focused interventions to improve reading and writing levels- Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat- check
• First time ever, the UGC Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in HEIs to protect women employees and students- check
• First time ever, a portal dedicated to Indian languages- Bharatvani-check
• First time ever, collaborated effort to focus research on the development goal posts of the country- IMPRINT- check
• First time ever, SAARC Declaration on Education– check
• First time ever, Aryabhata’s bust installed at UNESCO headquarters to acknowledge India’s contribution in mathematics and astronomy-check
• First time ever,IIT fee waivers for economically weaker sections- check
• First time ever, collaborations with Standford, University of Pennsylvania and MIT to strengthen HEIs in India- check
• First time ever, focused effort to bring high quality international faculty to teach in India through GIAN - check
• First time ever, a credit framework to pursue formal education and vocational training- SAMVAY- check
• First time ever, a national institutional rankings framework- check
• First time ever, a grassroots based consultation on developing a national policy, including over 2 lakh village education committees-check..
.... and the list goes on...
So to those girls walking with their heads down, look up and speak up; those women cracking the whip in their offices and asking their counterparts to finish the work assigned in the time frame prescribed, lead on. As for me, next time you blog – remember the sagely advice given when you joined politics, till you don’t have your own coterie of journalists, don’t expect support to come pouring in through editorials “kyunki nuksaan tumhara hoga unka kuch nahi bigdega”,