In a recent column in Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s foremost thinkers, writes how corrosion of language has made it difficult for us to achieve or at least call for a better politics.
“In a subtle way, our crisis is deeper now because even the language in which we can begin to articulate a viewpoint is already considered corroded from the start; the words that are meant to carry the weight of the hopes of any party seem sinister even before they are uttered.”
The Telegraph’s move to refer Union HRD minister Smriti Irani as “aunty” in its frontpage banner headline ‘Aunty National’ on Thursday is a sad commentary on the state of our journalism where misogyny masquerades as critique and low-level sexist attack qualifies as anti-establishment bravado.
In the already vitiated atmosphere of disgraceful political discourse, The Telegraph has somehow managed to plumb new depths, slipping further down the slope of misogyny which it has been guilty of traversing in the past.
In her speech during the Budget session of the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, the minister took on the opposition over the issue of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the JNU row. In an emotional and forceful statement, Irani refuted the claims that her ministry had any role in the Dalit scholar’s suicide and insisted that JNU students had indulged in anti-national activities.
The Telegraph is well within its rights to point out what it thinks are flaws and 'untruths' in the minister’s arguments and whether or not those stand the test of scrutiny.
But whatever the newspaper thinks of her politics, educational qualifications or even the thrust of her speech, the personal nature of the attack and the language employed to express it does two things:
One, it reduces the minister down to her gender, crudely pointing out that her being a woman somehow has come in the way of her administrative capabilities. Why is the age of the minister and her gender important while her speech as a minister is being debated?
Two, it denigrates a valid criticism to street-level mud-slinging, robbing the newspaper of the gravitas that it so loves to project.
The mocking not only reveals the lack of intellectual heft in the publication that it must resort to sexist attacks to denigrate a woman, it also lays bare the hollowness of what goes by the name of ‘liberalism’ in India.
The publication’s despicable, derisive mocking and act of casting ageist aspersions on a minister sit at odds with its pose as a ‘liberal’ newspaper that holds liberal values dear.
If anything, The Telegraph showed scant regard for propriety of language and ended up harming women more by reinforcing everyday sexism.
When it comes to misogyny though, The Telegraph is a repeat offender.
On the edition dated 18 July, 2009 (Saturday), the venerable newspaper had carried a graphic depicting West Bengal’s top five administrators in saris, implying that the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, police commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti, DG, police, Bhupinder Singh and two other state secretaries were not being able to shake off the inertia in the administration because they were behaving like women.
The astoundingly sexist graphic was duly slammed by women’s rights bodies who said they were “shocked” to see the misogynist graphic.
To their credit The Telegraph carried the letter by Maitree, an organisation working for women’s rights, criticising the newspaper.
It read: “We are shocked to see the graphic on the front page of the paper where you have portrayed men from the administration in saris suggesting that their inaction makes them women.
“The implication, thereby, is clearly that women are inactive and incompetent,” the letter said. “This is both a demeaning and humiliating stance towards women and we are amazed that a leading English daily holds such regressive attitudes and views.”
The organisation had staged a demonstration in front of The Telegraph office, demanding that the paper apologise. They also received support from Paschimbanga Ganatantrik Mahila Samity, a CPM-backed women’s organisation, which said the graphic: “exposes very clearly the entrenched patriarchal attitude that lies hidden behind the apparently super-modern and liberal facade of your newspaper”.
My Firstpost colleague Sanjay Pandey, who like me was once associated with The Telegraph, writes: “I beg to differ with the ‘Aunty National’ headline.
“I find it sexist – and in bad taste. You could have found a better way to express your disagreement with the minister, but you found the easiest way out – by attacking her gender. Calling a woman aunty to oppose her political stand on something is a kind of cowardice! If you thought this is one-off incident, allow me take you down the memory lane.
“On July 19, 2009, when I came for work, I saw a group of women protesting outside my (The Telegraph) office. Two women’s organisations were protesting against the publication of a graphic on July 18.
“While the women rights activists protested outside, the editorial staff, particularly female employees, expressed disapproval against the sexist take though nobody talked about it aloud.
“No one raised a voice, but many employees agreed with activists that the graphic implied that women were inactive and incompetent.”