Renuka Chowdhury (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • How do the entrenched elite deal with ‘People Not Like Us’?

    They don’t even speak to them, they simply laugh at them. Like Renuka Chowdhury did when the Prime Minister was speaking in the Rajya Sabha.

A lot has been spoken about Renuka Chowdhury’s now infamous cackle in the Rajya Sabha. A lot of people seem very outraged that her cackle was received by mockery from the Prime Minister and the treasury benches. Her cackle has been called the ‘sound of freedom’ and has been stretched beyond recognition to argue that cackling women are a dangerous thing for power. Renuka Chowdhury is suddenly the symbol of women empowerment, the one who dared to laugh.

Journalists and activists are selectively triggered in India because sexism clearly needs to be sanitised in some cases. Like when Smriti Irani was subjected to the most vicious sexist attacks both inside parliament and on the social media, it was not sexist enough to outrage. Power and Privilege and the fluidity of both these ideas is central to inter-sectional feminism but only when broader political narratives so demand. So, the victim and the perpetrator, the offended and the offender vary not based on consistency of principles but demands of a productive narrative.

Let us get this straight. The act of Renuka Chowdhury in the parliament was no act of freedom, of happiness or uncontrollable joy. In every parliamentary debate, there is one word for what it would count as—heckling. She performed her laughter as a tool to not just derail a speech but also to deride the speaker. But, within all this is the clear fact that this performative laugh was not directed at a statement but also at the person speaking. It was an assertion of superiority, of disdain and arrogance. One where the speaker does not even deserve your counter with words, but just your laughter.

Just like Mani Aiyar did not want to counter the claims of the Prime Ministerial candidate with counter-claims but thought asking him to serve tea was adequate acknowledgement for a man unlike him. Renuka Chowdhury and Mani Aiyar are part of the same continuum. For them, and for most in the elite cocoon of politics, the boundaries between ‘People Like Us’ and Them are very stark. Dismissive social background, no accumulated wealth, not a part of known alumni groups, Hindi-speaking, no fancy English words…the list could go on. It is perhaps these people that derision is reserved for to drive home the fact that the entrenched elite do not even speak to you. Only laugh at you. Nothing really separates the arrogance of Aiyar and Chowdhury, except their gender. And the fact that the latter worded his contempt for ‘people not like us’ by referring to ‘chaiwallahs’ and the former merely guffawed it out.

Commentators saw gender in the situation, they did not see social position. They saw patriarchy in the retort of the PM but did not see elitism reeking of class privilege in the heckler. It is a constant reminder of privilege, that no matter how far you come, you do not even deserve our words because you are not an equal. Sanya Dhingra in The Print had equated the PMs retort to cat calling on the street! But, strangely a woman jeering a man going about his job is well within bounds of decency! Wonder, what that would be called if we tried it out in a classroom or a board meeting. Snobbery, elitism, arrogance, indecency or freedom, gay abandon and sheer joy?

If the laughter was the weapon of derision then why cannot the retort be equally acerbic and caustic? If the loud cackle was the performance of protest against the Prime Minister, then why is that laugh immune from mockery? If a female parliamentarian is an equal, a counterpart and is within her rights to be jeer and mock, what exactly gives her the right to be immune from the snark of a male politician? If a man had guffawed like Chowdhury did when a female leader was speaking and the female leader had turned back with a sharp and witty retort, would it really amount to sexism?

The argument made was that male parliamentarians have made far worse omissions within the parliament and have not been castigated. This argument is grossly false because across party lines, male MPs have had to face the music because of unruly behaviour. But, the bigger point here is why is a female MP to be immune from it? There are no differential standards of decency and civility here since, a male MP using laughter to heckle a speaker would have been reprimanded and even mocked similarly.

The times are such that no female politician can be criticized for any attribute without the commentator being concerned about charges of sexism. Gender is a weapon and you cannot pre-empt how someone could be a victim. No statement is safe enough. But yes, sexism in politics exists and hence the victim card should be played. But, you also should be open to hearing back about it because sexism is still a contested label and there needs to be a wider discussion on it.

This article in The Hindu calls Renuka Chowdhury an inspiration for women. This inspiring woman has in the past not even found it beneath her to call a female minister of the government, ‘a quota woman’. You select icons for us women, with relative ease. If Chowdhury and the Congress party are such shining beacons of leadership, then this Youth Congress Leader should have had to face the music for this crass, degrading and clearly misogynist attack on Smriti Irani. The duplicity of the Congress is evident that they see sexism in a witty repartee but no misogyny in an opinion which clearly reduces a strong female leader to just her gender.

Renuka Chowdhury is no inspiration for me. Our girls should be taught to see people as equals beyond their social conditioning. Our girls should be taught that the rules of decency and engagement are similar for both men and women. Importantly, our girls should be taught that our gender is no cover for our arrogance or our actions.

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