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Our feudal set-up

The HRD ministry's proposed list of brand ambassadors for its adult literacy programme is an insult to all of Indian womanhood. Ramachandra Guha writes.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2010 23:43 IST
Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha
Hindustan Times

Despite 63 years of independence, feudal attitudes and values permeate the professedly secular, republican and democratic Government of India. Consider the recent proposal by the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry to appoint 'brand ambassadors' for its adult literacy programme. According to a news report, the names shortlisted by the ministry are those of Nita Ambani, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi and Priyanka Vadra. All four are women, and all four owe their status in society principally to the fact they are the wife, daughter, or sister of a powerful or wealthy male.

If one is thinking of a name to motivate poor women or men to learn their letters, no name could be more spectacularly inappropriate than Nita Ambani's. She is soon to be the resident of a 400,000 square feet house; she is already the recipient of a Boeing aircraft as a birthday gift. If this exhibitionism doesn't run contrary to our constitutional commitment to socialism and equality, I don't know what does. As for our other national commitment to secularism and the scientific temper — which I presume the HRD Ministry shares — how does one square that with Nita Ambani's periodic visits to a Southern hilltop to pray for, of all things, a cricket team?

Nita Ambani would not be what she is had she not married the son of the richest man in India. By the same token, Supriya Sule would not be what she is had she not been the daughter of the most powerful man in Maharashtra. She owes her seat in Parliament entirely to her father. So does Kanimozhi, the third of the HRD ministry's proposed 'brand ambassadors'. Had she not been the daughter of the most powerful man in Tamil Nadu, she would not now be a Rajya Sabha MP, nor would she be spoken of (as Supriya Sule is too) as a likely entrant into the Union Cabinet.

It seems strange to say this, but in fact, of the four names on offer it is Priyanka Vadra who is least guilty on this count. Thus far at least, she has not benefited professionally from being the daughter of a former prime minister or the sister of someone who is likely to be a future prime minister. She is not in politics, and her recent foray out of private life has been to work with a family-run foundation. Even so, her name would hardly have occurred to the HRD ministry had she not been the daughter and sister of you-know-who.

The HRD ministry's proposal is patriarchal as well as feudalistic. It constitutes a sharp and direct insult to all of Indian womanhood. How is it that the ministry couldn't think of a single woman who had achieved distinction in her own right, without having first been elevated on account of being someone else's wife, daughter or sister? Had I been an official in the ministry, the first names that may have come to my mind are of those splendid Hyderabadi sportswomen, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza. What Nehwal and Mirza have in common is that their achievements are entirely of their own making. They have nothing to do with genes or wealth or position that they have inherited from an already powerful male. In this respect, they are fairly representative of professional women in general. The two most widely admired women entrepreneurs in India are probably Chanda Kochhar of ICICI and Kiran Mazumdar of Biocon. They, too, owe their success to their own efforts and their own genes alone. The most admired social worker in India is probably Ela Bhatt of the Self-Employed Women's Association. She, too, is wholly self-made.

I have proposed five deserving names — readers of this column could easily expand the list to 50. Thus, the actor Shabana Azmi would make a fine ambassador for adult literacy, as would — if her health permits — the writer Mahasweta Devi. There is even a politician who qualifies — Mayawati, who (unlike Sule and Kanimozhi) rose from genuinely humble origins and who, despite her sometimes whimsical ways, has a huge appeal to the most disadvantaged of Indians.

The names offered in the preceding paragraphs are a good sight more deserving than the ones suggested by the HRD ministry. To the adult neo-literate, whose example shall be more admirable, more inspiring? Ela Bhatt or Nita Ambani? Saina Nehwal or Supriya Sule? Shabana Azmi or Kanimozhi? Chanda Kochhar or Priyanka Vadra? The first person in each pairing made it wholly on her own, the second person got a hefty leg up from her husband or father. To put it differently, the first person in each pairing represents the democratic ideals of the Indian Constitution, whereas the second person represents the lingering feudal residues in Indian society and politics.

Contemporary India has an array of gifted women writers, musicians, and committed women social workers and public officials, who have likewise achieved eminence without first hitching their star to a male of wealth or influence. Surely they would be more effective and credible brand ambassadors for adult literacy as compared to the privileged quartet proposed by the HRD ministry.

What, I wonder, are the origins of this ridiculous proposal? Is it a manifestation of the feudal culture within the allegedly democratic government of India, or is it rather the handiwork of a particular individual, seeking to please the richest and most powerful people in India? Gore Vidal once remarked of his adopted country, Italy, that occasionally it combined the worst of capitalism and the worst of socialism. I should say of my one and only homeland that sometimes it combines the worst features of capitalism, socialism and feudalism.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, the views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jul 29, 2010 23:21 IST