Why The Telegraphs Aunty National dig at Smriti Irani needs to be called out
Voices Opinion Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 17:46

We do not get The Telegraph in the southern part of the country, but the Kolkata-based newspaper has often caught the imagination of journalists down south, especially after the suicide of Rohith Vemula.

The headlines from The Telegraph desk gave me an immense sense of pride. I might not be part of the team but I am part of the larger brigade, I would often tell myself. I would also make it a point to share the headlines in the non-journo Whatsapp groups I am part of, ones in which most people have a soft corner for the BJP.

Mostly, the headlines I share would be met with stony silence, but sometimes someone would speak up, rather meekly, and then would go into a spell of familiar silence once I begin to assertively defend the headline with data and stories.

But if there was one headline of The Telegraph I had cringed from sharing, it was ‘Aunty National’ – a headline they had chosen to give for a lead story on Smirti Irani’s recent speech in Lok Sabha.

Barely a day ago, a social activist was addressed as ‘Aunty’ and ‘Item’ by a right-wing troll on Facebook. She was criticising the Modi government in a television debate.

‘Aunty’, at least in social media, is no longer a term as respectable as Didi or Amma. And Telegraph certainly didn’t intend to use it as a ‘respectable’ term. A simple Google search for ‘Aunty’ shows the way the word is popularly used.  Today, Telegraph’s article is sandwiched between a YouTube link on ‘Hot Indian Aunty Romance With Electrician Boy’ and a Locanto link on ‘Women seeking men in Kasturba Road’.

While I hesitate to suggest that the term was used in bad taste, it was definitely not used positively. It is no less demeaning than right-wing trolls using terms like ‘item’. It all boils down to the fact that the person you are targeting happens to be a woman.

Smriti Irani deserves all the criticism we can cobble up together, but for her politics and policies. Personal attacks based on her age and gender do not bode well, and contribute to debasing the discourse on important issues. What we are perhaps forgetting is that in adopting such an acrimonious discourse against those who threaten our liberalism, and by cheering-on such headlines, we are threatening the very idea of the liberalism that we want to foster. We must be encouraging a discourse of respect, not one which allows for such mockery of women in the name of politics. How low are we willing to stoop to counter conservative politics?

With the kind of information we have in hand, with the kind of churning happening in our country at this moment, there are better, easier and dignified ways to expose Smriti Irani.

Many arguments are being put forth to defend the headline, and one of them is that many criticising the headline – like Chetan Bhagat – are guilty of using ‘aunty’ tag themselves for Mayawati. The question is this: Is a tweet by Chetan Bhagat the standard for quality of a front-page headline on The Telegraph? Should right-wing trolls online be our parameter to judge what is right or wrong?

When friends I respect defend The Telegraph, it leaves me a bit confused. And I use this clichéd, old test to get my own clarity. What would have Telegraph called a male HRD Minister? Would they have taken a dig at his gender or age?

(PS: please don’t bring in terms like Big Brother and Uncle Sam against Aunty National. We all know how politically loaded they are, and they are not gender-specific terms)

With Inputs from TNM Desk

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