Bhavish Aggarwal’s issue with pronouns: Why Ola CEO should read up on language & rights

As the founder of Ola, a company that rarely fails to paint their app rainbow during Pride Month, Bhavish’s ‘issues’ with gender neutrality come across as especially hypocritical.
Bhavish Aggarwal
Bhavish Aggarwal
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Ola’s founder-CEO Bhavish Aggarwal recently had a meltdown after LinkedIn removed his post that refers to gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they/them’ as an “illness”. Bhavish quite dramatically claimed that the LinkedIn chatbot, which is powered by artificial intelligence (AI), is “imposing a political ideology” on Indian users that’s both “unsafe and sinister.” 

For anyone wondering, gender-neutral pronouns are essentially third-person nouns that are used when referring to a single person, but without denoting a specific or singular gender. They can refer to someone whose gender identity is unclear, or when the person in question chooses to be represented by pronouns that do not categorise them into the binary of a ‘man’ or ‘woman’.

This expansion of language is an extension of our evolving understanding of the gender spectrum and gender identities. It is also a political movement, deliberate in its inclusivity of identities that lie outside the ‘he’ and ‘she’ of the English language. Major English dictionaries like Oxford and Merriam-Webster have already recognised such usages, but why is Bhavish offended by these changing rules of English grammar? Ideally, that would be for the founder-CEO to ponder on and for us to not care. 

But when Bhavish, a publicly recognised figure with nearly 480k followers on Twitter, jumps on Western conservative narratives and peddles misinformation about gender minorities in India, he is setting a dangerous precedent that can severely harm a significantly vulnerable community. So let’s address his ‘concerns’ and set the record straight.

Is singular usage of ‘they/them’ pronouns new?

Doubling down on his hottakes about what he calls the “pronoun illness,” Bhavish had posted this on social media platform X: “Most of us in India have no clue about politics of this pronouns illness. People do it because it’s become expected in our corporate culture, especially MNCs. Better to send this illness back where it came from. Our culture has always had respect for all. No need for new pronouns.” 

Beneath his not-so-veiled attack on gender minorities, Bhavish has also got his facts about the English language wrong. The singular ‘they/them/their’ are hardly “new pronouns” that were introduced simply for the sake of being inclusive (not that there should be a problem with it if that was indeed the case). For centuries in English literature, ‘they’ has appeared as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces back the usage of the singular ‘they’ to the year 1375, in the mediaeval romance poem William and the Werewolf. A section of the poem translated from Middle English to modern English reads, “Each man hurried … till they drew near … where William and his darling were lying together.” Linguistic experts suggest that the usage could have also existed long before 1375, in speech form.

‘They’, in its singular form, has since been employed in the texts of many classic authors including Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) and William Shakespeare (A Comedy of Errors, Hamlet), and even Jane Austen who used it in Mansfield Park centuries later. “I would have everybody marry if they could do it properly,” Austen famously wrote in her 1814 novel.

Language analysts say it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that grammarists began to argue against the use of the singular ‘they’, instead batting for the masculine ‘he’ as the default. Those who argue against the usage of ‘they’ as singular, however, seem to overlook that even the pronoun ‘you’ was once a plural pronoun that eventually became singular as well. ‘You’ first became a polite singular pronoun over the centuries, similar to the term ‘hum’ (me/us) in the Hindi-Urdu languages, before slowly replacing ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ in the seventeenth century.

Back in 1660, English preacher George Fox who founded ‘Quakerism’ even wrote a fiery book in defence of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, referring to everyone who used the singular ‘you’ as idiots. But here you are, Bhavish, and that is the evolutionary nature of languages.

A singular ‘they’ is also not that confusing to use in everyday language, as many claim under the guise of ‘saving the English language from gender activists’. We already use it in speech form frequently, and it’s just a matter of time before the singular ‘they’ is as well integrated into the language as the singular ‘you’.

Who is ‘imposing’ singular they on us?

Bhavish’s war on gender-neutral pronouns is hardly just about being grammatically correct, as he himself made clear through his tweets. It is deliberate in its exclusion of people who do not adhere to the ‘man-woman’ binary.

Right-wingers often cite ‘science’ to claim that there are only two genders, but such an understanding of science is elementary at best. Many of us learned in school biology that sex chromosomes determine a child’s sex — that XX means it’s a girl and XY means it’s a boy. But today we know that XX and XY don’t tell the whole story, and the various elements of what we consider “male” and “female” body forms don’t always line up neatly. Science has also evolved to understand that gender isn’t a binary that directly corresponds to a person’s sexual form. Gender is fluid and ever-changing, which means that there are an endless number of possibilities.

Far-right activists and other vested interests in the West now allege that gender-expansive pronouns are being “imposed” on them, apparently as part of a yet-to-be-proven worldwide 'gender conspiracy' to “convert their children into transgender (persons).” How anyone would benefit from ‘converting’ someone else’s child to a trans person is anybody’s guess. The theory is in line with that popular meme template — “conservatives being afraid of threats that don't exist.” It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so dangerous. 

Unfortunately, this narrative has also been adopted by many in India, with even some standup comics now seeming to have joined the bandwagon. It is apparently hilarious that someone can be respectful enough to use another person’s preferred pronouns, instead of going out of their way to misgender and belittle them.

Oftentimes, those who regurgitate this idea of a ‘gender conspiracy’ in India do so in a bid to subscribe to and profit off the country’s growing Hindutva influence. It has to be noted that though the Hindutva brand of nationalism claims to detest “Western influences on India’s culture”, it is also heavily inspired by the West’s Conservative political narratives.

In the post that LinkedIn had deleted, for instance, Bhavish had claimed that he was “hoping that this ‘pronoun illness’ doesn’t reach India,” and that many “big city schools” in India were now teaching it to kids. He also shared a screenshot of an interaction he had with the LinkedIn AI bot, where he can be seen asking “who is Bhavish Aggarwal,” to which the bot responds by using “they/their” to address him.

The Ola founder also apparently has a problem with people mentioning their pronouns in their CVs. “Also see many CVs with pronouns these days. Need to know where to draw the line in following the west blindly,” he wrote, almost directly threatening the employment opportunities of queer persons. LinkedIn, a social media platform focused on employment, had allegedly removed his post because it was in violation of the app’s guidelines. 

After LinkedIn deleted his post, he lashed out on X: “Rich of you [LinkedIn] to call my post unsafe! This is exactly why we need to build own tech and AI in India. Else we’ll just be pawns in others political objectives.”

He then proceeded to plug Krutrim AI, an AI startup that he founded and was launched as a standalone Android app just a few days ago. Who could have seen it coming.

For years now, LGBTQIA+ activists, allied feminists, and linguists have battled for the development of more inclusive languages, at times by inventing new gender-neutral terms by themselves and other times by seeking out certain grammar reconstructions. As acceptance of the spectrum of gender identities grows across the globe, these language changes are also gradually finding acceptance. Many people are now opting for pronouns that accurately represent themselves, such as the singular ‘they/them’ or relatively newly invented pronouns such as ‘ze/hir’ and ‘ze/zir’. Steps towards gender neutrality in languages have been visible in other instances like in the way ‘chairman’ became ‘chairperson’ or ‘sportsman’ became ‘sportsperson’. These may also be a result of the arrival of more women in the workforce.

The Indian Supreme Court also recently used the phrase ‘pregnant person’ to acknowledge that genders other than women — such as transgender men, people with intersex variations, non-binary persons, and others — can also experience pregnancy. Considering queer persons continue to be excluded from legislation about several pertinent aspects of civil society such as marriage, such statements may not qualify as more than lip service. But for a community so frequently attacked for asserting who they are, this is promising.

As the founder of Ola, a company that rarely fails to paint their app rainbow during Pride Month, Bhavish’s ‘issues’ with gender neutrality come across as especially hypocritical. The entrepreneur needs to realise that the usage of correct pronouns to respect someone’s identity is a simple and bare minimum act of dignity that puts no one in harm.

As a billionaire, of course, there is always much more one can do. But let’s maybe start with trying not too hard to be Elon Musk.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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