Meira Kumar: Her father’s daughter

When India’s President  Pratibha Patil spoke of Meira Kumar being the first woman to be elected Speaker of the lower House of Indian Parliament, she affixed her caste to her name.

In the third paragraph of her address to the joint session of Parliament, Patil said and I quote: “I congratulate the members of the Lok Sabha for unanimously electing the Speaker and that too a woman who is a Dalit with honourable credentials”. Earlier Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Congress leaders also prefixed the word Dalit to Kumar’s credentials.

Agreed it was a political coup for the Congress given that it  pulled off  Meira Kumar’s election as Lok Sabha speaker. For those of us who have witnessed the political scene for many years,  are well aware that Meira is not a hot favourite with the Congress leadership. If anything she is her father’s daughter.

When Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, her father, Jagjivan Ram, popular as Babuji, was a powerful minister.  He held several portfolios during Mrs Gandhi’s regime and gained the reputation of being a crafty politician. Apart from his political acumen there were endless stories about the diamonds he possessed. Or his being the country’s richest politician.

He ditched Mrs Gandhi a little before the 1977 elections to form a separate party with Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna. They named it the Congress for Democracy(CFD) which later merged with the Janata Party. Once there he bargained with Morarji Desai for  the position of Deputy Prime Minister and got it. His hopes of being the country’s first Dalit Prime Minister dashed with the collapse of the Janata Government and his own outfit Congress(J) being somewhat a non starter.

Jagjivan Ram married when he was barely eight years old. He fought caste discrimination as a student. Things, however, came to a head at the Benaras Hindu University when the  kitchen staff at the hostel refused to wash utensils in which he ate.

His first protest against untouchability began when a barber refused to give him a haircut. He got hold of all the scheduled caste boys in town and protested by way of boycotting the barbers. It took six months for the barbers to come around but once they did, it was a victory for Jagjivan Ram.

His daughter Meira Kumar ofcourse did not go through what her father did. Born in Patna, she spent most of her life away from the poverty struck areas of Sasaram in Bihar: a political constituency represented by her father and inherited by her. She got into the Indian Foreign Service though I am not sure whether she did through a reserved quota or merit. Later, she served in missions abroad. She quit the foreign service to join Rajiv Gandhi. As a minister between 2004 to 2009, she was average like she was as a Parliamentarian.

After her election as Speaker, Meira Kumar gave endless interviews. Both on television and in print.  She lost no opportunity to make the most of the moment. Fair enough given that limelight had eluded her for so many years. And why not  when the going is good. Absolutely  human and equally justified. And like a good daughter, Meira Kumar also spoke about her father.

At some point I read a cursory mention to her husband: lawyer Manjul Kumar. What I did not was the fact that her mother-in-law Sumitra Devi was the first Cabinet woman minister in Bihar. That was in 1963: decades before Meira Kumar rose to be the first woman Speaker of Lok Sabha. Her father in law Gyaneshwar Prasad was a freedom fighter and a poet. If Meira writes poetry for pleasure, her father in law had published several books of his verse. There is a road in Patna named after Sumitra Devi. When she died in 2001, she was given a state funeral. Sadly, I have not heard Meira Kumar mention any of this. Maybe I missed it.

In one of the interviews given to a national daily, Meira has spoken about caste always being clubbed to her. I don’t know if she would wish it away.  Because her elevation has more to do with her caste than gender. It is well known that she tipped Girija Vyas for the post because she is a Dalit which Vyas is not. The Congress was desperate to renew its credentials as a party which is pro dalits and pro women in that order. Meira Kumar fit the bill and gave Congress enough steam to ride on the caste and gender bandwagon. Though, second from her caste to be a Speaker, (the first was G.M.C. Balayogi) Meira Kumar is the first Dalit-woman  to be Lok Sabha Speaker. While this sends the correct message down the line, politically it is enough to give Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Dalit leader Mayawati sleepless nights.  
One can understand Congress’ political necessity: compulsion will be a wrong word to use, given that it is geared to surge ahead with or without its caste agenda. Yet, it  is prudent for the Congress to woo its alienated vote bank. It has made a good beginning with  Meira Kumar as its  Dalit face.

A lot is being made of her vocal skills based on her nasal, sing song  voice. Good for reciting poetry but could be a problem when you need to be heard in the din or to bring the House to order  when it gets out of hand which it does more often than not. A smile, her trademark in the past few weeks, won’t do. Nor would gentleness.

But I would not jump to conclusions about how she would fare. I would wait and watch like most of us should. And more importantly, be more sensitive to her caste rather than allow it to used as a step up ladder for political or Parliamentary positions. Consequently, I was pained to hear Congress leaders, while welcoming her elevation as Speaker, pointedly mentioning that she was a Dalit. Like the President did in her speech.

No need to hammer the point. It is time to move on and let people do business normally. As it is time to see and treat people as they are rather than encapsulate them on the basis of caste and gender. I am not suggesting that she or any one of us need to be ashamed of where we belong. All that I am saying is that we need not carry our roots on our sleeve…

The sooner we do this the better. Equally it is time to see  Meira Kumar purely as Speaker of an august house rather than continue referring to her Dalit identity. She would, I am sure,  wish to be remembered more for her performance rather than a famous father’s daughter who was refused a haircut in a caste ridden society.

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