Although Chowdhury said he had made a mistake in using the word and that it was a slip of the tongue, the BJP, led by ministers Smriti Irani in Lok Sabha and Nirmala Sitharaman in Rajya Sabha protested vociferously, and sought an apology from both Chowdhury and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Irani accused the Congress of being anti-Adivasi and anti-women for the alleged derogatory reference, and accused the party of “humiliating” the supreme commander of the armed forces.
India has had a woman President earlier. The first time this happened, there was a minor debate on the proper way to address the Head of State, apparently because “Rashtrapati”, according to some people, has a “male” connotation. That debate died down soon, after it was agreed that in India’s constitutional scheme, words like Rashtrapati and Sabhapati (Speaker) are understood to be gender-neutral.
When Pratibha Patil was President
When the UPA decided to field Pratibha Patil, a former Governor of Rajasthan, in the presidential election of 2007, there was some discussion and speculation around this issue. It was the first time that India would have a woman President, and there was a degree of curiosity about how the nation would negotiate the nomenclature.
Among the suggestions made was “Rashtrapatni”, though it was never taken seriously. Activists and feminists objected to expressions like “Rashtramata”, saying the use of such terms for a constitutional post was “patriarchal” and “gender-biased”.
Constitutional experts argued that the word Rashtrapati, which was finalised after discussions in the Constituent Assembly, should not be changed only because India had a woman President — because the word has no gender connotations; it’s simply that ‘President’ translates into Hindi as ‘Rashtrapati’. They pointed out that the Constitution has other male-allusive nomenclature, but it could not be seen as being patriarchal or gender insensitive.
Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap had pointed out at the time that then Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptulla was always addressed as “Upsabhapati”, and thus President Patil could be called “Rashtrapati Mahodaya”. India has since had two women Speakers, Meira Kumar and Sumitra Mahajan, and both have been referred to as “Sabhapati”.
Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, who had broken ranks with the then BJP-led opposition to back Patil’s presidential candidature, had tried to settle the debate in a statement that appeared in his party mouthpiece Saamna in June 2007. “Ever since Pratibhatai’s name has been announced as the Presidential nominee, there is a debate about what she should be referred to when she assumes charge at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I feel that there is no need for a ‘Pati’ or ‘Patni’, Pratibhatai should be called Rashtradhyaksh,” he had said.
However, the discussion soon petered out — President Patil was referred to as Rashtrapati throughout her tenure in Rashtrapati Bhavan that ended in July 2012.
What happened in Constituent Assembly
The Constituent Assembly discussed how the President should be addressed. During the debate in the Constituent Assembly in December 1948, H V Kamath objected to a modification to the original draft that Jawaharlal Nehru had presented on July 4, 1947. He asked why (then) Article 41 — “The Head of the Federation shall be the President (Rashtrapati)” — had been changed to “There shall be a President of India.”
“I want to know from Dr (B R) Ambedkar why this word ‘Rashtrapati’ has been deleted from the article which appears in the Draft Constitution today. Is it because, Sir,that we have now developed — latterly developed, cultivated a dislike — a new-fangled dislike of some Indian or Hindi words and try to avoid them as far as possible in the English Draft of the Constitution?” Kamath asked. He pointed out that the word Rashtrapati had gained “common currency”, as it was used to describe the head of the Congress organisation during the freedom struggle.
Ambedkar explained that no prejudice was involved — the change had happened only because the committee that was preparing the draft Constitution in English had left it to those who were preparing the draft in Hindi and Hindustani to choose the corresponding word. While the draft in Hindustani used “President”, the one in Hindi used “Pradhan”. “And I am just now informed that in the Urdu Draft, the word used is’”Sardar”,” Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly.
There were also suggestions during the debate that the word “Rashtrapati” should be substituted by the word “Neta” or “Karnadhar”. But Nehru suggested that the term Rashtrapati should be finalised.