Why certain surnames rile the RSS and its Pracharaks

Unlike many families in India, including royal ones, where there is no male heir, Nehru did not suggest his daughter stick to her maiden name

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with daughter Indira
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with daughter Indira

Sujata Anandan

When I first met Supriya Sule for an interview, much before she became an MP, I wrote down her name, as I thought it was, in my notebook before getting started. She was seated opposite me and was looking into my notebook as I was writing. She was silent as I put down her name.

When I looked up I was taken aback as she said sweetly but firmly, “Who is that? Is that me? My name is Supriya Sule. If you have come to interview me, make sure you get my name right. I speak for myself, not for someone who does not exist any longer.”

I had written down her name as ‘Supriya Pawar’. I was startled and nodded but she waited – until I suddenly realised what she was waiting for. I cancelled out what I had written and rewrote ‘Supriya Sule’ in my notebook.

It was an unforgettable incident. The interview was great and I discovered she was very much Sharad Pawar’s daughter, in looks as well as political acumen. But there was a lesson there in her admonishment of me for all card-carrying feminists like me. Supriya Sule was decades after Indira Gandhi. She is the only child of Sharad Pawar as Indira was of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and her father is as proud of his daughter as Nehru was of his. Her closeness to her father has been much as that of Indira’s to Nehru, everyone knows her parentage and even in this era of, at times, toxic feminism, she has not had a problem dropping her maiden name and going with her husband’s surname.

No hyphenated surnames for her or the need to rub her parentage in everybody’s faces, including that of her marital family. Obviously, there is a lot of comfort in that relationship and she will have none of the modern-day feminist nonsense.

Some might say this perpetrates patriarchy and denies women achievers or even sets back the recent progress in including mothers’ names on school admission forms, etc. But it is not as though adopting your married name takes away anything from who or what you are. Which obviously even Indira Gandhi agreed with—she was clearly Nehru’s daughter throughout her life and I don’t think she ever felt the need to change one name and adopt another, even though Nehru was a unique name and Gandhi quite a common one in Gujarat.

According to a biography I read at school, there is only one Nehru family in this country and any one still carrying that surname is a cousin, perhaps twice or thrice removed, coming down from the original patriarch Gangadhar Nehru, the father of Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s illustrious father who migrated to Allahabad from Kashmir. The original family name was the very popular Kashmiri Pandit surname of Kaul.

But since the family lived across a canal (neher) in Kashmir, they began to be referred to as Nehr-wale Kaul to distinguish them from various other Kauls and the name eventually got shortened to Nehru.

So, the Nehru-Gandhis have a unique background. No one can ever duplicate their name. While in school I had thought the nation had just one Gandhi as it had only one Nehru. But migrating to Mumbai from the interiors, it was at first very strange to encounter so many Gandhis quite unrelated to the Mahatma or even to Indira Gandhi. But both surnames hold a lot of magic to most Indians and that is why perhaps the RSS-BJP tries to deny the Nehru-Gandhis who now forever have the magic of both surnames wrapped into their existence.

They have failed to decisively convince even their own bigots that Nehru was actually a Khan and their attempt to paint Pandit Nehru’s great-grandfather as a Moghul functionary also did not take off.

So now Narendra Modi is attempting to convince us that the Nehru-Gandhis are ashamed of their name simply because they chose to go with ‘Gandhi’ over Indira’s maiden name of Nehru and do not even try to hyphenate it. Hyphenation is a latter-day feminist practice.

And today, I believe, Modi’s mockery is an insult not to the Nehru-Gandhis whose lineage is in no doubt but to all men in this country who end up falling in love with and marrying women from more illustrious families than theirs. One should appreciate the fact that unlike many families in India, including royal ones, where there is no male heir, Nehru did not suggest his daughter stick to her maiden name nor did Mrs Gandhi feel even for one instance that carrying her husband’s name in any way took away from her any of herb accomplishments.

Modi’s mockery of the Nehru-Gandhis—typical of someone with a huge inferiority complex—is an insult to all men in this country and I say this without any attempt at perpetuating patriarchy or denying the rights of women or their hard-fought for place in society.

However, I think I understand where Modi is going with this as I recall a teacher in school, belonging to an RSS family, once telling us peevishly that people believe that Mrs Gandhi was somehow related to Mahatma Gandhi, and yet they were floating nasty stories about her husband Feroze Gandhi being someone else altogether. But none of their innuendos have stuck and this is yet another attempt by the RSS that is falling by the way side. Gandhiji had said about Nehru, “Jawaharlal is a jewel among men. Happy is the land that owns him.” And so, we are sure, are his descendants whether they be known as Nehru or Gandhi.

Now while both Nehru and Gandhi are magical names in this country that one can be very proud of, giving the current generation the double magic of both legacies, I wonder how Narendra Modi compares with that magic.

His name is not quite unique as Nehru's but he does share the good company of Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi. All names are, of course, equally illustrious.


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