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The 'dehati aurat' controversy

September 30, 2013

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Singh and Sharif agreed to reduce tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir as the first step towards a comprehensive peace in the region. -Photo by AFP
Singh and Sharif agreed to reduce tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir as the first step towards a comprehensive peace in the region. -Photo by AFP

As Pakistan and India’s prime ministers got together in a much-awaited encounter in New York on Sunday, the controversy that preceded their interaction seemingly made bigger news than the actual meeting.

The controversy, which began with a remark, drew interesting reactions from a number of members of the Indian government as well as the opposition, putting these in an interesting light as India gears for national elections in 2014.

The controversy began on Sunday, hours before the meeting of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, over the former purportedly calling Singh a "dehati aurat" (village woman) during a breakfast interaction with two journalists.

The controversy’s roots lie in a comment by journalist Hamid Mir on Geo TV that Sharif had used the village woman description for Singh during the Saturday breakfast with him and NDTV's Barkha Dutt.

The epithet seemingly took shape from the idea that Sharif was reportedly unhappy that the Indian premier had complained to US President Barack Obama over certain issues relating to Pakistan.

However, Dutt, who was also present at the breakfast meet, remarked on Twitter: "This (Mir's version) is a distortion entirely", and that Sharif had not said anything "of this kind".

Dutt said parts of the interaction with Sharif were off the record. However, these did not include any pejorative language about the Indian prime minister, she said.

In a series of tweets, Dutt wrote that Sharif had told the journalists an allegorical tale regarding a dispute between two villagers, one of them a woman. The story ended with how fights should be settled between two parties, Dutt said, adding that Sharif's account was fundamentally about how third parties should not be involved in disputes.

Subsequently, Mir also tweeted that Sharif had said nothing derogatory against his Indian counterpart.

Singh and Sharif, who met for just over one hour at a New York hotel on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, agreed to reduce tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir as the first step towards a comprehensive peace in the region and also accepted invitations to visit each other's countries, but no dates were set.

It was their first face-to-face meeting since Sharif was elected in May.

While the two journalists tried to put a lid on the argument, Gujarat chief minister and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for next year’s elections, Narendra Modi, jumped in.

"How dare you (Sharif) address my nation's Prime Minister as a village woman? There cannot be a bigger insult of the Indian Prime Minister," Modi said during a rally in New Delhi.

"We can fight with him (Singh) over policies, but we will not tolerate this. This nation of 1.2 billion will not tolerate its Prime Minister's insult."

Criticising Modi, India’s Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid said the BJP leader's attack over the remark allegedly made by Sharif showed he did not like village women.

Khurshid likened Modi to a "parrot" that goes on talking without verifying related stories, adding that there was nothing wrong in being a village woman and that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was out of touch with his country’s ground realities.

The minister moreover, said that the meeting between the two premiers went smoothly and without any reflection of the controversy, adding that Modi was “allergic to facts”.

"Union finance minister P Chidambaram said he does fake encounter with facts. I personally think he is allergic to facts," Khurshid said.