He’s the political gadfly, with a penchant for making headlines, while she shrinks from the limelight: Subramanian Swamy and his wife Roxna are like chalk and cheese.
“If you are dynamic, honest, straightforward, it does affect people. I think he is brilliant. I have seen him with ordinary, timid students, building them up,” Roxna says, explaining what first attracted her, a Parsi, to Subramanian, a Tamil Brahmin.
She had enrolled at Harvard University, US, to study math in 1964. Subramanian had just become an assistant professor in the department of economics. “We met casually in the dining room. Professors at Harvard were seven or eight years older than me, so I found it easier to mingle with students,” he says. Subramanian received his doctorate in economics from Harvard in 1965, under the guidance of Simon Kuznets, who went on to receive the Nobel Prize in 1971.
Subramanian and Roxna were married in 1966, before their return to India, by a Chinese friend who was a Justice of the Peace, in the Confucian style. Mixed marriages were the exception then. “My parents were terrified of me so they didn’t say anything,” Subramanian says. Roxna had it tougher. “Her uncle was the equivalent of the Parsi pope and her grandfather was the head of the panchayat that was excommunicating girls for marrying outside their religion,” says Subramanian. “It wasn’t excommunicating, they took a dim view of it,” Roxna interjects.
Subramanian says: “In fact, I survived IIT (the Indian Institute of Technology, where he was teaching economics and statistics) because of her father, an ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer. They came around (later); the educated class come around.”
How does this reconcile with the “anti-Muslim” views Subramanian expressed in an op-ed piece for the DNA? All the more since his son-in-law (married to younger daughter, CNN-IBN news anchor and deputy foreign affairs editor Suhasini Haidar) is a Muslim?
Roxna insists it needs to be read in its entirety: “The op-ed was written three or four years after a book he had written propounding the same thesis. No one seems upset by the book!” Five decades on, dinner table conversation remains politics and law. Roxna admits the journey has been “a bit hair-raising at times” due to Subramanian’s escapades.
But Roxna has proven quite formidable herself. “She is quite the fighter. She is disciplined, I am indisciplined. I don’t like authority, order, schedules. She is the opposite,” says Subramanian.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Subramanian: There are some decisions I don’t touch at all; for instance, how much money to spend. I have no control on money at all. If I want money I have to ask her. Roxna: I haven’t noticed that you do (laughs)."
Roxna has strong political views: “Dr Swamy ended on friendly terms with Mrs Indira Gandhi. I did not. Mrs Gandhi did make some friendly overtures, I never responded. I disapproved entirely of how she turned the whole country upside down to hold power,” says Roxna. “She was tyrannical, dictatorial and corrupt.”
When Subramanian was dismissed from the IIT, Delhi faculty in the early 1970s for alleging corruption within the institute, it was Roxna who ensured they were not thrown out of their quarters. “I put furniture against the door, called the police and showed them the stay order, then filed a contempt of court petition,” she says.
Their mutual fight against the system saw them take to politics and law after Subramanian’s dismissal from IIT. “I did not like the sight of my fridge and my car being taken away. You learn quite a lot of the law by being oppressed,” says Roxna. It pushed her to take up law in her 30s, a mother of two toddlers, at the Faculty of Law at the University of Delhi. Now a Supreme Court lawyer specializing in writ petitions, she assisted Fali Nariman in the landmark Islamic Academy of Education vs State of Karnataka case (August 2003), appearing for the former. The judgement in the case, along with that in a couple of other cases in 2002 and 2005, was responsible for freeing private educational institutions that don’t get government aid from the caste-based and other reservation policies of the respective states.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Subramanian: From Day 1, I never touched money. She has total control and she is a ‘maha kanjoos’ (stingy), so it’s not easy to get money. This house, for example, was built by her. I did not contribute at all."
Subramanian is self-schooled in law. “Circumstances made me this guy that I am,” he says. “After IIT, I was killing time by writing articles. The Jan Sangh wanted someone articulate to talk to their cadres; they sent me to the Rajya Sabha,” he says. Subramanian went on to play pivotal roles in the 1977-79 Janata government and later the 1990-91 government headed by Chandra Shekhar.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Subramanian: There are areas where she has strong opinions but I have much stronger opinions; that is where the conflict is. She hates onions, I love them. There has been fierce fighting also."
He rejects labels. “Just because I am pro-Hindu does not mean I must be anti-Muslim. They (critics) don’t know what else to say about me. They can’t say I am corrupt or ultra-conservative, so they say I am the Hindutva type.”
Subramanian’s hunger fast in 1987 resulted in a probe into the deaths of 42 Muslim men in Hashimpura, Uttar Pradesh, in May that year. Enquiries are still on and Subramanian appeared in court on 5 February in Delhi to argue that the masterminds be punished.
"DO NOT OPEN: Roxna: Swamy, I don’t think you have held back on anything. Subramanian: If I think something has to be done, I will do it. Roxna: And do it with a lot of loud rude comments!"
So, what has sustained their marriage? “We are opposites, yeah, but not in fundamentals,” says Subramanian. “If you know the other is not going to bend and you have the capacity to let go, it is easy for two strong-willed people to survive together.”