Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Non-negotiable: The right to choose what to do with one’ s life or time cannot be hijacked in the name of religion or tradition.

The attack by the Sri Rama Sene on five women in a Mangalore pub on January 24 was an assault not just on those five but on all Indian women. And on Indian society. And on Indian “culture”, however we might choose to define it.

Since that widely televised crime, that has been repeatedly aired, showing men in saffron pulling women’s hair, pushing them to the ground and openly molesting them without a trace of fear, a great deal of anger, frustration and outrage has been expressed by women’s groups and others. We have also witnessed the meekness with which even ostensibly “liberal” politicians quake when “Indian culture” comes into the picture. Note the strange responses from people like Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, for instance.

The attack on the women at the Mangalore pub is not the first such incident. It has been preceded by many others, in and around Mangalore, in Karnataka, and in the rest of the country. What we need to think about is what these incidents say about our society, our systems of governance and our politics.

Collective responsibility

Why is the burden of upholding “tradition” and “cultural values” placed exclusively on the shoulders of women, young or old? Do men and their behaviour have nothing to do with the degradation of “culture”? And what exactly is this “Hindu” or “Indian” culture that the men from the Sri Rama Sene claim to protect? Is it Indian culture to publicly thrash and molest women? Is it Indian culture to kill women — and the men they choose to marry — if they are from a different caste or community? Is it Indian culture to torture and kill women who fail to produce the desired amount of dowry? Is it Indian culture to gang rape Dalit women who dare to challenge regressive traditions like child marriage? Indeed, is it Indian culture to sit back and accept that mothers will die during childbirth without feeling a sense of outrage at the inequity in our society?

If we wanted to find reasons for so-called “moral outrage”, there are plenty. But “pub culture”? Boys and girls going out together? Public displays of affection? Even Valentine’s Day? In any case, what is “pub culture”? Is it a disapproval of alcohol being served in public places? Or is it only about women?

The real reason for such an attack, and previous attacks, is that outfits like the Sri Rama Sene have no understanding or commitment to anything that could be understood as “culture”. They represent a primitive patriarchal mindset that is all about control — particularly over women. At a time when more women in India are getting educated, becoming economically independent and gaining the confidence to make their own choices — a process that has extended now to even smaller towns and cities — our own version of the Taliban feels emasculated. They have lost control.

So how should they assert it? By making a public and violent display of intolerance. The founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, Pravin Valke, a 40-year-old school dropout, is quoted in a newspaper (Indian Express, February 3, 2009) saying, “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chappatis? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”.

In that quote you have a clear explanation of the mindset of these men who speak in the name of culture. Women should stay at home and make chappatis while men can go out and drink, rape and molest women, cheat, murder or do whatever they wish. Thereby our “culture” will be preserved!

The Sri Rama Sene is a fringe element. But lurking under the skin of many men, irrespective of caste or community, is a similar view of what women should and should not do. Men fear women’s autonomy, for, it challenges their power. And they fear women’s sexuality even more. Hence, the desire of fundamentalists of all types to control women’s sexuality.

With the changes taking place in Indian society, both economic and social, we are likely to see more such Senas claiming to speak in the name of “culture” — Hindu, Indian or even regional, such as Raj Thackeray’s grand plan to preserve “Marathi” culture. Their tactics are identical — plan an attack on people who cannot hit back, take a television camera crew with you, and use the media to amplify your message. To quote Valke again, “You think the boys didn’t know what they were getting into? They did it in broad daylight, before TV cameras. Don’t you think every girl will now think twice about entering a pub? The strategy was a success.”

But the Mangalore incident, as well as the repeated actions of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, also raises crucial questions about governance. Why are governments standing by and watching? In Karnataka, the BJP government will not oppose its own brothers-in-arms. It is on the back of these extreme groups that the party has steadily consolidated its base, particularly in South Karnataka. But what about the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra? Why is it sitting on its hands? After the November 26 terror attack on Mumbai, people wanted the government to take tough measures to deal with terror. But should we not equally demand that it deal with such localised terror?

Paralysed system

Mangalore also exposes our politics and politicians. Barring a few honourable exceptions, if you scratch any of our politicians, you will find underneath a deeply conservative person who quakes at the thought of offending anyone’s “cultural” sensibilities and the resulting loss of political support. Even non-saffron parties now fear being seen as promoting so-called “Western” culture and do not dare emphasise the rights of citizens in a democratic society. The Sangh Parivar does not rule all of India, but its cultural agenda seems to have succeeded.

This is an important juncture for Indian politics and society. If the autonomy and freedom that development and education have gifted millions of Indian women are snatched away by outfits like the Sri Rama Sene, who would like to push them back into the four walls of domesticity, then the purpose of such developmental efforts will be entirely negated. Women’s status is in many ways a litmus test of the maturity of a society. This is an issue that must concern all those who believe in democracy and secularism, and the fundamental right of all Indian citizens to free choice and expression.