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Peddling Hate in the Name of Culture

by Shobhan Saxena, 9 February 2009

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The Times of India, 8 Feb 2009

Hate, actually

Which society could be more liberal than that of India, ask some credulous foreign tourists, as they observe Indian men openly holding hands in
public? Here, no one looks twice at men hugging each other. Such expressions of male bonding - immortalized by Bollywood’s dosti songs - are considered normal in India.

To uninformed foreign eyes, India may appear an egalitarian paradise, where no one has to hide their sexual orientation in the closet. But, trouble begins to brew and the police and lumpen vigilantes swing into action if a man and woman display affection in public. A couple holding hands on a street draws more attention than a beggar’s body on the sidewalk.

This February, as winter gives way to spring, the commercially sanctioned season of love is upon us and the hate brigade is waiting in the wings to attack people, particularly women, who dare to wear their hearts on their sleeves. From Jammu to Jabalpur, Mangalore to Mumbai, threats have been issued to "those who denigrate Indian culture". Hooliganism by the Hindu right has become an annual feature of Valentine’s Day parties in India but this time the warning signs are particularly ominous. The Sri Ram Sene’s assault on girls in a Mangalore pub is fresh in everyone’s mind.

With Sene chief Pramod Muthalik out of jail on bail and the state and central governments failing to censure his threats and rein in his men, it is time to ask:

  • Who decides what is Indian culture?
  • Do consenting adults need sanction from the rest of the world to share a kiss in public?
  • Does it mean nothing that the Indian Constitution gives us the right to life and liberty?

For the likes of Muthalik - and there are many of them up and down the country - there is no room for discussion. Muthalik, who has been in the news since his goons stormed into a pub and molested girls in front of TV cameras, offers a bizarre reasoning for his opposition to Valentine’s Day celebrations: to save women from sexual assaults. He claims to have proof that 38 girls were raped in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata on Valentine’s Day last year. "Many of them have committed suicide. Besides, this is nothing but the Western world imposing their capitalist values on Indians," he says.

Muthalik’s Sene has a new slogan for Valentine’s Day: tie-or-die. The group is busy firming up plans to marry off couples found dating on February 14. Muthalik’s ideas on the relationship between men and women may sound absurd but the echoes of his reactionary views can be heard even in the nation’s most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai, where Valentine’s Day attacks on amorous couples have become routine.

"So far our leadership has not issued any aadesh (order) in this regard. But we will definitely object if there is any indecent behaviour or harassment of girls under any pretext. We are bound to react if there is any obscenity," says Neelam Gore, spokesperson for the Shiv Sena, whose activists have routinely vandalized shopping malls, card and gift shops and pubs full of romancing couples.

But the Sena, which claims to be fighting a cultural war against what it calls Western influence, has got away with it many times. Now, its footsoldiers are seen to be prepared to attack anyone, anywhere, who "shows disrespect to our culture". Nilesh Pandey, a Shiv Sainik in Lucknow, says, "Pubs, discotheques and Valentine’s Day have never been a part our Indian culture. On the contrary, they drive us away from our roots. It’s not only our call but the responsibility of the entire nation to check the cultural erosion". Justifying the public humiliation of young couples, Pandey insists: "This is the only option we have. No one listens to us otherwise." Clearly, all is fair in love and cultural war.

The premise of this war is simple: Indian culture is basically Hindu culture as depicted by epics like Ramayana and texts like Manu Smriti; it’s beyond discussion; and violence is justified in defending this culture.

But, even as the space for discussion shrinks, people are daring to speak up. "Who are these people to decide what others should do? There is no reason to impose his (Muthalik’s) culture on others. The world over, youngsters have found their own way of expressing their freedom. Valentine’s Day is a way of expressing freedom. We won’t let these groups dictate to us. If they try to disrupt peace, we will kick them and hand them over to the police," says Bangalore writer Agni Sridhar.

"When did our culture say that one should not celebrate love? If Muthalik says Valentine’s Day is akin to Christian culture, in ancient Hindu culture, loving someone was not a crime. It was a more liberal society than the Victorian era. We will not let Bangalore go the Mangalore way, we have a strategy in place," says Rajesh Gundu Rao of Bangalore’s Citizens for Secular Society.

Though Bangalore may be getting ready to resist the threatened onslaught, Mumbai appears to be sunk in despair. "There has been a dramatic shift in the city’s tolerance levels since its name was changed to Mumbai in the ’90s," says filmmaker Rakesh Sharma, whose Final Solutions documented the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Sharma says, "The aim of these groups is to completely destroy the identity of anyone who is different, whether it’s a woman in a pub or a man who thinks differently."

Despite multiple acts of mindless violence by the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and now, Sri Ram Sene, the state has shown no will to arrest the trend. "All these attacks on our freedom are not possible without the silent consent of the government. If it can ensure that the oil companies do not go on strike across India, it can also ensure that such incidents do not take place," says Roshan Peerzada, an MBA student in Lucknow who counts himself lucky to have escaped unhurt when Shiv Sainiks stormed a stationary store where he was buying a Valentine’s Day card last year.

Mumbai lawyer and former IPS officer Y P Singh agrees. "If the state is serious it can ensure that no attack on women or couples takes place on Valentine’s Day. It is just a question of police rounding up the usual suspects in advance. But sadly these days it rarely gets done."

It’s not just the state that fails us again and again; ordinary citizens rarely take a stand. Dipankar Gupta, professor of sociology at JNU and author of Mistaken Modernity, has an explanation. "The way tradition is projected in our country, there is a groundswell of sympathy for these people. Our attitude towards gender and age has not changed despite westernization, which is quite superficial in nature." He says, "Generally, we understand tradition in terms of a few conservative texts and the other books which give a more liberal view of our tradition and culture are just taught in patches."

It’s this thinking, says the professor, that makes people look at a woman sitting all by herself in a pub in a suspicious way. That’s the point. Renuka Chaudhary may be planning a "pub bharo" to win this culture war, but before this battle is taken to trendy watering holes, it has be fought - and won - in the mind.

With reports from Anil Kumar M in Bangalore, Kartikeya Tripathi in Mumbai, and Pervez Iqbal Siddiqui in Lucknow