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Karnataka’s Hindu Taliban

by Arvind Narrain, 9 February 2009

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Express Buzz, 7 Feb 2009

Taliban in saffron

The abuse and assault of young women in Mangalore’s Amnesia pub on January 24 seems to be just the beginning of a sustained campaign against young women who dare to be themselves. Sri Ram Sene goons who shouted slogans such as ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai,’ ‘Jai Sri Ram’ while groping and viciously beating the girls in the pub have warned women against wearing tight jeans and noodle straps. The noose seems to be tightening, and pretty swiftly. The BJP has not yet celebrated its first year in power in any state in South India, but women’s freedom has become the latest casualty of its rule. Yet another vulnerable section finds its first steps towards openness being arrested.

Saffron rule has been marked by vicious attacks on sexual minorities, attacks on churches, farmers and minority communities. Now the administration has crossed a new threshold. It has failed, deliberately or by omission, to protect women. On the contrary, they have become targets of attacks by its own supporters and followers, based on perverse notions of what constitutes Hindu culture and Indian nationalism.

One way of looking at this incident is to consider it an aberration, a blot on the very idea of a tolerant Karnataka, and something that no more reflects Karnataka than what conservatives malign as “pub culture”. But to do so would ignore the way right-wing vigilante groups have started to Talibanise Dakshin Kannada district. To this end they have specifically targeted women. In recent months, girls and boys from different religions have been assaulted simply because they dared to have a meal together in a hotel. A Muslim girl, for instance, was assaulted for going to a Hindu girl’s house to exchange study notes, and students who were on a college trip had their bus stoned by activists of the Bajrang Dal because the students happened to be from different religions and different sexes.

The renewed targeting of women as the locus of culture suggests that there is an image these groups have of the way women should behave. If they choose to do anything outside the straight and narrow definition of what is Hindu culture, they risk serious violence to themselves.

A short, general list of the taboos makes for instructive reading. It ranges from what women wear, to the public spaces they ought to frequent, from the religion of the friends they hang out with to the caste of those they choose to have as boyfriends and, of course, the religion of those they decide to marry.

If, on the other hand, you decide to go into the minutiae of the prohibited you find yourself taking part in an ugly exercise that intends to suffocate female self-expression and ensure that women are never free to live their lives as they might see fit. The programme is remarkably like that of the Taliban in Pakistan and parts further west.

Here in India, we are in a period of enormous social transition so the rigid boundaries of what is considered morally acceptable for women are being increasingly transgressed. It is then that coercion takes the raw and brutal form that it did at Amnesia pub.

Post-independence India has increasingly seen women asserting their right to occupy spaces outside the home. However, the story of this period is littered with the stories of those who were killed while asserting this very freedom.

When women choose to go a pub, they challenge a patriarchal heritage which says that public spaces are by definition male, and when women wear noodle straps and tight jeans they are saying that their body is nobody’s business but their own, a flat contradiction of the conservative code.

The rise of right-wing vigilante groups aided and abetted by the state government is nothing but an attempt to roll back to historical times and confine women once again within the rigid boundaries of the old patriarchal structures. The men can then again control what women wear and where and how they socialise. Indirectly, the Amnesia pub incident challenges the legacy of the women’s movement in India, which has fought for women’s right to autonomy of decision making. It’s the thin end of the wedge, but it represents nothing less than an effort to re-establish male dominance.

As for the BJP government, it is in a zone of uncertainty. If it does nothing, it lays the ground for the unfettered rise of a Hindu Taliban. If it bows to public opinion and acts decisively to ban the outfits that have persistently taken the law into their own hands, it risks the wrath of its supporters.