A playful Valentine’s Day action campaign in India is highlighting how publicity stunts can boomerang.
On 24 January, a couple of days before the country’s annual Republic Day patriotfest, the Sri Ram Sene, a hard right Hindu hate politics group, invited various members of the press to a pub in the Southern city of Mangalore for some fireworks. The journos duly turned up, none of course bothering to inform the police of the invite. They then proceeded to record scenes of the Ram Sene’s young male thugs slapping and tripping up women who had been drinking in the pub. The images of the screaming, distraught women running out of the pub made headline news down the length and breadth of the land. The Ram Sene smugly informed the nation that it had rendered its services to protest the spread of ‘pub culture’ and because they had found the women – oh horror! – drinking in the company of Muslim men in what they termed as ‘compromising positions’. This wasn’t the first time of course that the Ram Sene’s moral custodianship had resulted in violence. There had been a string of incidents before this – including one in which travelers on a bus were beaten up because young Hindu women were traveling in the company of young Muslim men. However this was the first time that there was such blanket press coverage.
And it backfired spectacularly. It was evident from the footage that the Sene’s crusaders were approaching their task with great relish. These self-proclaimed protectors of women’s honour were also reported as having been loose with their hands with the women concerned – and we’re not just talking the slaps they dealt out. The outrage was widespread. Even those who are anti-pubs decried the Sene’s methods. Commentators across the spectrum saw that this was about male usurpation of women’s choices rather than any grand cultural statement. Renuka Chowdhury, India’s feisty Minister of State for Women and Child Development, appeared on a televised debate saying that if these young men were so concerned about women’s honour they might consider building latrines for poor women up and down the land for whom something as basic as relieving their bowels was fraught with fear of sexual attack because it had to be done in the open. Other Hindu hardliners distanced themselves from the Sri Ram Sene supremo Pramod Muthalik, a man with 53 cases against him, but who gets bailed each time he appears before a court. These are naturally the same courts that have no problem detaining people on suspicion of terrorist activities without a shred of evidence.
A couple of craven state ministers decided this was the time to air their own disapproval of ‘pub culture’, apparently not realizing that the timing of their statements would be seen as an open endorsement of the violent tactics of groups like the Ram Sene. People are quite rightly asking, ‘Just what part of Indian culture is protected by beating up women?’ And, ‘Which “culture” does such violence belong to?’
Now Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us – a festival that appeals to the schmaltzy core of many an Indian (just watch any Bollywood film and you’ll know what I mean) – and an internet campaign to post pink chaddies (pants) to Pramod Muthalik is underway. Valentine’s Day has been tense ever since it began to grow in popularity – cultural crusaders have been known to attack hand-holding couples and burn down gift shops that carry the paraphernalia of hearts and flowers on the day. One can view this as one more struggle in the battle for the soul of the country – a tug of war between the open, accepting, hybrid Indian tradition which makes new cultural influences completely its own and the hardline cultural custodians who want to ossify culture to suit their own blinkered ends and enforce their thinking with beatings and murder.
The latter usually make a great song and dance about religious purity, while their goals are more banal – political power and the trappings it brings. It is easy to despair at the fissures being deepened by hate politics in the country. So I find it a relief to see something as lighthearted as the chaddi campaign making headway. Let’s hope Muthalik finds a creative use for the undies.