Most of us will have been encouraged by some of the political responses to the attack on pub-goers in Mangalore. Even Rajnath Singh, not usually perceived as a pillar of the liberal establishment, delivered a ringing condemnation of the assaults and most political parties joined the chorus of disapproval.
The politicians — and many media commentators — based their criticisms of the assault on two separate liberal principles.
The first was: nobody can take the law into his or her own hands. It is legitimate to strongly object to something but quite unacceptable to forego due process and take direct action.
The second principle was the traditional liberal one of ‘live and let live’. I may disapprove of what you do but unless your actions directly harm me I have no right to stop you. This principle has been used to argue that even if the lunatics on the fringes of the Sangh parivar found the pubs objectionable, they had no business preventing those who liked the so-called ‘pub culture’ from enjoying it.
Both principles are strong and well-established and I can see why they have been quoted. They are usually used by politicians and editorial writers to condemn attacks on cinema halls showing Fire, on shops selling Valentine’s Day cards, etc. etc.
But here’s my problem: I think we need to go beyond the standard liberal denunciations of the Mangalore violence because the usual objections seem to me to be entirely inadequate here. The real issues run much deeper.
Go to the politicians who have condemned the Mangalore attack, ask them a few significant questions and see what responses you get.
Ask Rajnath Singh, for instance, what he thinks of the so-called ‘pub culture’. My guess is that he will say that he disapproves of it entirely because it goes against Indian culture. Ashok Gehlot has already been asked this question and delivered an attack on ‘pub culture’. (Later, when it was pointed out to him that his response came off as toeing the Sangh parivar line, he quickly amended it to say that he was only against alcoholism — but by then, the damage had been done.)
Go further. Ask this question of L.K. Advani. Of Lalu Prasad Yadav. Of Mayawati.
My guess is they’ll all say the same thing: that going to pubs is against ‘Indian culture’.
That’s my problem with the liberal position that is being used to condemn the Mangalore attacks. Politicians will say they disapprove of the violence and shed tears over the incident.
But they will still support the cause and agenda of the goondas. This was brought out most clearly in the response of the Karnataka Chief Minister who issued the routine condemnation but then followed it up with a ringing denunciation of the ‘pub culture’. He was a liberal, he said. He did not mind if people went out to eat ‘non-veg’ (wow!). But it was against our very cultural traditions to go drinking in pubs at night.
My fear is that we will allow the politicians to fool us. Because they appear to making the right condemnatory noises, we do not realise that, in essence, their views are no different from those of the hoodlums, who attacked the pub.
It is only the methods that they are quibbling over.
At the root of the against-our-cultural-traditions argument is a specious notion of what culture is. What the politicians are saying is that culture is static; that it is the sum total of social practices at any given time. Any deviation from those practices represents a dangerous drift away from all the things that make us Indian.
This is so flawed an argument that it is plain silly.
What is Indian culture, in this sense, anyway? Is it sati? That was an established practice once upon a time. Is it untouchability? Is it dowry? Is it beef-eating? (We know that the Vedic Aryans ate beef.) Is it forcing widows to wear white?
All of us would agree that none of these things represents Indian culture as we know it. Yet, there was a time when all these practices were part of the cultural consensus. And deviations from them were vigorously opposed as being alien to our
The truth is that culture is never static; it changes over time. If the BJP wants us to go back to the roots of ancient Indian culture then where do we stop? At sati? At wearing unstitched clothes?
It is entirely legitimate for Yeddyurappa or Gehlot or other politicians to disapprove of bars or of alcohol. But they have no right to define Indian culture or to claim that it should be frozen in time.
They are not the custodians of our culture. And my guess is that politicians don’t even understand what culture is anyway.
There is a second, worrying element to the Mangalore attacks that, despite Renuka Chowdhury’s agitated response, seems to have passed without much comment from other politicians.
Have you noticed how every time male politicians jump up and down shouting about threats to our culture, the issue nearly always involves the freedom and choices of women?
Think about it. When Sharad Yadav is in full flow, it is ‘baal-katti’ women he objects to. When M.A. Naqvi protests about TV coverage of 26/11, he complains about women who wear lipstick. When R.R. Patil wants to shut down Bombay’s beer bars (as he successfully did), it’s not the beer he objects to but the women dancers.
When the Sangh parivar wants to ban Fire, it is because the film shows two women in a lesbian relationship. Nobody objects to the homosexual sub-text of Dostana — hell, they probably identify with it.
Similarly, when Hindu communalists attack the crew of Water, it is because the film shows how badly we treat our widows. Make a film about how badly we treat our adivasis or dalits and nobody will care.
Even moral policing, as we call it, is really about keeping women in check. Why do policemen and political hoodlums crack down on courting couples? Only because they think it is ‘immoral’ or wrong (or ‘against Indian culture’) for women to be allowed to display affection with men of their choice.
What angers me the most about the Mangalore attack is that the agenda is not really anti-alcohol or about any concern for India’s cultural traditions.
It is about controlling women.
The pubs had been going for a while but the hoodlums had never attacked them. When they launched their assault it was directed at the women in the pub. It was the very presence of women, their exercise of their free choice to drink and their decision to sit with men that so angered the political goondas.
All this is more worrying than the simple fact of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. Of course it is wrong to do that — as all the politicians have dutifully pointed out.
But that’s not the real issue.
The crisis within our society is not just about random acts of violent political protest. It is the unspoken agreement between politicians across parties that it is entirely legitimate to deny Indian women the same rights as men; that they cannot have any sexual or romantic choices of their own; and that if they dare enjoy themselves in the way that men do (in a pub, for instance), they will be punished and made to suffer.
The BJP holds forth about intolerance and about how women get a bad deal within the Muslim community. But does it have any right to complain about Talibanisation when members of the extended parivar do much the same thing and BJP Chief Ministers suggest that apart from the violence, they agree with these retrograde positions?
These are the questions we need to ask — not just of the BJP, but of all of India’s politicians. Let’s not be fobbed off with platitudes about how all violence is bad. Let’s get to the core issues: what right do these jokers have to define Indian culture? And why do modern Indian women make our male politicians so insecure?
Is it because they are even more inadequate than we realise?