The violent attack on a group of women in a Mangalore pub by activists of the self-styled Sri Ram Sene who could not countenance such innocent revelry is to be condemned in the most unambiguous terms. Ostensibly carried out to protect the ''morals'' of society and the ''honour'' of the women involved, the invocation of Hindu religion to justify the mob violence that included beating up the women and sexually molesting them is an act that ironically sullied the 'very idea' of India on the eve of the Republic Day celebrations on January 26.
The irony is further compounded by the kind of security cordon that had been put in place along Rajpath in New Delhi and other state capitals to prevent any kind of terrorist attack on the Republic Day parade which symbolizes the idea of the Republic and the values enshrined in the Constitution. After every major terrorist attack in India and most recently after the Mumbai attack of November 26, 2008, it is reiterated that what is being threatened is the 'idea' of India and the values it embodies. The latter include the commitment to liberal, secular principles and respect for the spirit and letter of the law of the land. Regrettably while the RDay parade itself in Delhi and other state capitals was conducted with no untoward incident - the idea of India was attacked from within - by one fringe of its own citizens.
However what is encouraging is the fact that all the major political parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- led government in Bangalore have distanced themselves from this dastardly act and the perpetrators have been arrested. What remains to be monitored by civil society is the speed and determination with which this act of pre-meditated violence is prosecuted and the degree to which the punishment awarded will serve as a deterrent to those of similar persuasion.
The fact that India will soon move towards general elections imbues the Mangalore attack with the potential to be exploited for sectarian political advantage. It merits recall that the national president of the Sri Ram Sene, Pramod Mutalik, has claimed responsibility for the attack and has even gone to the extent of threatening similar action in the future if such acts - that is women going to pubs - is repeated. Mutalik added: "Sri Ram Sene will not sit silently, watching the attack on Hindu culture. (The) Sene will not apologise for what has happened in Mangalore."
Thus the gauntlet has been thrown to the Indian state and civil society - in Karnataka in the first instance. Will there be an approach of appeasement and obfuscation, as has happened in the past in Karnataka and elsewhere when faced with similar militant majoritarianism seeking shelter under distorted Hindu ideology? Karnataka and Orissa have been under a cloud after the attacks on Christians in 2008 and it is a matter of shame that the law has been applied diffidently and selectively in defending the values associated with a secular India.
This is not an isolated incident and ever since the destruction of the Babri Majid in December 1992 and the events that followed beginning with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 1993, the discourse in Indian politics and its correlation with the polity has been one of soft appeasement of one cross-section of the majority sentiment that is deliberately stoked. The objective is to obtain short-term political advantage and this malaise goes back to the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi years when Sikh and Muslim sentiment was deliberately manipulated.
The original sin, as it were, precedes partition of August 1947 and the emergence of independent India and Pakistan and the synergy between religion and politics. Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence and communal harmony, had once famously noted that those who blindly insist that politics and religion be kept totally apart understood neither religion nor politics. The essence of the Gandhian prescription that the founding fathers - paradoxically in both India and Pakistan accepted - was that one could be a staunch and steadfast Hindu/Muslim/Christian or of any other religious denomination without distorting the practice of normative politics predicated on true and inclusive nationalism.
While the Nehruvian era in Indian politics was reasonably successful in such practice, ironically Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was equally committed to such an ideal in his first major speech to his country. However, soon after his exit from the political arena, the Pakistani elite progressively slipped into a deliberately distorted discourse about the interpretation of the role of religion - in its case Islam. Sectarianism and intolerance leading to mindless militancy nurtured by the state ( that has now morphed into ruthless jehadi terrorism) was encouraged and the net result is what we now witness along the western border of Pakistan.
Large tracts of that country including the picturesque Swat valley that once had the most tolerant and cosmopolitan socio-cultural norms has now been taken over by the Taliban. An inflexible, distorted medieval interpretation of Islam is now the norm and one of the practices that is dictated is that girls schools are to be destroyed and women forbidden from any kind of emancipation.
Pakistani civil society is currently trying - valiantly but in vain - to resist such intimidation. The malaise in Pakistan has set in deep and it is unlikely that this societal malignancy will be redressed any time soon. Part of the reason is that the state and civil society did not take heed of the impending danger at the appropriate time. Mangalore with its glaring gender-cum- religious overtones is a similar warning and the need to firmly quarantine this misplaced fervour cannot be brushed aside as a minor transgression.