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Sex, Religion and the Moral Police

Only two things get Indians very agitated: religion and sex, writes Vir Sanghvi.Write to the author

india Updated: Apr 24, 2007 16:44 IST

Two incidents over the last fortnight have provoked widespread outrage. The first is the attack on the Star News office in Bombay. The channel had offered shelter to a Hindu-Muslim couple and a hitherto unheard of Hindu extremist organisation had taken offence. Between 40 to 50 goons armed with crowbars arrived at Star News’ Bombay office and proceeded to destroy cars. They then attempted to enter the building, but were foiled by the arrival of the police.

The second incident is the Richard Gere-Shilpa Shetty controversy. I am probably the only person in India who has not seen the footage but from what I can tell Gere kissed Shilpa on stage at some AIDS function and then twirled her around in the manner of some of his recent movies (Chicago, for instance). This was enough to provoke anger among various organisations that claimed Gere and Shilpa had acted in a manner that offended Indian sensibilities and was out of tune with the standards of our society.

Both incidents have evoked similar reactions. In the case of the Star News attack, the condemnation has been swift and all-encompassing. Even the Shiv Sena has come out in favour of Star News as has the BJP. The Gere-Shilpa kiss is more complicated but it is fair to say that the protestors represent only a tiny, isolated minority. Most sensible people have taken the line that there was nothing obscene about the kiss and that the protests are silly.

I agree with the general response. Of course, the Star News attack deserves to be condemned and the Bombay Police must find the men who organised it and make them accountable. Similarly, the people who blew the Gere-Shilpa case out of all proportion must not be encouraged and society should not be subject to the prejudices of the moral police.

But here’s where I disagree. I do not believe that you can treat either incident in isolation. I do not think that mainstream political parties can pretend that either controversy has nothing to do with them. And I do not consider it either fair or accurate to blame both incidents on tiny minorities or fringe elements.

I believe that India’s politicians have created an environment in which such attacks and such protests have been legitimised.

Only two things get Indians very agitated: religion and sex. The Star News incident was about religious intolerance. The subtext to the Gere-Shilpa controversy was sexual: a man and a woman should not behave like this in public.

Let’s take the religious intolerance aspect first. It’s all very well for political parties to condemn the fringe group behind the Star News attack. But the truth is that such attacks have taken place before. And they have been carried out by mainstream political parties. Over a decade ago, the offices of Mahanagar, a Marathi paper in Bombay, were vandalised by goons owing allegiance to the Shiv Sena. As far as I know, Bal Thackeray has never condemned that attack. Instead, he takes the line that his followers get very angry if the Shiv Sena is criticised and journalists should bear this in mind.

The Mahanagar incident may not have been about religion. But what about the attack on the Husain guffa in Ahmedabad by sangh parivar activists? The provocation then was some alleged insult to Hinduism contained within Husain’s paintings.

Since then, almost every time there is a Husain exhibition anywhere in India, the organisers live with the fear of an attack from some fringe organisation associated with the sangh parivar. So it is with movies. The attack on cinema halls showing Fire was said to be an attempt to protect Hinduism — one of the characters was called Sita — and it was carried out by sangh parivar activists. The disruption of the filming of Water in Benaras was also the work of the sangh parivar which believed that a movie about widows would show Hindu society in a bad light.

Is it possible to de-link the Star News incident from these attacks? I would argue that it is exactly the same sort of thing. It is all very well for political parties to now make self-righteous noises about respecting the freedom of the press and opposing any kind of violence. But they started it; they created the trend; and I don’t think they can now pretend that it has nothing to do with them.

The sex stuff follows the same pattern. Years ago, when Sushma Swaraj was Minister for Information and Broadcasting, she had complained about the danger to Indian cultural values represented by Fashion TV (FTV). At the time I lampooned her and her government arguing that they might as well set up a nipple police if they believed that Hindu society was so flimsy that it’s very foundation would collapse at the merest glimpse of a bosom.

In retrospect, Sushma was a liberal. You could say in her defence that she had always claimed to represent the values of a conservative middle class and so, her objections stemmed from her stated political position.

But that defence is simply not available to the Congress. Under this government, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has been even stricter than it was in Sushma’s day. There was, first of all, the completely unjustified ban on AXN because — and this is now becoming sadly predictable — of a sexual agenda. Apparently, a programme on the world’s sexiest advertisements had offended the babus of Shastri Bhavan. That ban was withdrawn eventually. But the ministry has now outdone Sushma. It has actually banned FTV — something that the BJP government never did — on the same sort of nipple police grounds. Some of the fashion shows on the channel were deemed too risqué for Indian society. And so, we are to be denied the opportunity to make up our own minds.

Once a government — and the political establishment — creates an environment where any bureaucrat can function as a moral policeman, it sets the tone for the rest of society. It is nobody’s case that the government does not have the legal authority to ban channels (the Cable Act gives them the power). Nor am I arguing that there should be no restriction on obscenity — the Censor Board (under Sharmila Tagore) does an excellent job of deciding what is acceptable enough for our society.

My point is that all censorship should be conducted by an independent regulatory authority that makes the rules clear to
begin with. Once you let politicians and bureaucrats decide what you and I can watch, you usher in a climate of intolerance in which freedom of expression is subject to the whims and prejudices of individuals. And in such a climate it becomes entirely legitimate for any self-righteous busybody to start taking moral stands and deciding what is obscene and what is not.

So, while I welcome the political establishment’s condemnation of the attack on Star News, and while I am pleased that nobody in a position of authority has echoed the silly objections to the Gere-Shilpa case, I think that the issue goes beyond these two incidents.

It strikes at the heart of our political system. All intolerance stems from the top. As long as political parties sanction attacks on newspapers, art exhibitions or cinema halls, they have only themselves to blame if others follow their lead. And if the government decides to become a moral policeman, then who can blame citizens for following its example?

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