Today’s the day. Renuka Chowdhury will lead the ‘pub bharo’ charge, to the delight of our vintners, brewers and distillers. The Sri Rama Sene will organise shotgun weddings and rakhi ceremonies while being buried alive under a mountain of pink chaddis sent their way by the 32,000-strong Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women. The Bajrang Dal and the Shiv Sena have issued loaded warnings and policemen everywhere are on alert. And in a village near Mangalore, a family is mourning the suicide of their daughter, the first casualty in the battle over the idea of India which broke out when the Sene assaulted girls in a city pub. This Valentine’s Day is being regarded as a decisive engagement in that battle.
One must admire the courage of young people who will go out today and, at considerable personal risk, face down the moral militias simply by leading their lives as they want to. As one admires the imagination of the Forward Women, who have answered an insulting slap in the face of freedom in the same tongue — and tongue-in-cheek, too. Their movement is inspired by the international Panties for Peace campaign of last autumn, which opposed brutal repression in Myanmar by delivering undergarments in bulk to the country’s embassies and consulates. Apparently, the ruling junta believes that contact with women’s underwear will sap their manly strength (er, how exactly do they initiate sex?). Perhaps this is an urban legend and the priapic splendour of Myanmar’s generals has not been compromised by the campaign, but it has certainly damaged their dignity.
Though the pink undies stir is derivative, it is field-tested and can reduce moral militias from the pompously sublime to the ridiculous. And it is a step forward from the bleeding heart pinko arguments usually trotted out, harking back to Khajuraho and Konark to demonstrate that Hindu culture has always been permissive and, indeed, hedonistic.
But to return to the point, is this really a class war over the idea of India, between beer-swilling progressive elites and masala tea-sipping traditionalist masses? No, because these are not clearly defined identities. Poverty is a great liberator — the poor, who have nothing to lose, take a more liberal view of human frailty than we imagine. Poor women are no strangers to vices and even relationships outside marriage are often tolerated. Besides, we are seeing unprecedented social mobility which has blurred class divisions. Some of the kids who frequent pubs come from traditional, lower middle class backgrounds. They are poorly educated in general but fluent in Java, C++ and MBA cant, which helps them to leapfrog class barriers.
Finally, why exactly did the Sene initiate this battle? Many answers have been offered, ranging from ideological conviction to sexual repression. But Occam’s Razor favours a simpler motive — fiscal prudence. How much cash does it take to send some thugs to a pub and then bail them out? And if you get free publicity worth tens of crores in return, isn’t it a fine business plan? I fear we have to look beyond chaddi campaigns and class war theory here. This is a new form of crime against the people and, like in the case of terrorism, it calls for a new response from the state.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.