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Moral policing in Bengaluru and why I remain hopeful

The only way that this particular moral policing story is different from the countless others that are sprouting up all over India is that it is a social media phenomenon. In case you didn’t know about this viral video, it happened on Friday, September 17 in Bengaluru.
Shoba Narayan
Published on Sep 28, 2021 05:14 PM IST

Do you want to know what the sad thing is? It was done for “likes.”

The only way that this particular moral policing story is different from the countless others that are sprouting up all over India is that it is a social media phenomenon. In case you didn’t know about this viral video, it happened on Friday, September 17.

In it, two men stop a Hindu man (identified as such by the red tikka on his forehead, visible underneath the helmet he is wearing), and his Muslim woman colleague, wearing a burqa. They ask the Muslim woman-- in Kannada and Urdu-- why she is travelling with a non-Muslim. They abuse and threaten the two, even as the woman tries to explain that her colleague is merely giving her a lift home. In between, they slap the man, call the woman’s husband and abuse him as well. They force the woman to get off the bike and put her on an auto. You can see the whole sorry scene on many channels.

The weird twist? The accused-- the perpetrators of the attack-- filmed and posted the video of them caught in the act themselves. In other words, the accused publicised their attack.

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And I thought it couldn’t happen in a cosmopolitan, genteel, progressive city like Bengaluru. Happens in Mangaluru where communal tensions are rife, said my journalist friend, but generally not in Bengaluru.

The two accused were arrested quickly, something that Kamal Pant, the Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru tom-tommed on Twitter. “Acting swiftly, @BlrCityPolice has identified and secured two accused persons for assault on a bike rider travelling along with a woman of a different faith. A case is registered and firm legal action is initiated.”

Not to be outdone, chief minister Basavaraj Bommai got on the bandwagon and said that such miscreants would not be tolerated by his administration.

The surprise was the defence. The two youths, Suhail and Nayaz said that they had posted many such videos in the past and got an appreciation for their “work.” They thought that they would get applause, not an arrest for this escapade too. They told the police that they expected to be lauded for their actions. Ah, the irony-- caught on social media, and caught by posting on social media.

When I moved to Bengaluru some 15 years ago, there were some things about its culture that I took for granted. Good weather was a given, as were the drooping rain trees. It was a cosmopolitan progressive city where women went to pubs and pensioners rode on bicycles down MG Road. While there were enclaves-- the Basavangudi Brahmins, the Christians in Cooke Town, the Muslims in Benson Town, everyone came together in places such as Koshys, MTR or MM Road during Ramadan.

The difference today is social media which does three things. It holds a mirror to what is happening around us. It accelerates extremes, both the positive and the negative. And it allows for anonymity or at least it gives that false sense of security. When we troll on Twitter, we expect that nobody will find us out. We don’t know that there are ways to harvest data and identities even if we attack and abuse using false names. This is what happened to the two attackers. Although you don’t see their faces, you hear their voices. Plus, they bragged about their ‘work’ on their social media channels.

The second is the reactions. When sentiment becomes a hashtag such as #gharwapsi, the encapsulated idea stirs up emotions and a sense of collective angst. This is what happened with #lovejihad and the selective outrage it invokes. The question then becomes: how real is the religious polarization that is supposedly happening in India?

The answer is as nuanced and multi-layered as this great country itself. While all of us are in a froth about moral policing evident in the video of these goons, the real story is that at the end of the day, we witnessed one inescapable fact. Actually, several facts nested inside the main story. And each of these small facts gives us hope for India. Let me present them.

A man gave his female colleague a lift home. He is Hindu, she is Muslim. She is married. He has been giving her a lift home for many days. Her husband knows about this. She wears a burqa. He wears a tilak. They are comfortable in their faith. They are also comfortable mingling with other genders and other faiths. Each of these sentences offers hope. The greatest hope of all: this continues to happen in Bengaluru and Meerut even though moral policing has become a hashtag.

Recently, the company, Manyavar and actress, Alia Bhatt have been trolled because of an advertisement in which Bhatt playing a Hindu bride talks about updating the tradition of “kanyadaan” to “kanyamaan.” Immediately, outraged Twitter trolls rained abuse on the ad, the company and the actress. Many of them said that they would boycott Manyavar although how many would follow through is doubtful. Certainly, Tanishq’s revenues remain healthy even though the company found itself in the middle of a similar controversy sometime back.

I, for now, remain hopeful. I believe that India is too vast, heterogeneous and multi-layered country to fit into a Twitter troll’s suffocating label. You can generate as much outrage as you want online. You can brag about morals on social media. But at the end of the day, an Indian Hindu male is still going to offer his married female Muslim colleague a lift. For that, I say, thank God-- this is still India.

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