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What lies beneath

The battle for freedom and progress needs to go beyond flinging underwear at maniacs, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2009 10:20 IST

Both the zealot and the sex symbol claim to be the defining face of a new India. Pramod Muthalik, the Sri Rama Sene chief, claims to represent a tidal wave of public revulsion against Western culture. In sharp contrast, bare midriffs and cleavages stare down from hoardings as if to declare proudly that it is they who represent the aspirations of every young Indian. A Facebook group, ‘A Consortium of Pub-Going Loose and Forward Women’ (a group to which your columnist also belongs) is now planning to send ‘pink chaddis’ to Muthalik in protest. Undoubtedly, the Sene’s actions are loathsome and unacceptable, but sending pink underwear to perverts is pretty undignified too.

In fact, therein lies the dilemma of most educated Indians today. Most of us are scandalised by the Sri Ram Sene’s actions, horrified at being told that ‘love’ is foreign to India. We’d like to remind the Sene that the love stories of Shakuntala and Dushyant or of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur show that some of the greatest love stories of all times were made in India and love has always been a socially revolutionary force destroying taboos of caste, class and religion. St Valentine is only an upstart in our centuries-old experiments with romance. Also, where does one draw the line at ‘Western’ influences on India? Does the Sene know that the potato and even cottage cheese from which mithai is made, were, ‘foreign’ to India, brought in by Portuguese traders? The custodians of ‘Hindu sanskriti’ are not just absurd, they don’t know their history.

Yet the dilemma is that groups like the Sri Rama Sene force the thoughtful Indian to defend things he may see as a fundamental right, but does not necessarily want to defend. However much we may hate the Sene, upholding the commercially-driven Valentine’s Day as a supreme cultural resource, or seeing the pub as the shining symbol of our social ‘freedom’ may not be forward movement for India.

Young people choosing urban lifestyles that are desi imitations of Sex And The City, is hardly a matter of celebration. Fears about ‘westernisation’ are so deep that with the exception of U.R. Ananthamurthy, few of Karnataka’s galaxy of public intellectuals have come to the defence of the young women drinking at the Amnesia Lounge in Mangalore on January 24.

Politically, there is a consensus on the moral failings of ‘pub culture’, with even the BJP’s ideological opposites, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss expressing energetic disapproval of pubs. When Union Minister Renuka Chowdhury urged that there should be a ‘pub bharo’ campaign, several of her own Karnataka Congress leaders protested that drinking was against their norms, in a state where the ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ of the IT industry has been the focus of much cultural criticism.

Two years ago when the national anthem was played and not sung at an Infosys function, Kannadiga intellectuals said that software tycoons embodied an English-speaking cosmopolitanism that was far removed from the realities of India. At the recent IPL auction, the stark exhibition of glamour and wealth, in an economy where 500,000 workers have just lost their jobs, was an unabashed spectacle of rootless elitism.

History shows us the dangers inherent in an elite pleasure island floating in a sea of deprivation. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was a political movement against the repressive Shah, as also a massive conservative-religious backlash against a rich and westernised elite. Ayatollah Khomeini’s class war soon became a cultural war. Groups like the Sene have no mass support but the fact that militant traditionalism is now the calling card of thuggish youth shows a dangerous fusion of cultural and class hatred — a class war expressed through culture.

This is why India’s globalised westernised elite — or those who are its most visible face — are under attack by those who have a grievance against modern women and the new economy. The Sri Ram Sene, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the Kannada Rakshana Vedike or other myriad ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’ groups are all targeting ‘secular’ plays, fashion shows, the IT and biotechnology sectors or migrant workers. Every aspect of public life that is characterised by freedom and affluence is under threat and a potential target of violence. The chasm between the India of pubs and the India of the Sri Rama Sene is growing wider and as economic transformation produces more social unrest, the emerging elite might face more such attacks.

Which is why the battle for freedom and progress must be a sensible and a rational battle and not a trivial one where we fling coloured underwear at maniacs. We must learn from the Nehruvians of the 40s and 50s who were incredibly westernised, but deeply rooted; many of whom were rich but lived modest, tasteful lives. They drank, smoked and romanced, yet were discreet and embodied a tradition of Indian elitism that was rooted in excellence. C. Rajagopalachari was considered a scholar in three language. Rukmini Devi Arundale may have been deeply influenced by the Theosophical Movement but dedicated her life to reviving Indian dance and music by founding the Kalakshetra academy. Sarojini Naidu’s favourite poet was Shelley but she took pride in the fact that she could speak Urdu, Telugu and Bengali. However westernised their minds, India’s nationalist elite could not be accused of living in a cocoon of extravagant privilege or having their pleasure spots guarded by armed commandos.

Maybe India’s young, instead of trying to be like characters from Sex In The City, should try to emulate Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru. While the ghastly cultural hoodlums must be dealt with sternly by the law, the lifestyle norms we choose, especially in public, must be attuned to our surroundings.

If we persist in trying to create a mindlessly imitative mythical Las Vegas, we will not be able to defeat the Sri Rama Sene, however many pink panties we may throw at them.

(Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN)