“Panties and Perverts”

Two Indias are pulling in different directions

Both the zealot and the sex symbol claim to be the defining face of a new India. Pramod Muthalik, Sri Ram Sene chief says that he represents a tidal wave of public revulsion against western culture. In sharp contrast, bare midriffs and cleavages stare down from every hoarding 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 Pramod Muthalik in protest. No one doubts that the Sene’s actions are loathesome 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 scandalized by the Sri Ram Sene’s actions, horrified at being told that “love” is foreign to India. We would 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 in our country love has always been a socially revolutionary force destroying taboos of caste, class and religion. St Valentine is only a newly arrived upstart in our centuries old experiments with romance. Also, where does one draw the line at the “western” influences on India? Does the Sene know that the potato and even cottage cheese from which mithai is made, were, among other foodstuffs, “foreigners” to India, being introduced here 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 Ram 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. If young people are choosing urban lifestyles that are desi imitations of Sex And The City, this is hardly a matter of celebration. In fact, today, fears about “westernization” are so deep that with the exception of UR Ananathamurthy, 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 24th January.

Politically, there is even a consensus on the moral failings of “pub culture, ” with even the BJP’s ideological opposites, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and health minister Ambumani Ramadoss expressing energetic disapproval of pubs. When union minister Renuka Chowdhury urged that there should be a “pub bharo” campaign against the Sene, several of her own Karnataka Congress leaders protested that drinking was against their norms. Already, in Karnataka, the “rootless cosmopolitamism’ 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 a certain type of English-speaking cosmopolitanism that was far removed from the realities of India. At the recent IPL auctions, the stark exhibition of glamour and wealth in an economy where 5 lakh 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, but it was also was a massive conservative-religious backlash against an elite perceived to be too rich and too westernized. Khomeini’s class war soon became a cultural war. Today 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 as well as class hatred. This is a class war expressed through culture.

Which is why India’s globalised westernized elite, or those who are its most visible face, are under attack in many parts of India. They are being attacked by those who have a grievance not just against modern women but against 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 Information Techonology and Bio Technology sectors or migrant workers. Every aspect of public life that is characterized by freedom and affluence is under threat and a potential target of violence. The chasm between the two Indias-the India of the pubs and the India of the Sri ram Sene is growing wider by the day and as economic transformation produces more social unrest, the emerging elite might face many more such attacks.

Which is why the battle for freedom and the battle for progress must be a sensible and a rational one; it can’t be a trivial battle 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, they smoked and they romanced, yet they were discreet and embodied a tradition of Indian elitism that was rooted in both excellence as well as tradition. C. Rajagopalachari was considered a scholar in three languages-Sanskrit, Tamil and English. 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, Telegu and Bengali. However westernized 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 and handed out exemplary and speedy punishment, the lifestyle norms we choose, especially in public places, must be attuned somewhat at least 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 Ram Sene, however many pink panties we may throw at them.