BY ABHINAV CHANDRACHUD
A disquieting storm brews over the west coast of the Indian subcontinent. In Mangalore, a group of ideologically armed and morally dangerous radical Hindus have suddenly risen to national prominence by threatening to defend an amorphous notion of ‘Indian culture’ from ‘western’ influences. A few weeks ago, the relatively unknown Sri Ram Sene or ‘Lord Ram Brigade’, stormed a pub in Mangalore and attacked its female customers, who they believed were outraging the ‘moral conscience’ of India, by just being there. The incident catapulted the political party to national notoriety, even as the chief of the Sri Ram Sene, Pramod Muthalik, threatened to ‘marry off’ couples that were seen celebrating Valentine’s Day, another un-Indian ‘western’ influence. The cultural clarion call of Hindu radicalism in Mangalore resembled similar threats made in the past in Mumbai by the Shiv Sena, the group responsible for converting ‘Bombay’ to ‘Mumbai’.
Unsettlingly, the incident forms part of a pervasive and deeply divisive moral conflict within Indian society. Last year, a police officer in New Delhi arrested a married couple in the Delhi metro, and charged them with ‘obscenity’ for kissing in public. The arrest was reminiscent of ‘Operation Romeo’ in December 2005, carried out by police officers in Meerut, where they entered the ironically styled ‘Mohandas Gandhi Park’, slapped and abused couples seated there, and pulled women by their hair, before dragging the lot to the police station where ‘oral warnings’ were issued for obscenity. The incident sparked a nationwide debate which ended in moral schism.
Strikingly, the methodological and ideological posture assumed by the Ram Sene, and indeed, by India’s ‘moral brigade’, suffers from a series of piquant paradoxes.
First, the moral brigade’s methods can dangerously backfire. It is the constitutional ability to express one’s views in India which enables the moral brigade to espouse its own views in the first place. Because Indian citizens can freely say what they want, political parties with various ideological differences are able to make various claims of justice in India.
Paradoxically, by coercively discounting the value of free speech in India, in telling women how they are to live their lives, India’s moral brigade unsettles the very foundation upon which it stands.
Second, the very political existence of the self-styled guardians of ‘Indian culture’ depends on the absence of ‘Indian culture’. After all, democracy was historically not a part of ancient Indian political culture; and democracy, quite contrary to ancient Indian culture, sustains the moral brigade – which could easily have been an oppressed religious, political or linguistic group in a bygone era.
Third, the moral brigade is unable to define the precise conceptual boundaries of the ‘Indian culture’ that it claims to defend. For example, in a bid to preserve Indian national culture, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or ‘National Volunteers Association’, a radical Hindu political party, has promised to produce a soft drink made of cow urine, which they believe will be wildly popular because of its inherent ‘Indian-ness’. Morally conscious, but ideologically confused activists of the Bajrang Dal, another radical Hindu party, attacked siblings travelling on a scooter in Ujjain a few weeks ago, mistaking them to be lovers. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), on the other hand, claims that its state’s purity has been culturally tainted not by ‘western influences’ but by ‘North Indians’. Which ‘culture’ is the moral brigade then seeking to defend? Fourth, the highly moralistic rhetoric of the moral brigade stands in stark contrast with various erotic symbols of ancient India, epitomized by the monuments at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, famous for erotic sculpture.
In the midst of moral dilemma and bovine urine, Indian public discourse suffers from a culture of speech devaluation. The famous Indian painter, M.F. Hussain, now lives in self imposed exile in Dubai, following death threats he received for depicting a Hindu goddess in the nude, notwithstanding vindication by the Delhi High Court; Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was banned by several states in India on the ground that it hurt religious sentiments, while the lesser known Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy, a play based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, was sought to be banned as well.
It is some consolation, however, that speech and autonomy derogations have not gone silently unchallenged in India. A ‘consortium of pub-going, loose and forward women’, vehemently active on facebook, promised to send scores of pink underwear to the Sri Ram Sene to protest its activities. India’s Minister for State and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury, voiced a ‘pub bharo’ or ‘fill the pubs’ campaign, urging women to flock to nearby bars and pubs in large numbers, as a mark of protest. Conversely, the challenge has not gone unnoticed: the Ram Sene has promised to burn its ‘pink kickers’, while a case has been registered against the Minister.
Significantly, Indian constitutional courts have on several occasions in the past sought to invalidate infringements of personal autonomy and expression. For example, this year the Delhi High Court quashed criminal obscenity proceedings initiated against the married couple arrested for kissing at the Delhi metro. But Indian constitutional courts’ decisions, in turn, deviate from their liberal trajectory when anti-judiciary speech is agitated before them, and constitutional court judges often punish ‘contemptuous’ statements made against them, in the hope of maintaining an ‘untarnished’ image.
The troublingly Taliban-like posture of Indian public officials and political parties threatens to severely compromise the foundations of India’s democratic existence, in stark contrast with the Indian constitution’s mandate, which safeguards the rights to life, personal liberty and freedom.
Abhinav Chandrachud is an LL.M. Candidate