City City Bang Bang, Columns

Towards a cultural war?

The statements have been coming thick and fast. Barely had the furore over the ‘dented and painted’ remark made by Abhijit Mukherjee taken a deep breath, that we had more silliness from politicians, this time from the other side. Both Mohan Bhagwat’s statement about rape being a phenomenon found in India and not in Bharat and Kailash Vijayvargiya’s opinion about women being punished if they crossed the limit revelatory of a deeper mindset that refuses to go away. Through the last year we have had so many such views coming from people engaged in public life that derision and outrage are running dry. We had those who attributed today’s problems to chowmein, others advocated the banning phones, and some were convinced that the skirt was the root of all evil.

Tying in with a larger view that politicians are a blight upon the human race, from whom stupidity is the very least that can be expected, these admittedly absurd statements have been decimated over and over again by commentators in most forms of media. And yet, they continue to emerge, each more regressive than the other. Perhaps it is time to take a pause in the air of dismissive certitude displayed by liberal sections of society. For it is clear that something is being communicated here. If one were to look beyond the words that have been spoken and listen to the underlying sentiment perhaps we would be forced to acknowledge that what we are witnessing is not the isolated buffoonery of a few, but the stumbling and incoherent attempt to articulate a reaction to the nature and speed of change that is being seen in the country. Even in the most absurd of these statements, the presumed link between chowmein and women’s attitudes, what is being communicated is a deep anxiety about unfamiliar and seductive influences and an attempt to find some correlation between these and the bewildering changes that a section of society that has historically lived amidst cultural certitudes, sees spring up around it.

In any disagreement about cultural norms, it is dangerous to believe that the other side is ignorant, stupid or backward, or take any position that gives one’s own views a sense of presumptive correctness which must eventually prevail. The belief in one’s own position can be flawed; the liberal view that finds it easy to connect the lyrics of a rapper’s songs with a larger attitude towards women and seeks to ban his show (only the one near Delhi) is structurally not that different from the other side that makes a different kind of connection and asks for a ban on something else. The truth is that, however inappropriate the statements from politicians, they represent a larger view, and that should hardly come as a surprise. India is a deeply patriarchal society, and no matter how desirable gender equality is, it is a long and arduous journey that has barely begun.

We are poised on the brink of an extremely significant inflection point. Either the heightened attention and visible outrage on this issue could lead to real and accelerated change or it could trigger a cultural backlash. The signs exist that support the possibility that the issue of women’s security could take us in the opposite direction- already Puducherry has made overcoat mandatory for girl students, and is proposing separate buses for them, in an attempt to allegedly protect them. The India- Bharat formulation put forward by Mohan Bhagwat may be factually incorrect, it potentially has some cultural resonance at the mythic level. The belief that the younger generation, much in evidence in the recent protests, will not subscribe to such views might be a limited understanding of reality. In fact the most recent statement on the subject has come from young BJP MP Anurag Thakur who used a modern method like social media to underline what he saw as being the difference between Bharat and India, with the latter being the place where ‘The Dirty Picture wins a national award and Mahesh Bhatt talks about sex with his daughter’.

Legal absolutism needs to be accompanied by an acknowledgement of the need for cultural incrementalism. The tonality of the protest must change when one discusses culture as against governance and the law. Change works best in India when it is stealthy, when continuity is preserved outwardly but tradition is gradually hollowed out. This is happening even in the case of gender equity, but it is a gradual and imperfect process. The choices available to women are expanding and the sense of control they have on their own life is growing. This is causing fear and anxiety among dominant structures which are straining to strike back.

In locating the problem in the mindset of society, the problem is well identified but the solution needs much greater restraint. The problem is that the liberal side speaks far more loudly, by virtue of its access to media, but it is the other side that has much greater power. By setting up a conflict in this area, the danger of unleashing a reaction from a vastly more powerful cultural machine is very real. Writing powerful and moving columns on the subject or venting on television channels can give an illusory sense of power and influence but equally can crystallise opposition and give it form, shape and ambition. It is possible that the early signs we see of a cultural backlash might be undone by lack of understanding of the emerging aspirations, Mohan Bhagwat’s latest statement about women belonging at home being a case in point. But it could go the other way too. The simmering resentment against aspects of modernity could coalesce into a political constituency. The claim of a return to order could taken on a cultural dimension, rather than a strictly political one. And if that happens, it will happen in the name of protecting women.

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