The most remarkable aspect of the pamphlet regarding AAP candidate Atishi was not that it was widely circulated among the voters of East Delhi. Rather, a very large numbers of them might actually find it both credible as well as a perfectly reasonable comment on women and the behaviour expected of them, the nature of caste and the degeneracy of those with non-majoritarian dietary preferences. Over the past half-decade, the country has witnessed the creation of a series of culture wars that have established a set of norms regarding good and evil. These, in turn, have served to convince large sections of the population that what is now stated as the sign of “goodness” should be taken at face value, rather than questioned.
The pamphlet articulates a series of the vilest of attitudes towards women, minorities and non-upper castes that continue to be part of the Indian mindset. However, in most situations, such attitudes are held in check by a social ambience that inhibits their public articulation. The atmosphere instituted by the deliberate fostering of the culture wars has methodically ripped apart the fragile threads of social civility.
There are two aspects to the wars. First, the idea that we had to have them in order to move towards confident nationhood. And second, that war is politics by other means and that political engagement must utilise the tools of absolute violence, symbolic and physical. These two aspects have led to a culture that invites and encourages participation in public life as a battle of moralities — anyone who is judged to not measure up to specific norms is fair game for annihilation.
The culture wars of the past five years have been organised precisely around the three key aspects that are highlighted in the Atishi pamphlet. First, in a situation of war, there is the need to crush all signs of dissent that question its masculine nature. Independent-minded women who may put forward alternative visions of the future that clash with those of the war-mongers are to be “taken-down” with the most potent of cultural weapons — feminine purity and modesty.
One of the most pernicious effects of the culture wars has been the trolling of women who are seen as threats to male dominance of public life. The signs of the “unsuitability” of such women are many: There may be no husband in public sight and they may choose not to primarily define their identity in terms of domestic and conjugal life. It is important to remember that these rules of sexual behaviour and a stereotypically stable domestic life don’t apply to men. A public woman who does not “act like a woman” arouses deep-seated masculine anxieties and the pamphlet plays upon them in full measure.
Second, there is the idea of purity linked to caste. The pamphlet suggests that Manish Sisodia is a lesser being for being “lower” caste and that his “suspicious” ancestry is the result of miscegenation — interbreeding of different types of people. Over the past five years, an important aspect of the culture wars relates to how we should think about Indian culture. So, it has become commonplace to suggest that “ancient” Indian knowledge and wisdom should be the touchstone of contemporary procedures of thinking about Indian-ness.
The Indian past, in this view, was invariably pure, inventive and insightful. There has been deliberate action across a number of contexts — schools and universities, textbooks, research funding — where talking about the effects of caste oppression have become a taboo subject. The topic of caste is seen to sully talk of ancient Indian greatness and discussion on caste frequently present it as a neutral (even ingenious) device for organising life and work. Given this, the discourse of the culture wars have ensured that it is reasonable to say that past achievements are linked to upper-caste values and efforts. Those who may disagree with such views are likely to be branded as “low-caste”, hence unintelligent, or worse, incapable of meeting any standards of attractiveness.
Finally, there is the perennial issue of “authentic” and “non-authentic” Indian-ness, presented in the pamphlet through ideas of beef-eating populations. This targets specific communities, both symbolically and physically. Notwithstanding its complex role in ritual and other processes among Hindus of past times, beef-eating has become a potent example of both non and anti-Indian-ness. A variety of populations — Muslims, Christians, “westernised” Indians, etc — have come to be represented as inauthentic Indians. This strikes at the heart of what literally constitutes us — food.
The Atishi pamphlet is an end product of a process of a silent but salient war. When public life is presented as a war between good and evil regarding acceptable behaviour by women, the historically discriminated and minorities, and dissent to norms is seen as an abiding sin, then we are living in an era without the possibility of change. To set a society at war with itself by appealing to its basest instincts and anxieties is not peculiar to the Indian situation. What is specific about it, however, is that there is almost no condemnation from those who purport to provide ethical and moral leadership. The pamphlet and what is written on it will physically disintegrate. But questions may continue to be raised about the moral fibre of those who failed to unequivocally condemn it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 14, 2019, under the title ‘What the pamphlet says’. The writer is professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth.