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Sexual politics

Will the outrage over Mangalore finally prompt recognition of the Sangh’s woman-hating ways?

Written by Amrita Shah | January 29, 2009 2:04:01 am

For almost two decades India has been held ransom by the ravages of various groups and formations purporting to be custodians of ‘Indian culture’. For close to twenty years we have watched them vandalise property and intimidate people for their lifestyle,behaviour or apparel. And with each incident their power seems to increase. This time,it seems,however,that they may have gone too far. The sight of lumpen youth,under the banner of a local group called the Sri Ram Sene brutally attacking young women in the afternoon at a pub in Mangalore has finally provoked nationwide outrage.

Reacting to the incident,the Congress maintained that it was not an isolated law and order problem but reflected ‘a philosophy of divisiveness and intolerance of religion and caste being propagated in the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled and supported states’. The BJP for its part,directed the blame to an ‘autonomous organisation’. Members of the Sangh Parivar generally associated with incidents of this nature also distanced themselves; a VHP spokesperson condemned the episode on a television show while the Delhi-based commentator,Swapan Dasgupta,in a column in this paper sought  to draw a distinction between the RSS and the ‘hoodlums’ who perpetrated the attacks.

Given that the Mangalore incident is one in a long list of similar attacks,most of which have evoked no more than a few minutes of TV coverage,this political grandstanding is likely to have much to do with the looming elections. But is it at all convincing? 

Can the Congress,which has turned a blind eye most recently to the activities of ethnic chauvinists such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena for instance,claim it has nothing to do with the growing power of the lumpen? And can the Sangh Parivar play innocent when not only do its constituents such as the Bajrang Dal specialise in this brand of moral policing but when it itself provides the ideological umbrella under which such incidents can take place? Indeed,the Mangalore incident has served to highlight an aspect of the Hindutva ideology customarily sidelined in the greater preoccupation with religion and anti-minorityism,which is its strongly patriarchal attitudes. 

Much has been written on the sexual underpinnings of the Hindu revivalist movement. Scholars like Paola Bacchetta have described the vividly sexual imagery of the movement — the idea of the country as a goddess in turn ravished and saved by men; others have commented on the sexual competitiveness that contributed to the horrific assaults on women during the Gujarat violence of 2002. Within the Parivar too,women,while they may enjoy a certain status as leaders,not granted even to women in the more progressive Left,are discouraged from developing a radical vision of womanhood.  

The Sangh way,writes Tanika Sarkar “does not confront them (women) with the larger problems of their socially exploited sister,so that the Hindutva women are never forced to choose between gender and their own class/caste privileges. It keeps them tied to family interests and ideology while spicing their lives with the excitement of limited but important public identity.”  

The issues that have exercised the Hindutva-led moral brigade over the last two decades are similarly about women. The case against nudity in the Tuff Shoes ad,the agitation against lesbianism in the film Fire,the ban on women wearing jeans in UP or going to nightclubs in Bangalore,so on have all been directed against the free-willed,contemporary woman. In all fairness,to some extent these controversies also reflect an understandable anxiety in a rapidly changing society but the moral brigade does not seek to negotiate with the new but to force a return to the old.  

One cannot,however,blame Hindutva alone. The considerations of the marketplace that would like to reduce women to consumers also divert the media from any serious discussion on women’s issues to fashion and lifestyle. In the circumstances the noise about Mangalore is an interesting though still slight acknowledgement of the power of the women’s constituency. Now if women’s groups could capitalise on this unexpected pre-election opportunity to demand a more progressive agenda,then Mangalore could be turned from adversity to gain.

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