Last week, I (among others) took offence to a recent outdoor hoarding. I was shocked by its casual sexism and peeved about the use of cheap publicity to get eyeballs. A half-baked apology only added insult to injury. But it is hard to hold on to outrage—especially when we all seem to be outrage-ing so much about so many things nowadays—and by Monday I was much calmer.
But I couldn’t get the episode out of my mind. I found myself wondering about the diversity of reactions to the ad itself, which used abbreviations for common Hindi abuses that depict incest. I also kept thinking about how some folks on social media who found the ad funny, not offensive—and I’ll be the first to say that they are entitled to their opinion—also expressed their distress about the rape of a 4-year old girl, which was reported in the media around the same time. It is hard for me to wrap my head around this dichotomy and yet, it aptly demonstrates the extent to which sexual violence against women has got normalised in our society. It takes the rape of a child to upset us, but mothers and sisters being raped is now par for the course!
I find it fascinating that, for the majority, there is no relevant link between sexist advertising (and jokes) and the dismal record of Indian cities on women’s safety. Recently released data from NCRB shows that reported rape cases increased by 12.4% between 2015 and 2016. While crime data on domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction and rape is collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), many others forms of violence that women experience on a daily basis remain poorly documented. We know from media reports as well as many micro studies these too are widespread and on the rise. The statistics on child abuse, unfortunately, are worse. Across the country young children, mostly girls, are being sexually assaulted, often times by teachers, family members, neighbours and caregivers, people whom they implicitly trust. The NCRB reports a dramatic 13.6% increase in crime against children over the last three years, with about 35% of the cases registered under POCSO, or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.
These numbers, shocking as they are, no longer make an impression on us because we seem to have accepted that this is how Indian society is. Our reactions to the news items about raped children comprise expressing anguish, tightening security around our families and securing good marriages for our daughters, thus passing on the responsibility of their safety to someone else. Or, for the elite, sending our children abroad.
Unlike in other issues like terrorism or national security, we find it hard to pin point the enemy in the case of gender-based violence and so we blame the ‘other’, usually folks from another class and/or religion. Helpless and frustrated, we take solace in our WhatsApp groups, our laughter clubs, our kitty circles, our YouTube stand-up comedies, our Friday beers and we enjoy a few ‘husband-wife’ or ‘blonde’ jokes. The next morning, we read about another rape story and hurriedly turn to the sports page, where BCCI slamming pollution-troubled Sri Lankan cricketers makes for an entertaining read.
Three people I know and who do not know each other told me last week that they are thinking of leaving India and making a life abroad. They were all deeply disturbed by the Dadri lynching incident and the growing climate of intolerance and violence around us. They all expressed concerns about bringing up their children in a nation where hatred is normal, even a virtue. I feel their pain. I have also not stopped worrying about the future for weeks, though I’m not contemplating leaving the country. Not yet.
Many others I have spoken to in my circle of acquaintances (and let me clarify here that I’m referring mostly to educated, urban Indians in well-paid jobs) dismissed these incidents as collateral damage in electoral politics. Historians like DN Jha (link) and Aparna Vaidik (link) have shown that this is nothing new; cow protection has been an important aspect of pastoral lives but beef eating and cow slaughter have long been sensitive issues, used cleverly by politicians and monarchs to appease certain communities and demonize others. The people who were doing the shrugging seemed to regard themselves as distanced from these ground level politics, while those who felt disturbed imagined that this particular brand of politics, previously at a distance, was now poised to invade their relatively peaceful and protected lives.
Dealing with a climate of fear
Whatever situation you find yourself in, there is a palpable sense of fear that is forcing many of us to take sides. The climate of fear is urging many educated Hindus who have previously regarded their religion as a matter of private belief, separate from their public lives, to acknowledge that their sense of security stems from their ‘Hinduness’. Aware that their actions and words are being judged for how Hindu they are, this is a group that is now deliberate in what they say or do. They are sandwiched between what they are and what they want to project of themselves. They are struggling with the morality they practice and the moral code that is slowly being imposed on us.
Educated non-Hindus too, make a choice. The blending of many religions into the broader umbrella of Hindutva is an obvious strategy of the right wing forces and I truly wonder how cognizant practitioners of these faiths are of this inexorable sucking in of non-controversial faiths into the big umbrella of Hindu belief. For educated Muslims, keeping fear at bay must be a very very deliberate and difficult process. Those who are promoting this atmosphere of hatred must also take responsibility for the growing radicalization of educated Muslim youth in India, and the increased threat of terrorism that our country faces as a result.
The educated Indian is an unfair target
Then there are the die-hard liberals (and I refuse to stigmatize that word), who genuinely believe in the diversity and pluralism of India, who support the idea of choice and who are suspicious of a majoritarian view. I would call them idealists. These are the people for whom hope is an important word at this time. For they seem to be the true targets of this new brand of aggressive Hinduism we see around us. Devdutt Patnaik acknowledges this when he calls the discourse around beef-eating a “symbolic attack on the ‘educated Indian’ who did not stand up for Hinduism in the international arena” (link).
To me, this is a baffling situation. How does PM Modi expect industrialization (Make in India), technological growth (Digital India) or urban investments (Smart Cities Mission) that will catalyze India’s economic growth to happen without the contribution of the educated Indian? Is he supporting the atmosphere of fear expecting that educated Indians have no choice but to accept the hegemony of a dominant Hinduism and carry on with the productive lives they lead? Does he not realize that an atmosphere of fear, violence and suspicion works counter to one of productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship?
No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation
For in becoming educated and urban (by default it would seem), it is true that we (and I speak collectively here, as a nation and a community) move a teeny weeny bit out of the stronghold of family, religion, clan and caste. In becoming educated and living in a place of multiple and varied influences (ergo, the city), we do begin to acknowledge and even appreciate the tastes, the expressions of those unlike us. We develop some tolerance, we learn to prioritize actions that take us forward over those and re-negotiate the older codes of religion, caste or clan so they can serve us better. It is in this process of self-discovery and prioritization, in the journey between what we were and what we want to be, that we take risks and contribute the most to the world around us.
At this time, India’s economic objectives seem to be hinged around the expectation the above journey will be one of hope and success. The atmosphere of fear I wrote about above, is a bid to re-focus the core of our identities away from our education and expanding minds inward to a place of fear, bigotry and parochialism. The atmosphere of fear is putting in jeopardy everything that our nation has worked very hard for, including the eradication of poverty and child malnutrition and the provision of decent living standards for all Indians. As Kalpana Sharma points out (link), it’s not just religious minorities but women too, who are becoming targets of a deeply vicious misogynistic moral code. Do we want our young people to become the skilled workforce (ref: Skill India Initiative) that will help India leverage its demographic dividend, or would we rather they lynch a beef eater or strip a woman who dared defy convention? What kind of economic growth will a nation of fighting, insular people achieve?
This is an appeal to all educated Indians. Let us not be silent and accept the blame for something we are not ashamed of. Why should we be ashamed of focusing our energies on studying, learning skills and deploying them for the betterment of ourselves and our country? Certainly not! We need to recognize the terrible impacts this atmosphere of fear and hatred will have on ourselves, our children and our nation. We need to petition the government to contain this. If we do not speak out and take action, we will have no choice but to toe the line, or leave the country.
‘Does watching violent movies inspire violence in the real world?”
Most of us seem to think that crazy people will find something or the other to inspire them to acts of violence. I chose that option over ‘yes’ and ‘no’ but I don’t really think it is as simple as that.
There is a complex web of cause and effect in this world of ours, so much so that the dog is eating its own tail at times and at others, several dogs are eating several tails, but no one knows which is whose tail! Sounds complicated? Forget it. Let me come to the point.
Films do contain violence. In some cases, it reflects the violence in the real world. At other times, violence is used as a tool to drive home a point important to the film’s plot. It is hard to make a judgement on how much violence is appropriate.
In India, where I live, the depiction of violence in cinema has been an issue of much debate and crime and violence in general are a growing concern. Yet, some recent Indian films have opted to depict violence for specific purposes. For instance, the violence and the matter-of-fact tone in which it was used in the 2-part film ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ by Anurag Kashyap effectively conveyed to the viewer the geographical, social and historical context in which the film was set. This was important because Kashyap envisaged the consumer of the film to be largely urban, whereas the story was set in a specific period of history in a lesser known mofussil town.
As an urban audience, I found the violence justified and appealing in the context of this film, but many I know disagreed profoundly with the constant violence depicted. In a nation of largely young people, they argued, where movies captured the imagination of the youth to the extent that they lead double lives of reality and fantasy via films, films can be used to justify or even enhance the status of violence! This is like saying porn makes people sex hungry, or showing good food in films makes people eat more and become obese, and so on and so forth.
Films have emerged as a rich source of entertainment as well as information in the modern world. In our present culture, we turn to the movies not just to pass our time, but also to understand a situation better or to simply gain a unique insight. We appreciate the quirkiness of certain films and the thoroughness of others. Most of the time, we understand that what we are seeing is an artistic work to be viewed as just that. But not always, argue those who believe in the idea that controlling content is the way forward, and I agree that a nature bunch of consumers would be an ideal situation. Too ideal, perhaps?
Like any other medium of art, cinema will elicit a variety of reactions and indeed, that is the very purpose of its creation. For that matter, many other forms of art- photographs, paintings, drama, dance, music- can express violence too. Would we consider they too incite violent thoughts or behavior? Answering this in the affirmative would only imply a massive curtailment of artistic freedom, with disastrous consequences. Instead, I would say, bring on the variety. Let’s consume more of all types of artistic expression, talk, debate, enjoy and let people self select the wheat from the chaff!
It’s not always necessary to be morose, upset and angry to make a point. And we most certainly were not! Far from it, we danced and sang, chanted and laughed as we walked down Gurgaon’s mall stretch as part of the One Billion Rising campaign for gender equality and recognition of women’s rights.
Gurgaon’s citizens groups have, over the last couple pf years, matured into a curious amalgamation of interest groups, those who work for a cause and RWAs, ably aided by Facebook. Last evening’s event was called by Let’s Walk Gurgaon and joined by other groups, notably Gurgaon Moms. Unlike OBR in New Delhi, we did not see huge crowds and college students were conspicuous by their absence. Yes, the innovative format of the protest made a mark for those who attended.
Fashioned somewhat like a Mardi Gras parade, we carried a coffin with the intent to bury Misogyny, all dressed up in a celebratory mood replete with bandwalas, slogan shouting, drums and all the rest of it. We walked from Sahara Mall to DT City Centre on MG Road, crossed over to MGF Metropolitan and walked back to Sahara Mall. At DT City Centre, some volunteers staged a street play and back at Sahara, others did a really fun flash mob thing. Then we proceeded to bury Misogygy and give birth to a world of equal rights and respect.
We had tagging along with us the police constables, men and women, who were assigned to be with us on duty. They hadn’t a clue why we were doing this! Many onlookers watched curiously and seemed to be having fun as well. Nupur and me kept wondering what was passing through their minds. We almost decided to do an impromptu survey, but stopped short!
What I really loved about the entire event is the way it gathered momentum as it was planned. People, both men and women, volunteered their time and creativity and worked together to make it happen. It takes a lot to move out of the comfort of your routine and be out there, doing things, saying things, starting a chain of change. And having fun while doing it! To sum up, the message of the street play underlined the need to start the change with ourselves. That’s a great thought to take forward as we continue to advocate for a real change in social attitudes towards gender. Join us, the more the merrier!
Here are some pics that capture the event, all photo credits to Swatantra Chhabra Kalra who is a friend and fellow blogger. She blogs at http://swatantra-independence.blogspot.com/
For the videos of the event, please go to- http://www.youtube.com/user/f20films
Violence is an easy answer when real issues go unaddressed: Cases of South Africa & India- Oct 9, 2012
J M Coetze’s Booker winning book ‘Disgrace’ is deeply disturbing. It tells the story of the cultural backlash against whites in South Africa. The story caused me to have violent and dark nightmares because of the matter of fact reactions of the “victims” of violence, in this case a middle aged man and his young daughter. I finished the book last evening in a grim mood, wondering how it would be to live in a society where being safe was apparently not even a right any more.
Today, on cue as it has happened often enough lately, The Hindu carries an editorial by Anita Lakshmni Powell titled ‘Bring my my machine gun’ about the violence in South Africa. Shocking stats: One of 4 men in a nation of 50 million admitted to committing rape, half of them say they’ve done it more than once. Murder is commonplace; the police system reports one million unsolved murders a year!
A report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation report, released in 2010 claims that violence is cheap, easy and the thing that works, the only answer where there are none. The report draws strong correlations with the disbalance is South African society (SA is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.7 in 2008; the top 10% of the population accounted for 58% of South Africa’s income, the bottom 10% accounted for 0.5% and the bottom 50% less than 8%, as per a recently released World Bank report). A quarter of South Africans are unemployed and traditional routes to prosperity, like education, simply aren’t working well enough.
To me, all of this sounds scarily familiar. Unemployment, growing disparities, rampant violence, rape as a means of expressing frustration, hatred, rage…..we see this all around us. And a weak policing system, a judiciary that simply cannot cope, political apathy.Is this where pockets of our country are going as well (13 rapes in Haryana within a month!)? Is India destined to be a violent nation? Will we also be no longer able to step out of our homes without fear? Will our children live a gated, over-protected life and never experience freedom, for fear of reprisal from their youthful counterparts who happened to be born on the other side of the social divide?
The real bad news in South Africa, the editorial claims, is that violence is a language that was endorsed as the rightful means for recourse even during the anti-apartheid movement. The establishment turns a blind eye to violence and politicians glorify violence in their campaigns. Violence is culturally acceptable.
Fortunately for us, we did not win our freedom through violent means, but the aftermath of Independence saw a nation steeped in blood and gore. Our system still frowns on violence and there is no social endorsement yet for it. In SA, a gang rape of a mentally deficient girl was distributed brazenly as a video on mobile phone; here rapists still try and run away from the law. But that’s neither here nor there. Increasingly, we are become inured to violence and perpetrators are becoming bolder. Increasingly, we want to believe that the bad things happen to someone else and live in fear of becoming victims. The larger issues are taking way too long to be addressed and in the meantime, paranoia is taking hold of our society.
The South African experience should be a wake up call for us. Inclusiveness is not a warm and fuzzy type of concept that idealists (like me, I have been told recently and yes, I am a bit angry about that) promote. Inclusiveness is a necessity, so that we do not become an inhuman, abnormal, highly stressed and unworkable society. Equal opportunity, as much as possible at least, regardless of religion (ref: Sachar Committee report), caste, ethnicity, gender, income level, is the goal we must adopt, as a nation. Otherwise, we are doomed indeed. I shudder, I hope. I fervently hope for change.