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India: How should the women’s movement understand and respond to the assaults by the Hindu right

Friday 13 February 2009, by siawi - 11 February 2009


by Sumi Krishna, Bangalore: 11 Feb. 2009

How should we in the women’s movement understand and respond to the cluster of assaults by the Rama Sene, Bajrang Dal and other fundamentalists; the targeting of minorities and their places of worship; the harassment and molestation of women of all classes in the name of nation, culture and religion; the fear and anger spreading through villages and towns in southern-coastal Karnataka?

As Sandhya Gokhale of the Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai, says in The Hindu, on one level the horrific abuse of young women in a pub is ‘a morality issue’, but it is also about the space and decision making power for which women have fought for years. Arvind Narrain of the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore, writing in the Indian Express, sees the abuse of religious and sexual minorities as the ‘saffron’ challenge to ‘the legacy of the women’s movement in India’ and ‘the thin end of the wedge’ in re-establishing male dominance.

Indeed, enhancing the freedom and autonomy of individual women has been one of the cornerstones of the women’s movement. In a gender-equitable democratic polity, matters of dress, behaviour, mobility and personal life choices are not less important than people’s rights to livelihood, dignity and an empowered citizenship. Not surprisingly, in protests all over the country, whether by students and teachers in Mangalore or at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, by Vimochana, Hengasara Hakkina Sangha and other women’s groups in Karnataka, by activists like Nirantar, Saheli, Jagori and INSAF in Delhi, by organisations of dalits and slum-dwellers, or of young designers, IT professionals and academics in Bangalore, there is a common refrain: ‘What happened to our freedom?’, ‘Where is democracy?’

For the Rama Sene the issue of ‘morality’ is subsumed into an attack on westernisation and so-called ‘pub culture’. This has been helped along in no small measure by National Commission for Women member Nirmala Venkatesh (formerly a Congress MLA in Karnataka, elected unopposed in a bye-election) who deviously attempted to shift the debate from the criminality of the assault to the legality and functioning of the pub. Commenting in the Deccan Herald on a counter-protest in Mangalore by college girls shouting, ‘Pub culture: Down! Down!’, TV journalist Vasanthi Hariprakash says she asked their leader what was meant by pub culture. ‘Adhu American samskriti’ (that’s American culture), the girl said. When she persisted with the query, the girl replied ‘I don’t know what it is… but I have been told it is bad’. Vasanthi writes, ‘I realised that anguished Indians some of who happen to be proud Hindus like me, have a long battle to fight — against mindsets, not just a fringe group of maniac men.’

Is this then all about deeply embedded sexual politics, about using women’s bodies as the repositories of an imagined homogenous Indian culture? Journalist Ammu Joseph urges a debate on what Indian culture is and who has the right to enforce it. Our cultures are after all dynamic, not set in stone and, as some litterateurs at the Kannada Sahitya Sammelan at Chitradurga asked, ‘Why should women alone be targeted as guardians of culture?’. In a ‘Joint Statement on the Brutal Assault in Mangalore’, a cross-section of over 600 citizens from India and beyond, have pointed out that there ‘can and should be dialogues on what constitutes “Indian-ness†, but regardless of the interpretations of Indian culture and traditions, beating and molesting women cannot be condoned’.

Indeed, the bustling port town of Mangalore and the adjoining rural areas along the Konkan coast were formerly known for the remarkably peaceful admixture of cultures and languages (Tulu, Konkani, Kannada and Beary), with diverse communities including the Hindu Billavas, Mogaveeras, Bunts and Saraswats, the Muslim Bearys, the Catholics, Jains and several others. A century ago, Christian missions brought education and health care to Christians and non-Christians alike. In the decades since, banking and commerce flourished, as did a distinct melded Mangalorean cuisine. Despite differences of religion, caste and class, everyday life was not marked by deep social discrimination or religious prejudice.

Some of the Tulu-speaking communities like the Bunts and the Jains are matrilineal and matrilocal. In the past, Mangalorean women have had a relatively better social position; leaders such as Rani Abbakka, a Jain who fought the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the Gandhian social reformer Kamaladevi (nee Dhareshwar) Chhatopadhyay, a Saraswat Brahmin, are much acclaimed. In keeping with the region’s pioneering and egalitarian heritage, in 2006, Mangalore University became the first in South India to introduce ‘Gender Equity’ as part of the foundation course for every undergraduate student in some 125 affiliated colleges in Dakshin Kannada, Udipi and Coorg districts.

As in other regions on the West Coast, however, emigration and large cash remittances from the Middle East have transformed the social fabric, creating pockets of great wealth, growing consumerism, new aspirations and social fizzures. During the 1990s, the sandy shores, the groves of betel and coconut, the old tiled houses on meandering streets, and the tolerant attitudes changed rapidly with a boom in construction, multiplexes, malls, even hospitals for ‘health tourism’. Disputes between merchants of different communities, between fisher people and traders, incidents involving young Hindu and Muslim girls and boys, all this was exploited by the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Jagran Vedike to incite violence against the Muslims, as in Suratkal in 1998-99. Most Hindus and Christians remained silent observers at that time.

A decade later, the Hindutva elements had grown powerful enough to control a subterranean economy of extortion from newly rich hoteliers and pub owners, even as different groups on the saffron fringe began to fight for the same terrain. In 2008, churches across Mangalore were attacked and ransacked with impunity, ostensibly on the issue of religious ‘conversion’, while the BJP government in Karnataka took its own time to restore law and order. But the Mangalore Catholics, an organised and educated community, did draw support from the rest of India.

In recent years, taking a leaf out of the Shiv Sena’s book, the leaders of the Rama Sene are reported to have begun recruiting poor young men from villages in the vicinity, luring them with petty jobs in Mangalore. It is this cadre of youth, bound by ties of gratitude if not ideology, that is said to make up the Sene’s strike forces. It is easy for Hindutva propagandists, or for any pseudo-religious political grouping, to prey on the anxieties and aspirations of people pushed to the edge by poverty and unemployment. These young men must bear the consequences of their brutal televised assault, yet we need to recognise that to some extent they are also victims of a mafia.

The ‘pub attack’ has aroused widespread anger and debate, across class, age and social groups. Karnataka has earlier seen unspeakable atrocities against dalit women, horrendous ‘acid attacks’ and other kinds of violence against women of all communities, but never before have the media and the middle class empathised with such spontaneity and vehemence.

The women’s movement needs to take advantage of the unprecedented coalition of civic groups to counter the attitudes and mind-sets that tacitly or directly accept gender-based violence in the family, the community and society. This is not just about ‘pub drinking’ by urban, elite upper caste women but about communalism and gendered violence at all levels. We need to foster rational dialogue between cultures and affirm our commitment to the human rights and civil liberties of all classes of women threatened by religious fundamentalists, be they Hindu, Muslim or Christian, in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere. For these are rights that have been so hard won by so many women across religion, caste and class through decades of struggle for gender justice.