We Owe it to Ourselves to be Vigilant
First published by Swarajya, January 06, 2017
As usual, any news of murder, mayhem and rape gets the media into a state of high alert, and so the news of Bengaluru New Year’s Eve “celebrations”, where women were groped and molested, has gone viral, even making it to the front pages of Western newspapers like The Washington Post.
Social media posts and discussions have been vigorous, even vehement at times, and statements by government officials and ministers about the nature of the celebrations, and the reasons or causes for social mischief, have given the original story longer legs.
American readers’ responses to The Washington Post report will not make it to Indian newspapers, and so it might be useful to list a small, selected sample to understand how Indian events get played by the media, and what kinds of stereotypes they create and inspire. The reader responses are below, unedited:
India seems to have no ability to let go of the past - the Caste system, women’s rights, etc...real life example of pathetic...
if you want to be taken seriously as a modern country, you have to move beyond this stupidity and the Caste System.
Typical Hindu culture.
Should have just let the East Indian company take care of things.
Based on our recent election of a serial groper to the White House, it looks like India is ahead of the curve.
Is there any reason to report news from India any longer? I mean, if I wanted to learn what it was it like to live 2000 years ago then maybe...
Dear young Indian women: Study hard in school and then emigrate. If you stay, your daughters and granddaughters will face the same treatment in India many years from now.
How did the readers arrive at these kinds of surmises and conclusions about India and Indians? Is it because of the usual mix of “expert commentary”, both by Indian academics and journalists or commentators as well as their counterparts in the West, about the nature of Indian society, of modern, Indian urban dystopias that encourage and abet criminal behaviour, of the warped view of sex and the female in India, of rights and wrongs, and policing of public events?
Should we then expect, soon, the longer of these essays and commentaries that touch the usual high points, from Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra and the Khajuraho Temples to Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy, and essays titled ‘Hindu nationalism, Hindutva, and women’ to become required reading in South Asian Studies courses in the United States and Western Europe?
We have been here before, and since we are still here, it might be useful to leverage this particular event to consider, again, the complex dynamics at work in the crowded, multifaceted Indian society.
We may begin with the big issue first: women’s rights, and men’s duties.
A friend writes,
Men who indulged in mass molestation at Bangalore on New Year’s Eve are the worst degenerates, the very scum of the society, who deserve nothing but the harshest punishment. Lock them up and throw away the key, I say.
He goes on to write,
The argument that women should take care of how they dress, and what time they stay out, is possibly the vilest form of victim shaming. We are a free country, and as long as no law is broken, what women wear, drink and do, is their choice, and their choice alone.
Here we read what is generally accepted as the “modern”, liberal view of how society should work, and who is responsible for what. The argument is that it is the duty of men to behave properly, and it is our right to do whatever, wherever, if it is legal.
But could it be so simple? Can context, and cultural mores and expectations, be considered irrelevant, if not dangerous distractions?
Should the breakdown of societies, where such freedom is available, be also ignored? It is tempting to do so, and it might be dangerous to doubt, let alone disagree.
Doubt we should, however, and pause, we must. Consider the lascivious behaviour of young women in a variety of British settings that is making the social media rounds, and step back to listen to the worries of those who worry about unfettered freedom in public spaces, not just in a country like India but in the heartland of “Western civilisation”.
The kind of sexual violence, since the Nirbhaya case, has made us all worried sick and angry. What can we do about such violence? We could begin by considering Indian reality. I can cry myself hoarse that I have the right over my body and my belongings, but then we all know that when we are not careful in how we manage those, we could lend ourselves to being robbed of our belongings and bodies, and to losing our claims to them. I cannot board a crowded bus with money, loose, in my hip pocket and not be worried about the potential of my pockets being picked. I can say it is my right to carry my money as I please, and I would be right. But is it not naïve, and even foolish, to assume that none would try to pick my pockets?
It is my duty to pay attention to where I am, and to how I carry my belongings. My pocket was picked when I was caught in a crowd, trying to climb on to a bus, as an eighth grader, in Bengaluru, and again, in Chennai, late at night, when I was a young man working at The Hindu. I can say that the man or woman who picked my pockets is a crook, is heartless, is “scum”, and argue that we should make bus rides safer, that there should be cameras here and there, and keen-eyed policemen, quick on their feet, to chase down the dishonest and the crooked.
Sure, fine, we can argue that they be done, but, again, there is reality, and it is my duty to ensure that I travel safe, pay attention to my surroundings, and not leave my flanks open for attack. But, sometimes, even when we are attentive and careful, the determined criminal will find ways to inflict harm, and then there are situations which we cannot escape, and where we are vulnerable: even at home, and without the presence of an outsider.
It may give me satisfaction to express outrage, bemoan the state of lawlessness and complain about the lack of safety in public places, but crying for the moon will not bring it to me, now.
I say, now, because while we might indeed work towards building the good society, we have to remember that there is a lot of work involved: we cannot just demand whatever is offered and in place elsewhere, without considering the cost, time and work or effort involved. Working towards the good society would mean teaching our children about right and wrong, educating them in clean, safe schools which have kind, intelligent teachers; training our young men and women to practice mindfulness and attention, and being practiced practitioners of the practical, as well as distinguishing between freedom and license; educating ourselves not only about rights and wrongs, the good and the bad, and about the nature of human beings and human desires, but also about duties – what one can succinctly, in the Indian context, say is the careful and balanced pursuit of dharma, artha, kama, and moksha; building and strengthening public institutions that can render justice, quickly and efficiently; putting in place modern surveillance technology that will provide the evidence to apprehend and prosecute criminals; and choosing and empowering leaders of moral character and intellectual timbre who will work hard to put the right policies in place.
How carefully and diligently have we pursued these policies and programmes, and have we considered how expensive and difficult it is to put in place some of these in society, quickly? Have we considered whether we have carefully and diligently built the foundations for a modern society, and have we considered how much we have weakened our older societal foundations?
Everyone is battling on social media about the matter of cultural values and what is or are culturally appropriate. Yes, what women (and men) wear and how they wear them IS an issue that we quarrel over, and it is not just Indians who quarrel over it. When what Michelle Obama wears, and what Melania Trump has worn, what school children can wear to schools and what young men and women can wear to college lead to raucous debates in the US, for example, one cannot expect anything less in a much more diverse, complex and populous society like India, where the old, medieval and new coexist uneasily and jarringly.
While some of us have sought to loosen and distance ourselves from the local, regional and national cultural moorings, and have sought to find solace in the new, global and modern ways of human comportment, we should realise that not all of us can travel that road at the same time, at the same pace, and if we should at all even consider such travel wise for everyone.
Only when we have everyone (male and female) wearing burkas, or when all of us decide to wear nothing might we find some respite from the clamour of such debates! However, to simply assert the right to wear whatever one pleases, wherever, ignoring both the practicality of such clothes and the dependability and appropriateness of our attire in specific situations can be foolhardy. It might whet our appetite for climbing on to our favorite soap boxes, but it will not help us escape from running smack into culturally constructed walls. Yes, Singapore may be safe, and so might be Tokyo, but it might not be so very safe in Chicago, and not at all safe in Cairo, making our comparison of Indian cities and Indians with other cities and other peoples moot and/or irrelevant. So, modesty in dress and comportment, for both men and women, in public spaces, might actually be a wise choice.
Recently, the famed singer Yesudas said he is not in favour of Indian women wearing jeans. As a respected and talented artiste, a Christian singing the great songs of Hindu composers, people were a little bit more careful in how they responded to his statement; but the same statement, put in the mouths of politicians, would have immediately brought the wrath of all sections of the media, of women’s groups, and generated innumerable editorials seeking the dismissal of the truant politician from the government or from the political party he belonged to. But in a liberal and open society, should we not have the space to air and hold different opinions on these matters? After all, our opinions on such matters are different from our parents’ and our children’s many a time, but we do discuss, debate and make necessary adjustments in life, and/or agree to disagree, don’t we? We do not try to shame each other, do we?
Sure, we have to beware slippery slopes, and worry about the conservative imposing his or her rules on society (leading us all to the lands of burkas and burkinis), or the liberal or libertarian gang leading us all to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But the shutting out, or attempt at shutting out, of opposing views is surely not reflective of a truly democratic and open society, and we should be careful about where such a culture of shaming of those we disagree with can lead us to.
In the US, we are hearing new voices over the past month and a half, after the triumph of Trump in the November elections, about the divide between conservative and liberal America, and we better listen to these voices, for it might just be that the power of the liberal voice had drowned out the conservative voice in influential places, and had confined them to “talk radio” and FOX News, ending up in the backlash of a Trump victory.
Then, I have heard from good friends that they have spent New Year’s Eve celebrations in New York City, and not felt even minor discomfort; that people, old and young, behaved well, and that the police ensured safety, and happy time was had by all. But such observations of some recent experiences ignore the history of cities like New York, where even as recently as the 1980s, it was dangerous to walk through Times Square even in broad daylight! Forget about single women walking through that space, even a gaggle of young men had to check and double-check their surroundings as they quickly made their way through the seedy Times Square. Friends have recounted horrific experiences of being mugged, robbed and threatened in broad daylight. So, yes, it is better to beware our surroundings, and yes, Times Square is now very different.
Other good friends have spoken in anguish and distress about growing up in India, and being groped by men – in the bus or on a train, or even by tutors, and sadly, sickeningly, by adult relatives. They say there is something wrong with Indian social and cultural mores that allow men to misbehave, manipulate and molest. If only we could educate our sons and brothers to behave better, we would have a safer country to grow up in, they say. If that were so, why do we have men behaving badly in supposedly developed countries? Here is a report about women being molested at concerts in the US, and of women being groped in bars in Ireland. Why did young men, studying at Yale, chant “When she says no, it means yes, and when she says yes, it means a**l? So, education cannot be all that effective all the time, can it? And some of the most educated men have been the vilest louts. How can we account for that?
Finally, let us not ignore the elephant in the room: sex and sexual mores. There is a wonderful essay on male-female relationships in the age of Manu, and what we can learn from a careful reading of it to counter the increasing sexual violence in India. We might be surprised at how relevant and apt the advice is even after these many centuries, if not millennia. Remember, too, that sexual violence is not restricted to the abuse of women or girls by men or boys. Boys, and young men, have suffered at the hands of men, and occasionally, also by women. We don’t hear much about it, except when it involves men in high places and in power, and when they get caught, but the statistics are frightening, with one in six males having been victims of sexual assault.
Yes, we are glad that, by chance, there was a video camera that captured the molesting of a young woman by scooter-borne young men in Bengaluru, the same day when there was mayhem at the larger gatherings in “posh” areas of the city. We are equally happy that the police were quickly able to track down and apprehend four of the culprits. We hope that they will be punished, and harshly. But let us beware quick generalisations, and the proffering of simplistic solutions.
It is important, therefore, in closing, to demand not only our right to safety in public spaces, and the freedom to express our opinions, but to also insist on and perform our duties, minding our behaviour, and being aware of our surroundings.