Where’s the Love?
On January 24th, a group of self-proclaimed morality police stormed Amnesia, a swank and dimly lit bar in the city of Mangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. As television cameras rolled for the staged event (apparently the media had been informed), the jean-clad vigilantes of the Sri Ram Sene physically attacked the jean-clad women and men who were sipping drinks, groping and pulling the hair of some and chasing others out into the streets where they tripped them as they ran away, and then kicked them while they were sprawled on the sidewalk, scrambling to get up.
“The Hindu face of the Taliban,” read headlines. It’s true that the world’s largest democracy is changing, rapidly. More women than ever before are wearing jeans in India. And working. And buying, rather than making, their chapatis. If they are even eating chapatis at all, as opposed to going out for Italian or ordering Dominoes pizza. It’s too much transformation for the Sri Ram Sene, the Army of Lord Ram, a Hindu extremist group with ties to the right-wing BJP Party. Now they’ve set their sights on those who worship Lord Cupid.
It’s Valentine’s Day in India. Five years ago, there was no such holiday here. They hardly celebrated birthdays. For decades after becoming an independent nation in 1947, India strove to take that independence to its extreme. Indians made only their own cars, operated only their own airlines, and wallowed in inefficiency. Fifteen years ago, they opened their economic walls, just as the Internet allowed all literate beings with access to electricity to connect with one another, transforming the possibilities of what was and what could be for the exponentially growing (read: young) Indian population. Yet still, they had just barely stepped out of prohibition. Condom ads were censored from television. There wasn’t a single on-screen kiss within the world’s largest film industry, although wet sari dance scenes were common.
For the Hindu men who lament the loss of young women eagerly awaiting their arranged marriage so they can make their husbands home-made chapatis forevermore, the cultural change has been unacceptable. And now this, the promotion of a western construct celebrating lovers — even unmarried lovers! —Valentine’s Day. The commercial event provided an opportunity for the Hindu extremists of the pub attack to further express their moral outrage at a society that can willingly allow women to put on pants. And then just walk, unbidden, into a bar for a drink.
At a recent press conference, Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muthalik said Sene activists across Karnataka would not only hold protests outside colleges, hostels and hotels where Valentine’s Day celebrations are held, but — to take a creative approach — forcibly marry off, as one Indian publication put it, “canoodling couples.”
“Our activists will go around with a priest, a turmeric stub and a ‘mangal sutra’ on February 14,” Muthalik proclaimed, referring to the Hindu marriage necklace. “If we come across couples being together in public and expressing their love, we will take them to the nearest temple and conduct their marriage.”
By the eve of Valentine’s Day, the police had rounded up hundreds of Sene activists, including Muthalik, some for the crime of “spreading disharmony” during the pub attacks but most held in “preventative custody,” a questionable tactic in itself, in anticipation of acting out Muthalik’s threat.
In response, the Pink Chaddi Campaign, which is requesting that anyone in support of not beating up women in order to preserve traditional Indian culture send pink underpants to Muthalik and be visible on Valentine’s Day, launched the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women. This is the in-your-face comeback to such extremist actions, new Indians gathering together in solidarity, going public, and spreading the word through Facebook.
Suicide is another option. Although the story is on the front page of The Hindu, it is brief. A 15-year-old school girl and her friend riding a midday bus in Mangalore earlier this week. A casual conversation with a male friend as all three disembark at the same stop. It is implied that the girls are Hindu and the boy’s name is — in India, names can mean everything — Abdul Salim. They pass a group of young Hindu extremists, who accost them, rebuking the girls for associating with a Muslim, and then the moral Hindus proceed to beat all three up.
The story ends with the victims, not the vigilantes, at the police station. And allusions to the girl and her family being “humiliated by a mob.” Salim was forced to write a letter of apology. The next morning, the girl committed suicide.
The desire for sex (and its too-often corollary dark twin, power), don’t disappear when repressed. Like anger, and every other human emotion, they find their way out. In 2007, the Government of India released a study on child abuse conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development that found that 53% of the children questioned reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse. That’s one out of every two Indian children. The victims were not all girls. In fact, more than half were boys.
It’s Valentine’s Day in India, and Amnesia’s not just the name of a bar in Karnataka. Independent India carries with it the scars of colonialism still, of the line that was rendered across its northern boundary, of the invisible divide between the sexes that remains even as the traditional roles transform. And those grown up boys and girls who’ve been abused, they carry their stories too. If my boyfriend were here, where I write from south India, I’d take him out for a drink, but the toast wouldn’t be about us. It would be to all the girls (and boys) who think that there’s no way of changing a world fixated by all that divides us instead of what makes us, simply, similarly, human. I’d toast to their finding a way to remember this one basic fact, and acting it into existence.
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.