Celebration sans civility

Print edition : April 07, 2006

Holi in Visakhapatnam, full of colour. - C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Lumpen elements in different social groups have coarsened occasions of happiness and converted them into ugly events.

SOMETHING rather disturbing, even menacing, has become more and more noticeable over the last few years, most often among the young but among the not-so-young as well, in the very large and overwhelmingly conservative middle class. This is more pronounced in the North, but one has seen evidence of it in the South as well.

This is a coarsening of attitudes towards many simple and spontaneous reactions among people - of happiness and joy, of respect for elders, of reverence for what many hold sacred. This is not confined to the uneducated or illiterate, or to ruffians who exist in all societies. It is something that has spread like a stain through all sections and levels and seems to have gathered more and more to its ranks.

We have been told of the neglect of the old; of even fathers and mothers, forget other relatives. One old man in Delhi was living in the open under a tree - none of his five sons, all of whom were employed or earning well enough, had any room in their houses for him, and he refused to compromise with his dignity and beg a relative to take him in. There have been incidents of sons physically assaulting their old fathers, of forcing parents to leave and other such examples.

Those who study such incidents point to the virtual disappearance of the joint family, to the pressures of living in small flats in urban areas and a host of other social factors. It is obvious, however, that no amount of scholarly analysis changes what is becoming more and more common - the realisation that elements such as love and care for parents when they need it are not as enduring today as they were a generation ago. In their place is a sort of perfunctory affection that consists more of taking rather than giving and a deadening of sensibilities to situations that even a disinterested outsider would find sad, even shocking.

There is another example of changing social attitudes in the manner in which social groups react to what others hold to be sacred. Let us leave a side for the moment the plans and activities of terrorist groups. That is a whole area by itself and has been much researched and discussed. Let us consider the postures of groups professing to believe in the tenets of their particular religion. The earlier focus on religious teachings, on self-discipline and social work, has given way to an increasingly aggressive assertion of beliefs and, more dangerously, to a menacing and antagonistic posture in relation to other communities that have different religious beliefs. The kind of statements made by Praveen Togadia and others who profess similar beliefs is evidence of this. And, sadly, it now looks as if L. K. Advani has joined or is about to join their ranks with his denunciation of what he calls `minorityism'.

But the most disturbing trend that has surfaced in recent years is the continual attempt by growing lumpen elements in different social groups to coarsen events of happiness and good cheer into something ugly, something where the laughter is more a sneering, gloating enjoyments of the distress of others when they are subject to what these lumpen elements considers to be revelry. A terrible example is what happened during Holi in Navi Mumbai.

One lot of people, the mathadis, labourers who live in their own colony, say they were attacked by the inhabitants of a village close to their colony when they resisted attempts by the other group to molest a girl from the colony. The residents of the village have another story; they claim they were attacked by the mathadis. The fact is that the violence that followed, which resulted in a number of people dying, was a result of what they all thought was revelry during Holi. However, both groups' definition of revelry is a frightening thing. It has little to do with the joyous celebrations that Holi is supposed to inspire.

But apart from what happened in Navi Mumbai there were a whole host of other incidents, some reported and many more unreported, of `enjoyment' and `fun' which meant subjecting others to unpleasant attacks with colour and even other less harmless things like mud, grease and a mixture thereof. It has meant that what used to be harmless frolics of men and womenfolk has in many cases become an excuse for molestation, an abuse of the happiness of the occasion for the sensual gratification of men who have really no interest in Holi other than a means of being able to get at women.

Holi is not the only occasion, though it is the most recent. The traditional Dandiya Ras has become, to many groups in Gujarat, a cover for sexual encounters, which have in many cases been forced. For the great Durga Puja, so revered by millions in the eastern part of India, gangs of men - routinely referred to by the press as 'youths' which many of them are not - from families which are ordinary, respectable and if anything slightly conservative, shoulder their way into shops and other commercial establishments demanding `donations' for their Puja festivals. Many of the lavishly done Puja pandals are thus built and the `Puja' in them celebrated, on the proceeds of near robbery. Perhaps these men feel that dancing frenziedly before the goddess cleanses them; irrespective of what they feel, however, the social groups and communities to which they belong are besmirched forever with the stain of the criminal means they use for what used to be a joyous and reverent worship of Durga.

These are very disturbing trends indeed; whatever the causes, they seem to be spreading as the years pass, and events of happiness and gaiety are becoming symbols of coarse self-gratification and sadism. Together with the growing replacement of such enduring bonds of society like families with selfish exploitation, it would seem that we are moving towards a generational shift in perceptions and priorities.

It may be that one is making too much of this; the fact may well be that such attributes are becoming irrelevant in the new millennium and will, by the time it comes to an end, have disappeared - Holi and Durga Puja will be forgotten, new religions will be invented to replace those that cause so much passion now and the old will vanish into some black hole in social space. Priorities will change; values will be replaced. No society can, after all, remain static and rooted to traditions that are not understood.

It is just that the transition is painful, to say the least, and one cannot resist a backward, regretful glance.

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