Culture police

Published : Apr 10, 2009 00:00 IST

in Bangalore

SINCE mid-February, a section of women in Bangalore, the southern Indian city with a progressive and cosmopolitan culture, have had to grapple with a new form of harassment a spate of attacks on them marked by aggressive ferocity and violence as opposed to general incidents of sexual harassment or eve-teasing on the streets.

From first-person accounts available on a blog that collated responses, seven attacks took place between February 17 and 28. Three of these took place on February 17, followed by one on February 24 and two on February 27. And just as these six attacks were beginning to attract media attention, the seventh, a random attack, took place on a female journalist working for Tehelka on February 28. In March too, reports of attacks have come in.

The attacks have come a month after the one on women at the Amnesia pub in Mangalore on January 24 by activists of the Sri Rama Sene (SRS) (Taliban in saffron, Frontline, February 27, 2009). Hence, a tenuous link can be established between the attacks in Bangalore and Mangalore. In both cases, the assailants targeted a particular class of women urban, English-speaking women dressed in Western clothes in their efforts to mark patriarchal boundaries for Indian women in public spaces. The attacks have caused a great deal of anguish and insecurity among women and also the general public in Bangalore, who seem concerned about the state apparatus indifference to these events.

This indifference was evident in its lack of action against Pramod Muttalik, the SRS president, who volubly justified his organisations role in the pub attack. The Dakshina Kannada district administration has woken up only now, almost two months after the incident at the Amnesia pub. An order banning Muttaliks entry into the district for a year was passed on March 16 by the Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate of Dakshina Kannada, V. Ponnuraj. Speaking to Frontline from Mangalore, Ponnuraj said: He [Muttalik] has been supporting incidents such as the pub attack and justifying it under the name of moral policing. If he is allowed to come into the district, there is a possibility that he will instigate violence.

Claiming responsibility for the attacks on women at the Amnesia pub, Muttalik had said, We are the custodians of Indian culture. Even in some of the attacks on women in Bangalore, there was an evident intent to define the boundaries of culture by targeting women dressed in Western clothes and speaking English. Some of these incidents took place in broad daylight, and bystanders did not help the victims.

In one incident, Geethanjali (name changed) was driving her car through Indiranagar when two men on a motorcycle followed and taunted her. They spat on her car window. As she drove away, the men chased her again and threatened to kill her.

In another case, Lakshmi (name changed) was accosted by four men in Vasanthnagar; they punched and abused her for wearing jeans.

In a third case, Jasmine (name changed) was on her way to work on the morning of February 24 when the autorickshaw in which she was travelling broke down. While she was trying to hail another auto, a vehicle slowed down and the four men inside said something to her. The situation soon turned grim. The men got out of their car and started abusing her.

The incident went like this, as she wrote in the blog: They started touching me and pulling at my clothes. One of them tugged so brutally at the shrug I was wearing that he scratched my neck. Their goal was to show the collected crowd that had gathered the top I was wearing underneath my shrug. When the shrug didnt come off with their efforts, the violence of their tugging increased. In self-defence, I hit out at an offending hand that was trying to disrobe me. The response, one of the men slapped me hard across my ear. Then they began trying to lift my top up while making references to pink chaddi [panties].

The pink chaddi campaign was a successful protest against the SRS action in Mangalore. Thousands of women across the country, who were repelled by the SRS action, organised themselves on the online social networking site Facebook under the tongue-in-cheek name A Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women. They then responded to Muttaliks hate rhetoric by sending thousands of pink panties to the SRS headquarters on February 14, Valentines Day.

While there has been criticism of the pink chaddi campaign and it has even been considered offensive by some, it was effective in rallying women who have not been associated with any form of public activism in the past. By mid-March, the group on Facebook had more than 57,000 members.

As the pink chaddi campaign gathered momentum and attracted increasing media attention in the first two weeks of February, Muttalik was forced to respond to it. As a co-ordinator of the campaign said, this is the only way to engage people like Muttalik in a dialogue.

In Jasmines case, the fact that the attackers accused her of being part of the pink chaddi campaign demonstrates the effect the campaign has had on certain patriarchal elements in Bangalore.

Some of the activists involved in the pink chaddi campaign mobilised themselves immediately after reports of the attacks came in. Organising themselves as a group called Fearless Karnataka/Nirbhaya Karnataka (FKNK), they submitted a memorandum to Shankar Bidari, Commissioner of Police, Bangalore, and held a protest against the attacks outside his office on March 1. Bidari responded that the three first information reports (FIRs) lodged (only three of the women complained to the police about the attacks on them) could not be categorised as a persistent problem. He added that Bangalore was a cultured city. State Home Minister V.S. Acharya asked the media why the issue was being brought to his notice.

Members of the FKNK organised events in the city before and on International Womens Day, on March 8, to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the response of the State administration and the police. In many parts of the city, they conducted street plays and distributed testimonials of the victims of the attacks. An event called Take Back the Night was held to assert symbolically womens right to public space in the city at night.

The woman journalist with Tehelka who was attacked said that it could not be denied that a certain class of women had the resources to network and articulate their grievances. This does not in any way mean that this class of women speak only for themselves. Violence against women in public spaces is a problem suffered by all women across classes and these responses should be considered as a response of all women, she said.

But many people in the city felt that the FKNKs response to the attacks was an overreaction as these incidents had always happened.

What worries many activists in Bangalore is that right-wing groups that have been active in Dakshina Kannada district and coastal Karnataka so far might be exploring other places in the State, including Bangalore, to experiment with their ideas of social apartheid, a phrase that a report uses to describe the societal conditions in Dakshina Kannada. The report, based on the findings of an independent fact-finding team, consisting of Shakun Mohini of Vimochana, B.N. Usha of Hengasara Hakkina Sangha (Womens Rights Group), Arvind Narrain of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) and Ramdas Rao of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which visited Mangalore in February, describes social apartheid as a practice of segregating communities on the basis of religion and gender by self-styled vigilante groups as well as prescribing appropriate behaviour and conduct for separate communities.

According to the report titled Cultural Policing in Dakshina Kannada: Vigilante Attacks on Women and Minorities, 2008-09, culture policing has been going on in Dakshina Kannada both before and after the Mangalore pub incident. Unlike Bangalore, the district has not seen any significant opposition to the activities of right-wing groups.

In early March, two incidents of culture policing took place in the region. Muslim girls were banned from wearing the burqa in the Government Composite Pre-University College in Panja village in Dakshina Kannada; secondly, the erection of a statue of Hollywood actor Charlie Chaplin by film-maker Hemant Hegde on March 15 was opposed in Baindur in Udupi district on the grounds that Chaplin was a Christian. Local Bharatiya Janata Party activists along with activists from other right-wing organisations led the opposition; the issue has found support with the local BJP legislator, K. Lakshminarayana.

The report states: A survey of the English press from 02.09.08 to 25.02.09 shows that there were 22 incidents of moral policing reported from the district. A survey of the local Kannada press from 01.08.08 to 15.02.09 reveals that there were 45 incidents in which self-styled vigilante groups took the law into their own hands.

This includes the suicide of a 15-year-old schoolgirl on February 11 after she was publicly humiliated by a suspected Hindutva group for being friendly with a Muslim, and the beating up of the daughter of a Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA from Kerala for fraternising with a Muslim. The other incidents have also mainly involved inter-communal socialising between young people. Narrain, one of the members of the fact-finding commission, told Frontline: There is an effort by the Hindutva vigilante groups to consistently target young people.

The incidents in Mangalore have happened over a period of several years. The civil society in Dakshina Kannada has failed to stand up to the gradual, but consistent, propaganda and intimidation by the right-wing forces.

Inter-communal socialising by young people is coming to a gradual halt, and women are afraid to be seen in pubs. In some measure, the patriarchal and communal elements have managed to communicate effectively their warped agenda to the general public.

The events in Mangalore and Bangalore show that there is a deliberate effort to delineate the space in which women can operate and at the same time establish a culture of violence. The robust response in Bangalore to the attacks prove that the city would have less patience than Mangalore with efforts to introduce social apartheid.

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