February 17, 2009

What Lies Beneath?

IT’S BEEN AMUSING to see the uproar around the Pink Chaddi Campaign over the last few days, with some of the ‘finest journalistic minds in the country’ pitching in with their opinions. This piece, ironically called ‘What Lies Beneath’, by Sagarika Ghose in Hindustan Times was particularly baffling, shallow as a frying pan and about as full of noise. I wish one could ignore such vapidity, but the piece was also disturbing at many levels. Some of us sent a rejoinder to HT. Unsurprisingly, they neither acknowledged it, nor responded. 

Ghose starts off targeting the Pink Chaddi Campaign because according to her, “sending pink underwear to perverts is pretty undignified” — and moves on to urge “India’s young” to “emulate Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru”, instead of  “trying to be like characters from Sex In The City”.

While her patronizing tone does a disservice to many of us, it also tars the unfortunate women attacked in Mangalore with the same brush and trivializes their pain.

The women, who in her zeal to talk about class divides, Ghose seems to have forgotten. Apart from the odd mention, they barely figure in her post. She ignores the fact that this incident was symptomatic of a larger pattern of gender-based violence. As Aparna Singh, a freelance writer in Bangalore, points out: “If elite and westernised lifestyles is the only thing drawing out anger from an underclass, how come this anger was only directed at women? What about elite and westernised men? While class certainly plays a role, the fact is that women stepping into certain areas ‘designated’ for men is not taken well.”

Ghose completely sidesteps this to argue that “this is a class war expressed through culture.” A valid point, and one that deserves careful thought. Unfortunately, Ghose seems incapable of giving it that. Her solution to this problem is garbled and confusing. She says: “We must learn from the Nehruvians of the 40s and 50s who were incredibly westernised, but deeply rooted; many of whom were rich but lived modest, tasteful lives. They drank, smoked and romanced, yet were discreet and embodied a tradition of Indian elitism that was rooted in excellence.”

And what is her definition of “excellence”. What must India’s youth do to earn the right to “drink, smoke and romance”? Ghose is exacting on this count. She explains: “C. Rajagopalachari was considered a scholar in three language. Rukmini Devi Arundale may have been deeply influenced by the Theosophical Movement but dedicated her life to reviving Indian dance and music by founding the Kalakshetra academy. Sarojini Naidu’s favourite poet was Shelley but she took pride in the fact that she could speak Urdu, Telugu and Bengali.”

Firstly, Ghose has no proof that young people frequenting pubs do not know three or four languages. Here, in the south, many are proficient in their mother tongues and know two or three languages besides English. Many are also — whether she believes it or not — reasonably close to their families, go to temples, have learned Carnatic classical music. Does this qualify as ‘excellence’ enough or do they also need to run dance schools in their spare time?

Secondly, why should any adult have to prove anything to anyone to enjoy simple recreation? Is Ghose suggesting that hard-working, independent young people whip out scholarly credentials before entering a pub? Should they need to prove their moral discretion before kissing?

And to whom? A bunch of goons who rampage like beasts? Or self-styled social theorists at media houses (which, don’t forget, spend hours of airtime drooling over the latest sensation)?

Apart from these gemmy suggestions, she has no constructive ideas on how the debate on class and culture should be taken forward. Ammu Joseph, noted feminist writer and journalist, agrees that the class element cannot be denied but points out what Ghose misses. “Class divides are shifting. For example, there may not be much class difference between Sene activists and call centre workers, who often belong to very lower middle class families even though they have now been catapulted into a different socio-economic and maybe even cultural space via their jobs.”

Feminist researcher and author Sumi Krishna adds, “Ghose’s blithe conclusion that this is a ‘class war expressed through culture’ seems to be based on hearsay rather than grounded in the complexities of southern-coastal Karnataka. It is true that rapid socio-economic changes have heightened the gap between rich and poor, and that this has been exploited by the saffron fringe to incite violence, but this violence has been directed against religious and sexual minorities, and women of all classes. It is not class concerns that drive the Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene and other groups but communal mind-sets and regressive attitudes to Indian women and to Indian cultures. The range of protests in Bangalore and elsewhere by women’s rights activists, by organisations of dalits and slum-dwellers, by IT people and academics, reflects that this is not a fight about the ‘pub drinking’ elite lifestyles of privileged urban women but about fundamentalism and gendered violence.”

Joseph also questions the hypocrisy of Ghose’s statement about the IPL auction being a “stark exhibition of glamour and wealth, in an economy where 500,000 workers have just lost their jobs, was an unabashed spectacle of rootless elitism.”

“How much air time does CNN-IBN give to blue-collar workers or unorganised labourers who’ve lost their jobs thanks to the downturn in the economy? Or to any of the other life and death issues with which millions of Indians are grappling every day?” she asks.

As Senior Editor of CNN-IBN, perhaps Ghose should start with cleaning up her own house.

In criticizing the Pink Chaddi Campaign, she also forgets something fundamental – the need to have a voice. While larger changes have to be wrought through dialogue, and will take time, there is a threat that needs to be addressed right now. Goons are beating up people in broad daylight for engaging in perfectly legal activities. People are afraid of going out, going to a mall, holding hands in public. This is a threat to individual freedom and a mockery of the law. This must be protested. Loudly and strongly. The mode of protest is really incidental as long as it’s legal –- which sending pink panties certainly is.

Dilnavaz Bamboat, pediatric therapist and founder member of India Helps, points out that Ghose is “missing (or refusing to see) the point about protest activism: Often, it’s not the actual object used to resist but the symbolism behind it, and even more importantly, merely the spirit of objection that movements wish to invoke.”

Comparing it to the protests in New York against the war in Iraq, she says, “I knew that George Bush gave two hoots about a non-resident like me and my roughly-made arm band, but it wasn’t about marching or bands as much as it was about voices raised in protest and millions of people finding a way to say ‘this is just not on’….whether we’re throwing bricks, underwear or mini-skirted chicken legs at Muthalik, Ghose has failed to realize that the first step is cohesive protest.”

Or perhaps, from her vantage point in the ivory tower offices of CNN-IBN, she sees no need for it.

And here’s another response to the piece that sounds out its hollowness.

18 comments to What Lies Beneath?

  • I would like to congratulate you on your courageous stand! It is nice to see people who, still, are willing to stand up for what they believe in. Achieving equality is never easy, but with your attitude I know you will help the women of India find rights they can, as of now, only imagine.

  • neo

    If previous generations were so “rooted in excellence” – why are there hordes of sexually repressed, bloodthirsty, vindictive, homophobic, racist, culturally stymied, religion-crazed, misogynistic, pedophillic, infanticidal, sadomasochistic, unemployable men roaming the streets today ?

    Don’t blame us for them – we just fracking got here, remember ?

    Now – why don’t you grow a pair of you-know-what, take responsibility, clean up the mess you created, or shut up and go back to drinking tea, reading your newspapers and talking about the “problems with the new generation”.

  • Geetali

    Kudos, Anindita, for telling it like it is. I could not believe my eyes when I read Sagarika Ghose’s article. It was, as you observe yourself, immensely patronising and totally side-stepped the real issue which was the right of every single Indian – man or woman, rich or poor – to protest in favour of certain freedoms. The economic class reference was unbelievably tangential! The argument that the class of people who’re protesting is well-heeled does NOT mean that their protest is not valid. Their freedoms are no less precious than the freedoms of the under-privileged which Ms Bleeding-Heart Ghose espouses.
    Excellent analysis. I hope to follow your writing more frequently. (Not stalking, though!)

  • I couldn’t believe ( or in some ways, I totally could?) her article. My reaction to it might have been less detailed but equally indignant and, frankly, baffled. But this serves as a dispassionate piece on how hollow her article was…

  • Thank you- this was a terribly “us” versus “them” kind of a piece- playing the privilege card. i am so glad to see someone reply to it in the way it needs to be replied to.

  • Raakin

    On that day in Mangalore not only women but even men were
    beaten up,but media was more intrstd in showing only women
    being beaten.i personally met a victim(a guy called
    suresh),he was the most severely wounded among the
    victims.That too some scratches on his right hand and a
    small wound in his back.This incident shows how the media is
    controlled by christians and this issue is used to cover up
    the conversion activities taking place in mangalore and
    whole of India.Renuka a christian puppet

  • Geetali

    Raakin: A man gets beaten up & you declare that the media is owned by CHRISTIANS? I’d love to know how you arrived at the conclusion.
    You do have a point about the men’s injuries not being discussed… But then, that’s why they are popular media. They WILL pick up what they think would grab attention. Something similar happened on 26th/27th November in Bombay: the media was far more focussed on the killings in Taj/Oberoi than it was on the ones that happened in VT. But, people did speak up & complain about that on various fora.
    It’s called democracy, Sir-ji. What an idea!

  • P S

    Geetali, Thanks for acknowledging the fact that men also got beat up and nobody said anything about it. Conveniently this has become a feminist issue. When in reality this is more of a law and order problem than anything else.

  • This is an apt reply for the hypocrisy shrouded in Ms. Ghose’s article.

    You echoed what many of us have been writing on our blogs too in support of PCC. Those who are opposing it have no clue about the sarcastic message on the logo and took it literally. The purpose was to humiliate a set of goons in a peaceful way that beat up innocent women. I don’t know how the hypocrisy crept in many minds.

    It is one thing to not believe in a campaign but to run it down without a thought is beyond me.

  • Brilliant!!

    And thank You!
    I needed to hear someone say this so badly!

  • Absolutely! To have someone of her stature be rather an ostrich with it’s head in the sand was quite baffling, and annoying too.

    Well expressed,the notions here.

  • R.Sajan

    Please read the recently published ‘Amen- An Autobiography of a Nun’. by Sr.Jesme of Kerala. Also read about the Sr.Abhaya murder, Sr.Anupa Mary’s suicide etc.
    I suggest that you send your Chaddis to the Pope also.

  • SK

    I didn’t agree with everything Ghose said, but I think it has plenty of valid points. The fear of PDA and the pub culture is not _just_ sexism… it’s naive to believe that. There are ways to live however you like without thrusting in the face of those who don’t share the same lifestyle. What bothers me about the general pub-going youth is not their choices — which I fully support — but their blatant disregard and contempt for their more conservative neighbors (I’m not talking about the violent ones). After all, many of their own parents are probably uncomfortable with these behaviors — doesn’t a rebellious “I-do-it-my-way-so-screw-you” mentality just widen the generation gap beyond repair?

    And for those who say the class issue is tangential — no, it isn’t. Not quite in the way Ghose means (I agree with Ammu Joseph), but because there’s unfortunately a great correlation between the urban, liberal-minded set and the ones that are oozing money, brand labels, and American sitcom-influenced speech and ideas. Have you read the lifestyle section of TOI recently?

    And what about the whole Pub Bharo campaign? Urging people to go drink for a “cause” is unbelievably crass and regressive.

  • Geetali

    PS, like it or not, any assault on women WILL be seen by women as a feminist issue. Allow us our biases 🙂 However, facts cannot live in compartments. Therefore, an attack on women by the moral police is not just a wonen’s issue, but also a law-and-order matter and a subject of cultural concern. Reality has many layers and each is as valid as the other.

  • Rakhi Pande

    Totally agree with what you express here. In fact, the pink undie campaign ironically generated media attention from the same journos that wouldn’t have followed up on the attacks- shocking to read of the attacks still continuing. How come i haven’t read anything about it in the papers! Shame on the media fraternity.

  • Thank you for your comments everyone.

    Rakhi: Yes, the coverage has been sporadic though now it’s picking up. At least in the city papers.

    Geetali: Thank you and lol :).

    SK: I’m not sure how someone going to a pub to drink — an establishment that has, after all, been built for the purpose is “thrusting in the face of those who don’t share the same lifestyle.” It’s not like the women landed up at the nearest conservative person’s home with a glass and said, “Thodi rum milegi, auntiji?”

    And dear god, you sound dreadfully angry about the younger generation and its evil ways. May i recommend a healthy dose of ‘live and let live’?

    Ps: Geetali’s replied aptly.

    Raakin: kindly stop hijacking and go away.

  • […] previous generations were so “rooted in excellence” – who precisely is responsible for creating the hordes of sexually repressed, bloodthirsty, […]

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