In February, news television cameramen covering the legislative assembly of the south Indian state of Karnataka caught and filmed three ministers of the local government watching pornography on a mobile phone while the House was in session.
The public was outraged at this astounding lack of judgment and the desecration of the sanctity of the House (although it was not clear that the politicians were guilty in any legal sense), and also amused at the explanation proffered by the culprits: that they were engaged in "research" about rave parties. The three ministers – Cooperation Minister Laxman Savadi, Environment Minister J. Krishna Palemar and Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil – were forced by their party to resign, and the speaker of the House promised an inquiry.
There is no spectacle more appealing to both press and public than that of a politician in a sex scandal, so one might concede that perhaps the three men were being made scapegoats for sins that might easily be our own.
Even so, if Indians of my generation took special pleasure in the discomfort of the three men caught in flagrante delicto, it was because they belonged to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in Karnataka in 2008 – and is also the main opposition party in Parliament. It was less the desecration of parliamentary standards that animated us – after all, the atmosphere of a legislative assembly can be, and often is, vitiated in many other ways – than the revelation of the flagrant hypocrisy of a party that is always trying to pin Indians down to "traditional Indian values" and often runs moral policing campaigns with more commitment than it runs governments.
One of only two political parties that might be thought of as having a presence that is pan-Indian – the other is the Indian National Congress, which runs the present coalition governing India – the BJP claims to stand for Hindutva, or cultural nationalism. It is an ideology based on age-old Hindu values and traditions, and what it calls "integral humanism." Whatever the consequences of these beliefs in the field of policy, it is clear that they are not very helpful in criticizing, or in any way unsettling, a complacent and unreflective patriarchy -- the main force in Indian family life, society and politics.
Nor has the worldview of "Indian tradition," when applied so narrowly and uncreatively, proved to be of much use in dealing with a rapidly modernizing society, in which new ways of living are being tried out and women are laying claim to spaces, roles and powers once traditionally limited to men. Such resources of creativity do exist within Indian tradition, as the BJP itself proved when it organized, at its annual convention in 2010, an ambitious perspective on climate change and the global environmental crisis through the lens of ancient Indian environmental thought.
But because of its ideological baggage, the BJP's view of the Indian woman, and the party's own women, remain, as Saba Naqvi wrote in an astringent essay about the Karnataka affair, "the sindoor-wearing, Karva Chauth-observing Bharatiya Nari [the traditional Indian woman who wears vermilion on her forehead to indicate her wedded status, and observes a fast every year in honour of her husband]” is always the idealised upholder of virtue, a help meet to man, the nurturer of home and hearth – even if she should, in deference to modern convention, want a career. This is why every year, on Valentine's Day, right-wing groups sympathetic to the BJP, such as the Sri Ram Sene in Bangalore and the Bajrang Da in other parts of the country, go on the rampage, breaking up young couples ("unmarried couples") on the streets, safe in the knowledge that they enjoy the tacit sympathy of the state.
A consequence of this prudery is the refusal to discuss sex openly as an essential part of adult life, and the tagging, in BJP-ruled states, of many perfectly quotidian human activities as licentious or promiscuous. For instance, in 2009, goons of the Sri Ram Sena shockingly attacked women in a pub in Bangalore, Karnataka's capital and India's IT hub.
Just as women in Bollywood films were divided into paragons of virtue and lecherous vamps for many decades, so too for the BJP, any woman who seems nontraditional is deemed a threat to the entire social order. What, jeans? Tch tch tch – how unwomanlike. And mini-skirts! Our country is being destroyed, brother, by Western culture. Look at the rising abortion rates, the spiraling divorce rates ... Women are being led astray!
Even sexual assaults against women, in this reading, can be seen as stemming from the unfortunate decisions made by women themselves. Consider the recent comments of CC Patil, the erstwhile minister for Women and Child Welfare, when asked recently about the controversial remarks made by a director-general of police about a rise in rape cases being due to women dressing provocatively. Patil, assuming what he seemed to believe was an eminently moderate and reasonable stance, said:
I personally don't favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in whatever they wear. [...]
Today's lifestyle makes it mandatory for women to work like men and live on equal terms with them. So women work in IT companies and call centres at night, they ought to know how much skin they should cover when they leave for such work places. Thus, I leave the issue of their dressing to them [...]
I do not insist on a dress code for women because women belonging to various castes and communities dress according to their culture and tradition. Many women wear saris while others wear salwar [salwar kameez]. At the same time, there are western outfits like low-waist jeans also easily available in the market. But it's up to women to decide which dress is safe for them.
"They ought to know how much skin they should cover!" This kind of thinking is behind the BJP man's nudge-nudge, wink-wink attitude, behind the facade of propriety and virtue, towards women and sex. Consider, for example, the BJP leader Pramod Mahajan's remarks in the late nineties that if the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi could run for the Prime Minister's post, then why couldn't Bill Clinton or Tony Blair or (bizarrely) Monica Lewinsky? Or the utterly tasteless joke about rape circulated by members of the Maharashtra unit of the BJP to journalists a few years ago.
To no one's surprise, the result of the inquiry into Karnataka's "Porngate" concluded last week with the three ministers emerging virtually unscathed, even as a similar scandal engulfed two BJP legislators in the state of Gujarat.
Namita Malhotra expertly illuminated the ironies of the situation in a recent piece in the Indian Express. Malhotra pointed out that many liberal Indians would actually argue in this case for the legislators' right to watch pornographic material in private, even as the BJP itself would continue to brush over its own hypocrisies by first censuring or suspending its errant cadres, and then quietly reinstating them:
The larger paradox here is, whatever turn public debate takes now, the anti-pornography position will still be upheld by the BJP, even though they were the ones repeatedly caught with porn in their hands, while the pro-pornography position would be safeguarded by those who are liberal and anti-censorship. The terms of the debate remain unchanged, except those who are saying that pornography should not be censored may now realise that we are indeed speaking up for the rights of legislators to watch porn while they determine the extent of our freedoms.
And an editorial called "Dirty Picture" in the same newspaper opined:
The scandal is only in what the incident says about the gap between rhetoric and reality in the Karnataka BJP — that a group of ministers can go from a public debate about “morality” (in their view, threatened by cultural pollution, sexual freedom, etc) to furtively eyeballing exactly what they claim to despise. The hypocrisy in Karnataka is almost Victorian in its intense public sanctimony and its private flouting of those norms.
Only last month, Patil had put forward the idea that working women should know how much skin to cover, and that provocative clothing was the reason sexual assault was rising. Karnataka has become a mini-Maharashtra, where right-wing cultural forces have set out to define what’s permissible.
This is the state where harmless things like Valentine’s Day and a drink at a pub are met with violence. There’s a continuum of such cultural activism, from those angry squads to the BJP’s mainstream politics. Only a couple of days ago, the CM warned that “nothing that went against Indian culture would be tolerated.” In a state roiled by corruption in mining, land and real estate, much of the BJP is largely preoccupied with culture wars. This incident is bound to be seized on to embarrass the party, only because of the delicious object-lesson it offers in political hypocrisy.
And a Times of India report quoted Bangalore resident Arundhati Ghosh as saying:
I live in a city where I can't dance, I can't stay up late, the cops blame me for attracting the wrong kind of attention because of the clothes I wear, and, ministers of state watch porn during the assembly session! Such is the satire called Bangalore, the global, IT city!
Such are the realities of the political order, grossly invasive of simple human freedoms and in thrall to antiquated gender stereotypes, envisioned and enforced by the moralizing men (and women) of India's second-biggest political party.
(Chandrahas Choudhury is a New Delhi-based a novelist)
– Bloomberg News