Tuesday, 8 December 2015

To Sing or Not to Sing: “Tolerant & Liberal” Rajiv Gandhi’s Response to National Anthem Controversy


There are not many countries in the world that allow their national anthem to become a tool for divisive politics.  But in India any and every issue gets to be used for partisan political agendas. Our national anthem has been no exception.

The latest controversy over the national anthem erupted on 29 November, 2015, when five members of a family were asked to leave a cinema hall in Mumbai because they rudely rebuffed fellow cine viewers who asked them to stand up as the national anthem was being played before the start of the movie. 

A video clip of the event went viral on social media and consequently provoked heated debate in mainstream media, including prime time television, because the concerned family happened to be Muslim. Had the same incident involved a Hindu family, it is not likely to have excited such passion on either side of the political divide.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Lessons from BJP’s Bihar Election Fiasco

Sandwiched!
Reams have already been written on the drubbing received by BJP in the crucial Bihar assembly election. Let me attempt to add my own two cents' worth to the series of postmortem reports that have been released since November 8.

Countdown to Debacle
Team Modi’s explanation for their drubbing in Bihar is that the caste arithmetic went against the BJP. But that could happen only because of the party's own acts of omission and commission.
The writing was writ large on the wall from the word go, but Team Modi refused to pay heed to it in a timely manner.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Brewing Crisis in BJP-PDP Alliance in Kashmir : Urgent Need for Restoring Mutual Trust

The success of the BJP-PDP coalition in Kashmir would be the most befitting response to the ideology that created Pakistan. History will not forgive either of the two parties if they fail to live up to the huge trust and responsibility reposed by the people of J&K in the alliance.
Long before the recent dastardly petrol bomb attack on Kashmiri truckers, resulting in the death of young Zahid Rasool Bhat, by goons posturing as a cow protection brigade, Kashmir Valley was already on the boil. The state and Central governments do not seem to be working in a coordinated manner to deal with the fast-growing Islamist radicalization of Kashmiri youth that makes even a hardliner like Geelani appear a moderate in comparison. The radicalized section of the youth, though minuscule at this time, does not hide its fascination for outfits like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Unlike the old generation of secessionists, the neo-militants are not just anti-India—they are also anti-democracy, which they openly condemn as being un-Islamic. This process of virulent rejection of democracy and adoption of a jihadi ideology has been brewing for over two decades now. Although it was conceived and nurtured in the womb of the Pakistan-backed secessionist movement, the current phase of radicalization has gone far beyond the demand for a plebiscite to a desire for establishing the global supremacy of Islam through total annihilation of all that stands in its way. Democracy is seen as an inimical distraction in this project.
It is noteworthy that the separatist/secessionist movement arose as a protest against the thwarting of democracy in Kashmir by the National Conference (NC) with the tacit backing of the Congress at the Centre. Although Sheikh Abdullah facilitated the accession of Kashmir to India, after coming to power, he and his party did not allow democracy to take deep roots in Kashmir. His brand of authoritarianism did not brook even token opposition. Abdullah acceded to India but did not allow Kashmiri Muslims to integrate with India either psychologically and emotionally. To enhance his bargaining power vis-à-vis the Centre, Sheikh Abdullah kept the secessionist option alive.
Whenever faced with the slightest resistance from the Central government, he would tilt towards Pakistan and revive the azadi slogan. Though he was popular enough to sweep the polls, he could not stand anyone standing against his party to offer even a nominal challenge. He got away with it because of his mass appeal and also because Nehru bestowed the halo of martyrdom on him by putting him under house arrest on suspicion that he was hobnobbing with Pakistan. By the time his son Farooq tried the same formula for winning the 1987 election, the people were through with their unconditional romance with the Abdullah family.
At the time of the 1987 election, the Muslim United Front (MUF) emerged as a noticeable challenge to the hitherto unquestioned power of the NC by occupying the same political space and constituency that the NC once occupied. It is noteworthy that NC was originally named Muslim Conference when it was founded in 1932. It changed its nomenclature to National Conference only in June 1939. Right from its inception, Sheikh Abdullah used the historic Jamia Masjid, the traditional seat of temporal and religious power, and megaphone for mobilizing Kashmiris to support the Muslim Conference.
When Sheikh Abdullah renamed his outfit and called it National Conference, Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, the founder of the Pakistan-propped Awami Action Committee, took control of the mosque and used it as his base for political mobilization. Sheikh Abdullah made the revered Hazrat Bal shrine the citadel of NC mobilization. Friday sermons at these mosques by the two political rivals had little to do with religion or spirituality and everything to do with politics. But today neither Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who inherited the mantle of controlling this mosque from his father, nor the Abdullah family would dare challenge youngsters carrying ISIS flags to demonstrate outside these two bastions of religio-political power.
In 1987, Geelani and others who joined the Muslim United Front (MUF) stood for election against the NC to seek legitimate political space through democratic means. MUF thus emerged as an anti-NC force seeking to assert the right to dissent with and oppose the authoritarian politics of NC through democratic elections. The brazen rigging of the 1987 election by NC with the backing of the then Rajiv Gandhi-led Central government and subsequent repression let loose against opponents led to the anti-NC sentiment turning into anti-India sentiment. That was a godsend for Pakistan, which astutely channeled this anger into a full-fledged anti-India insurgency.
Since then, Kashmiri politics has got polarized into:
a. The pro-NC opinion that oscillates between the demand for more autonomy and secession depending on the convenience of its leaders. As recently as October 20, 2015, Farooq Abdullah publicly justified and endorsed Jinnah’s demand for the Partition of India in 1947.
b. Anti-NC sentiment in response to the highly corrupt and autocratic rule of Abdullah family, which continuously deprived Kashmiris of free and fair elections. That has consolidated into anti-India sentiment because the Centre was seen as being complicit in the misdeeds of NC leaders and their kin. The Abdullahs deftly manipulated this situation by projecting an image that they alone stood between secession to Pakistan and accession to India. But if ever the Central government tried to curb their misdoings, they raise the banner of “azadi”, thus adding fuel to the Pak-lit secessionist fires.
From 1989 onwards, the NC support base among the youth began steadily declining because they denied legitimate space to their political aspirations. Their vote base is today largely confined to the older generation that saw Sheikh Abdullah as a symbol of Kashmiri Muslim aspirations. The Sheikh and Farooq Abdullah generation of NC voters have not switched their loyalties. That is how, even in the 2014 elections, NC got nearly 10 lakh votes.
How PDP is Weaning Away Youth from Jihad
But the young voters are virulently anti-NC, which they consider a puppet of Delhi. It is in this context of the youth’s growing estrangement from the NC and India and the increasing appeal of militant Islam that is quintessentially inimical to democracy that the PDP emerged as a saviour of democracy in 2002. The PDP’s electoral base has been wrenched from all those elements that had turned anti-NC and, therefore, gravitated towards militancy. The nearly 11 lakh votes secured by the PDP have come from weaning away the youth from the separatist camp. That is why the likes of Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Farooq and other militant leaders ferociously hate the PDP; its success makes them irrelevant and marginalizes their very existence. They work towards its failure to prove that the Indian democracy is incapable of meeting the aspirations of Kashmiris.
Mufti Sahib was the first politician in Kashmir to come out openly against the gun culture with his clarion call, “Na bandook se na boli se, baat banegi boli se” (Neither guns nor bullets will work. Dialogue is the only way to solve problems). That became the guiding philosophy of PDP. Muzaffar Hussain Baig added the intellectual gravitas to it by crafting the “Healing Touch” policy of PDP, while Mehbooba Mufti implemented it on the ground under the most adverse circumstances.
Mehbooba began the process of reaching out to alienated youth at the peak of militancy in the late 1990s when most Congress and NC leaders had abandoned the Valley. Whenever a young man was killed by the armed forces on suspicion of being a militant or by terrorists for being an informer for security forces, Mehbooba was the first one to reach and commiserate with the parents, widows and children of the deceased. She cleverly owned the symbol of Muslim United Front by claiming their legacy. She travelled to the remotest of villages at great personal risk to apply balm to the wounds of grieving families who faced a very precarious social situation.
If the army killed their sons on account of being suspected militants, they would be socially ostracized because of the fear of becoming targets of army wrath. If militants killed them on suspicion of being army informers, they would likewise be treated as outcasts. At such a time, PDP lending a sympathetic ear to such families and offering even token forms of financial help meant a great deal. Such gestures also encouraged the families of active militants to put pressure on their sons to abjure the path of violence and put their faith in democracy for redressal of their grievances.
On coming to power in 2002, the PDP also provided a far more responsive and relatively efficient governance with corruption under far greater check than had even been the case under NC rule. Even at the risk of annoying its cadres, the PDP-led coalition government ensured that new recruitments, whether for jobs of schoolteachers or other government departments, were mostly merit- based. That was unlike during NC regimes when it was taken for granted that government jobs were reserved for NC members, but they too had to “purchase” them. Within three years of PDP rule, the state witnessed the setting up of three new universities: Mata Vaishno Devi University in Jammu district, Baba Ghulam Shah University in Rajouri, and Islamic University in Kashmir Valley.
It was also the most accessible state government J&K had ever witnessed. During the phase of militancy in Kashmir, the government had ceased to exist. Most Kashmiri politicians, including the Abdullahs, literally abandoned the Valley and spent most of their time either in Delhi or abroad. Even other political representatives stayed low key under security cover. They stopped engaging with their respective constituencies. Thus, people were left totally at the mercy of a corrupt and uncaring bureaucracy and the security forces. There was a total clampdown on political dissent, which only helped swell the ranks of militants.
The PDP brought about a sea change in the political atmosphere with its highest leadership being easily accessible to ordinary citizens. Instead of remaining confined to a high security zone, CM Sayeed himself chose to live in the heart of the city and started travelling to every nook and corner of the state, to listen and respond to people’s grievances and demands. Mehbooba Mufti as party president was also on constant move and available on the phone to all and sundry.
The youth in particular connected to her with enthusiasm and she began building a whole new cadre of youngsters as a counter to NC hegemony, while Muzaffar Hussain Baig as Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister took charge of providing effective administration. During those three years of PDP rule, there was a close connect between promises made and delivery on the ground, especially with regards to development work.
Even while in government, PDP ensured that separatists did not get the opportunity to exploit and capitalize on stray cases of human rights abuses by the police or security forces. The moment any such unfortunate incident came to light, the seniormost leaders of PDP rushed to the area, not just to commiserate with the family and placate local sentiments but also offer instant financial compensation and support.
That this hard work paid off in reviving faith in democracy is evident from the fact that, in the municipal elections of 2003, the vote percentage went up to 88 per cent in several constituencies. The Chief Minister himself travelled all over the state urging people to make demands on the system to make it responsive.
PDP as a Bridge with Mainland
Another noteworthy aspect of the PDP-led government from 2002 to 2005 was that the CM constantly acted as a bridge of goodwill between the Centre and the state government. That too was in sharp contrast to the strategy followed by NC leaders who spoke with different tongues, depending on the audience. In Delhi, they would project themselves as the only saviour of India’s claim to Kashmir. But in Kashmir, they stoked anti-India sentiments by targeting the Centre as a hostile entity that did not allow “autonomy” or self-governance in Kashmir. Whenever things got too hot for them in the Valley due to their mismanagement, they raised the demand for a plebiscite.
Whatever its other flaws and limitations, PDP effectively marginalized the demand for referendum and secession, and shifted the focus to governance. Unlike the NC, the PDP did not use strong-arm methods against separatists. It released almost all of them from jail and allowed them the freedom to hold demonstrations, condemn the government and whatever else, so long as violence was eschewed. Earlier, all those with grievances against the government would land up at the doors of separatists. But Mehbooba Mufti ensured that her door became the first and most preferred option for all those with a genuine grouse for which they actually wanted a solution.
How PDP Blundered
However, the Muftis couldn’t handle the party’s relationship with the Congress, their alliance partner, once Mufti Saheb had to give way to Ghulam Nabi Azad as Chief Minister in 2005. That was as per the agreed upon terms and conditions of the Congress-PDP alliance in 2002. The manner in which Mehbooba led a hysterical campaign, outperforming even separatists in militant rhetoric, over the Amarnath land row damaged her credentials, not just among the Hindus of Jammu region, but also in the rest of the country. She earned for PDP the dubious distinction of being a party of “soft separatists”.
She justified her militant stance by saying that if PDP had allowed the issue to be monopolized by separatists, the party would have been wiped out in the forthcoming assembly elections. That is not borne out by the fact that Muzaffar Hussain Baig won the Baramulla seat with a comfortable margin even though he took an open stand against his party’s cynical position vis-à-vis the land row. The truth is that by bringing down the Ghulam Nabi Azad government on this spurious issue, which was originally raised by NC as a trap for PDP, the latter actually paved the way for the former’s return to power as an ally of the Congress in the 2009 assembly elections.
PDP paid a heavy price for that indiscretion because, after the 2009 elections, the Congress chose to ally with and prop up an NC-led government. But true to habit, the NC government was not only scam-ridden but also extremely gross in handling political discontent, leading to a massive youth-led agitation in 2010 that resulted in 114 killings of teenagers in police firing. The Valley witnessed an endless series of strikes and revival of militancy, especially among teenagers. The Congress-led government at the Centre gave blind support to Omar Abdullah’s misdoings instead of acting as a corrective, which led to a massive revival of anti-India sentiment.
The May 2014 parliamentary elections resulted in a resounding defeat for NC with all three MP seats being won by PDP. In the December 2014 assembly elections, NC and Congress lost power with PDP winning 28 seats, most of them in the Valley, while the BJP made a clean sweep in the Jammu region winning 25 seats. The voter turnout at 65 per cent was higher than the national average. The two parties had taken on a high-pitched adversarial position towards each other during the campaign. Therefore, it took them several weeks to sort out their differences and cobble together an uneasy alliance that left a significant section of their respective cadres befuddled and confused.
Strains in Coalition and Mutual Misunderstanding
Mufti Saheb gave his tenure a rocky start by thanking Pakistan for allowing peaceful polls in the state. That caused a huge embarrassment for the BJP and annoyed the army no end because it was their hard work that had kept the terrorists at bay. The CM added further fuel to the fire by claiming credit for releasing the jihadi Masarat Alam as a gesture of the “Healing Touch” policy, even though Alam had been released on the orders of the Supreme Court.
When the media and the BJP went ballistic, Mufti Saheb had to eat humble pie and re-arrest Alam on fresh charges. That lent strength to separatists who charged that Mufti was a mere puppet in the hands of the BJP high command. On the other hand, the BJP rank and file felt justified in mistrusting PDP for its pro-Pak, pro-militancy proclivities. The memories of the role played by Mehbooba Mufti during the Amarnath land row agitation added fuel to the fire of deep mistrust.
A major reason for the mutual tensions in the BJP-PDP alliance is that the BJP cadres and leaders are not really well-versed with the politics of the Valley and do not understand the vital role being played by PDP in favour of India. The PDP support base mostly comprises the youth, which is and has been virulently rejecting NC. If PDP did not exist, the 11-lakh-odd votes secured by the party would not have gone either to NC or Congress. They would have added to the numbers that heed the boycott call of separatists. Today 65 per cent of Kashmir’s population is below 35 years of age. The youth of Kashmir has a much higher influence on the state’s politics as compared to other states because they are excessively politicized and have been sucked into street protests since their schooldays.
Despite all its limitations, it is only PDP that is engaging with this volatile group and directing their discontent as well as aspirations onto a democratic platform. Within PDP, Mehbooba Mufti has emerged as the anchorperson for this mobilization. While the separatists want to keep the youth on the boil and forever traumatized, Mehbooba approaches them as a caring sister qua mother figure and acts as a healer and hope giver. In the process of marginalizing the separatists, she has to often steal the wind from their sails by protesting louder than them against occasional cases of human rights abuses even when her party is in power.
That often gets interpreted as Mehbooba and PDP being indistinguishable from separatists. This misunderstanding is a major cause of tensions between BJP cadres and PDP. The leadership at the top that cobbled together the alliance has not taken the trouble to explain to their respective cadre, the rationale and compulsions under which both sides are operating.
The Importance of being Mehbooba
There is no doubt that Mehbooba has the tendency to go overboard on sensitive issues, which often gives credence to the negative stereotype painted of her by opponents. By contrast, Muzaffar Hussain Baig is among the rare Kashmiri leaders who know how to address the concerns of people outside Kashmir even while safeguarding the legitimate interests of Kashmiri Muslims. He understands and responds sensitively to the concerns of Kashmiri Pandits, people of Jammu and Ladakh, as well as the people of India outside the state in a manner that bridges the emotional divide engineered by unscrupulous politics over previous decades.
But whatever her limitations, BJP cadres and leaders need to understand Mehbooba’s unique qualities. At a time when most mainstream male politicians had abandoned Kashmir, she ventured unarmed into remote insurgency-infested villages where even security forces were afraid to go. She built PDP’s political base bottom up—and that too in the most turbulent of times. Mufti Saheb and Muzaffar Hussain Baig were no doubt the brains behind PDP. But the actual groundwork has been done primarily by Mehbooba.
The importance of Mehbooba can be better understood if we take into account the politicians challenging her. Pitched against her are the likes of Yasin Malik, Masarat Alam, Asiya Andrabi, and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. All these separatists are brazenly acting at the behest of Pakistani agencies and are on the payroll of ISI. They thrive on organizing “atrocity-mongering tourism” for national and international media. These worthies justify terror attacks and instigate the youth to take to arms to destroy India at the behest of Pakistan.
The growing tribe of Asiya Andrabis castigate democracy as being anti-Islam and support Hafiz Sayeed’s jehadi ideology, which is fast moving closer to the ISIS brand of bestiality. These are the forces coercing Kashmiri women to adopt burqa and hijab, which militate against the liberal ethos of traditional Islam in Kashmir. They ban music, dance and whatever else can bring some joy and cheer into social life. Their main agenda is to cultivate a sense of victimhood and instigate the youth into nihilistic destruction.
By contrast, Mehbooba is galvanizing youth to stand up for democracy and aspire towards a constructive future. She appeals to Kashmiri pride as opposed to Islamic separatism. She challenges the Wahhabi version of Islam by her own example. She and her family are Sufi by conviction. They even visit and owe allegiance to Hindu spiritual gurus. Her two daughters have all the freedom that youngsters in other parts of India have. They don’t even cover their heads, leave alone wear burqa or hijab.
This is the first time Kashmir has thrown up a genuine grassroots-based woman leader—that too at a time when the state is tilting towards Salafism that denies women basic human rights. She is the only self-made woman leader in the entire Islamic world who is triumphantly challenging the Salafi version of Islam. Even as a symbol, the rise of Mehbooba Mufti in a Muslim-majority state under siege by Pakistani terror brigades is a tribute to Indian democracy and traditional Kashmiri culture.
She is the most befitting response to the Pakistan-propped many Asiya Andrabis. By mistrusting Mehbooba Mufti and trying to squeeze her role, the BJP cadres would be expanding the space for murderous separatists. The BJP hotheads would also do well to remember that PDP is the only force that has never internationalized the Kashmir issue—something even the supposedly mainstream NC is guilty of doing. Neither Mehbooba nor any other PDP leader has ever gone breast beating to America or Europe demonizing India as the separatists routinely do. If they have grievances or complaints, they insist on a hearing within India.
Mehbooba is not much of a favourite with the Pakistani establishment because she doesn’t sing its tunes and is actively weaning away the separatist cadre. That is why the likes of Yasin Malik hate her with frightening ferocity. By contrast, they have a cozy relationship with the NC because the Janus-faced scam-ridden politics of the Abdullah clan creates a rich soil for the growth of pro-Pak militancy and general estrangement with India. But PDP politics aims to strengthen people’s faith in India’s democracy.
When PDP first came to power in 2002, I had asked one of the senior JKLF leaders why Yasin Malik hates PDP so much. The answer I got speaks volumes-
When NC is in power, they water the roots of terrorist/separatist politics while pretending to oppose it by merely trimming the branches. However, when PDP is in power, they don’t oppose us in words, they may even appear soft on us, but they are cutting our roots even while making a show of being soft on us.

The people of J&K gave a historic electoral verdict in 2014 requiring the BJP and PDP to work together to bridge the regional and communal divides in the state. Both the parties need to understand the compulsions and limitations of each other, instead of creating difficulties for the alliance. They need to take each other into confidence and evolve joint strategies for dealing with contentious issues being raised by vested interests.
Total lack of experience of governance among the BJP’s first-time MLAs and ministers and the oppositionist mindset cultivated over decades of being a marginal opposition makes the task doubly difficult. On the PDP side too, there are plenty of greenhorns and hotheads who keep rattling the fragile alliance. The inexplicable sidelining of able and seasoned administrators like Muzaffar Hussain Baig in preference to inexperienced and unreliable ministers like Haseeb Drabu has also made PDP performance in administration much weaker than it was during 2002-2005.
Similarly, gross mishandling of the cow slaughter issue by BJP leaders has created an easily avoidable crisis for the two alliance partners. The fact that PM Narendra Modi appears to have forgotten all the grand promises he made to the youth of J&K that he would work to make it a “super state”, only serves to strengthen the hands of troublemakers in the Valley.
The inexplicable delay in delivering the promised development package from the Central government has also created a wave of disenchantment with the current dispensation. Had the Rs 80,000 crore package been given to J&K within the first couple of months of the new government assuming power, it would have created good faith in the Valley, set into motion the much-needed development work and strengthened the PDP-BJP alliance.
Now the same package is being treated with disdain, because NC and the separatists have had the time to define the terms of the discourse and build up hysteria against PDP as being a puppet of the BJP. In such a situation, PM Modi’s open snub to CM Mufti Sayeed at the joint rally they addressed in Srinagar on November 7 has created a furious wave against the alliance with separatists on the offensive.
Even if Modi did not like Mufti’s advice regarding reopening the dialogue with Pakistan, there was no need to humiliate the CM in front of his people. If nothing else, Modi should have respected Mufti’s age and experience and handled the matter more deftly. Apart from damaging the prospects of the alliance, Modi damaged his own image by coming across as arrogant and disdainful of his party’s most vulnerable but valuable alliance partner.
Voices are growing louder on both sides that this alliance should be scrapped. At a time when all other political parties are hell- bent on polarizing Muslims against the BJP, which in effect translates into the widening of the Hindu-Muslim divide, the coming together of BJP-PDP coalition—that too in the sensitive state of Kashmir—provides both these parties an opportunity to set into motion a historic new trend of constructive engagement between the people of Kashmir and the people of the rest of India.
The success of this democratic experiment in Kashmir–as a Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority India—will also provide a role model for the rest of the Islamic world, which is going through unprecedented turbulence and open warfare between the forces of democracy and the forces of annihilation. It will also provide a major fillip to the Prime Minister’s initiative to strengthen bonds with the Muslim world bypassing Pakistan.

The Congress is desperate to sabotage this alliance and take Kashmir back to the dark days of the insurgency. If this alliance fails, the Congress can go around triumphantly declaring to the world that the BJP is incapable of inclusive politics. On the other hand, the success of this coalition would be the most befitting response to the ideology that created Pakistan. History will not forgive either of the two parties if they fail to live up to the huge trust and responsibility reposed by the people of J&K in the alliance.

First posted at: http://swarajyamag.com on November 23, 2015
(see link:  http://swarajyamag.com/politics/for-kashmir-pdp-is-the-best-bet/)

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Selective Outrage Over Bans

Had the fever pitch anxiety about four day meat ban in deference to Jain community’s Pratyushan, remained confined to TV anchors and the handpicked chatterati that appear on TV debates one would have ignored it as another passing storm in a tea-cup.  But when someone with the gravitas of Pratap Bhanu Mehta declares with righteous rage, "Get off the ban-wagon! Meat bans violate fundamental liberties, erode state’s secular character"(The Indian Express, September 13, 2015), it becomes necessary to ask why is it that our intellectual elite have never before felt outraged at far more draconian bans with far more deadly outcomes?
Of the numerous examples of double standards in this regard that one could offer, let me just cite just one for reasons of space. "Ban the Ban" enthusiasts don't seem to care that since late 1990s animal rights zealots succeeded in banning the traditional art and occupations of all those communities in India that specialized in training animals for art performances as a means of livelihood.  There was a time when snake charmers and bazigars would be sent to international festivals as ambassadors of India's traditional art forms. But when the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was extended to these communities it reduced them to the status of outlaws. With one stroke of pen their centuries old art forms came to be treated as criminal activity without even bothering to provide them any alternative means of survival.  The Madaris who trained monkeys or bears, the Saperas that tamed and made snakes dance to the tune of traditional musical instruments like the Been, are today among the most marginalized and brutalized social groups in India. Those who tried keeping alive their inherited art are sent to jail and have their animals or reptiles confiscated. Nobody even thought of employing them in zoological gardens, or putting their centuries honed knowledge of the forests, medicinal plants and wild life to creative use in modern occupations.
Even the Nats who specialize in acrobatic performances had their art form banned under anti-beggary law. In the process of providing legal help to several such families who had their children snatched away by the police while the adults were locked up on the charge of “begging” while all they were doing is to earn money by displaying their unique art form, I witnessed from very close how pious sounding laws have been used to inflict legal terrorism on these hapless groups.
If putting animals in a zoo is not "cruelty", how can a Madari training a monkey to dance and entertain be called cruelty? If slaughtering animals for food is not a crime, how can we treat Saperas and Madaris as criminals for having preserved their ancestrally inherited art forms involving animals? Animal rights activists dare not demand a ban on animal slaughter for meat eating because the elite sections of society get outraged at the slightest restrictions on their lifestyles.  But when Madaris and Saperas were banned from practicing their centuries old traditional art, not a voice of protest rose in their defence, not a tear has been shed for their plight because the ban impacted only the poorest of the poor.
It is noteworthy that the Indian Constitution (Articles 25 to 28) allows every community to practice and preserve its traditional culture.  Thus, the ban on Saperas and Madaris is not only an assault on their constitutionally guaranteed "freedom of occupation" but also to their fundamental right to preserve their millennia old culture.
I don't know if monkeys, bears and snakes "rescued" from these groups have remembered to send their thank you notes to Maneka Gandhi who takes the credit for having imposed and implemented this ban with ferocious zeal and determination.  But in every basti of Madaris and Saperas, one hears people curse her for having destroyed their means of livelihood, their knowledge tradition and reduced them to beggary. We the elite remember the otherwise banned Saperas whenever snakes suddenly appear in our homes or offices and poses a threat to our lives.  They were put on duty even at the time of Common Wealth Games because the area cleared for building CWG village on the banks of Yamuna was a natural habitat for reptiles. But ordinary Indians still call Saperas to their homes for ritual pujas on Nag Panchami.   But even that is outlawed as per Maneka Gandhi's farmaans. 
Today, these tyrannized communities’ spread all over India, live in utter penury.  Even if you can't go witness their plight in villages of India, I urge you to have a glimpse at their wretched conditions in Kathputli Colony near Shadipur Depot or Sapera Basti near Badarpur border.

Now that the threat of curbs on porn sites & meat deprivation for couple of days, has awakened our intellectual elite to the evil effects of bans, may one expect that they will lend support to MANUSHI’s endeavors to get the above described ban also lifted?

First published in The Indian Express September 24, 2015: (http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-selective-outrage-over-bans/)

Monday, 14 September 2015

Ban or not to Ban : Beyond Copy Cat Responses to Pornography

The ongoing controversy over whether to ban pornography as a social menace or treat it as a matter of liberated sexuality, individual choice and freedom of expression, is being carried out as though the issue has cropped up for the first time in India because we have a supposedly “right wing” BJP government at the helm of affairs.
Even senior journalists who should know better choose to ignore that not too long ago, the anti-obscenity provisions in the British-enacted Indian Penal Code were made more stringent in 1986 with full cooperation of the mainstream media. This happened because a shrill campaign was launched by feminist groups to force the government to enact a new law to declare “obscene portrayal of women” in the media a criminal offence punishable with a minimum two-year jail term plus monetary fine.
Protests against the use of women as sex objects in the media, including advertising had already been raised on a much larger scale by the feminist movements in North America and Europe because that is from where this disease emanated.
At that time, mainstream media lent full support to feminist activists who went around defacing with black paint what were termed as “sexy” hoardings.  These included pictures of buxom women being used to sell car tyres, or intimate pictures of couples to sell cigarettes.  Some feminists even took to protesting outside cinema halls demanding ban on movies with hot and lurid scenes or an excess of body display of women.  This was the day and age when respectable films did not even show a regular kissing scene and instead used suggestive symbols to communicate sexual attraction. In those days only soft porn would be shown in a low key manner in the morning shows of regular cinema halls. These protests never witnessed mass participation and they remained confined to a handful of women for each such occasion. But they got massive traction in the media—often front page coverage with a big photograph of the protest event. 
The questions being raised were valid: Why do advertisers have to use women’s bodies in sexually provocative ways to sell sundry products from male undergarments, wall paint to cigarettes and soap? In fact even I had written several articles and film reviews critiquing the negative portrayal of women in the mass media.
Even though the protests in India were sporadic and tiny, yet these mini protests, small meetings and workshops against women’s portrayal in the media organized during that phase grabbed media attention because the few NGOs who took it up were backed by powerful western donor agencies, out to proselytize Indian women to adopt feminism as their intellectual prop. By the late 1970s, western donor agencies had begun funding feminist studies and feminist activism in India.  The most notable among them was the Ford Foundation which came to influence the agenda of newly emerging women’s organizations by providing them generous financial and political support. Therefore, condemning “obscene portrayal of women” in the Indian media came to be seen as a “progressive” move and hence enthusiastically supported by those who saw themselves as pro-women, including leftists in the Indian media.
What better way for feminist NGOs to justify receiving huge grants from western donor agencies than to browbeat and guilt-trap MPs into enacting all-India legislation to outlaw obscene portrayal of women?  Such was the hype created in favour of banning obscenity that within no time, a Bill was presented in Parliament in 1986, and a new Act added to the statute book that very year: The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986. 
From what I remember, there was zero debate in Parliament on this Bill, nor any real opposition. As happens with most legislation claiming to be pro-women, no one among the opposition parties bothered to even read the law, leave alone subject it to careful scrutiny. 
In any case, at this point in time, Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister of India with a brute majority of 485 in a house of 545.  With “liberal” and “progressive” mainstream media and leading feminists baying for this Bill, no one except two of us from Manushi (my colleague Ruth Vanita and I) stood up to risk taking a politically unfashionable position against the Bill. Both of us protested not because we favoured “obscenity” or “indecency” in the portrayal of women but because the drafting of the law was both brainless and impractical. 
An article entitled “Using Women as a Pretext for Repression” that I co-authored with Ruth Vanita explained our position and warned of the potential dangers of that high handed law while it was still in the form of a Bill before Parliament. (See Manushi issue No 47 of 1986 http://manushi.in/docs/882.%20Law-Using%20Women%20As%20aPretext%20for%20Repression%20-37.pdf)
Needless to say, in that heady atmosphere, our voices of caution against the proposed law were ignored. Feminists hadn’t yet discovered the word “moral policing”. Instead they wanted the State to appoint them as “moral police’.

“Obscenity” as per the Indian Panel Code
Why did we consider that law ill-conceived? To begin with, the definition of obscenity was borrowed straight from the British-enacted Victorian-minded Indian Penal Code of 1860.  This is how Section 292 and 292A of IPC defines “obscenity”:
a book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, figure or any other object, shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the pruri­ent interest or if its effect, or (where it comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items, is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt person, who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”
Needless to say, the definition is both arbitrary and vague.  It is left at the discretion of police and courts to define what is “prurient” and therefore likely to “deprave” and “corrupt” morals. In the eyes of Victorian administrators with their prudish notions of sexuality, even the worship of Shivalinga representing the act of procreation was depraved, not to speak of the erotic art of Konark and Khajuraho temples with their open celebration of sexual union in all its diverse forms. An epic like the Mahabharata, with numerous out-of-wedlock children or god Krishna with 16,000 patranis and countless romantic dalliances were all used as proof of the depravity of te Hindu culture and its diverse faith traditions. Luckily, the British had the good sense not to bring down those temples or ban our sacred epics.
In fact, recognizing the inherent clash of cultural values between the Christian West and Hindu civilization, the IPC made specific provisions to keep out of its purview, “any representation sculptured, engraved, painted or otherwise represented on or in—(i) any ancient monument within the meaning of the Ancient Monu­ments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958), or (ii) any temple, or on any car used for the conveyance of idols, or kept or used for any religious purpose”.
The punishment for the first time offence of producing or distributing “obscene” material under the still alive and kicking IPC of 1860 vintage is imprisonment up to two years and a monetary fine up to Rs 2,000.  In the event of a second or subsequent conviction, the jail term can go up to five years with a fine of Rs 5,000.

Making Existing Law More Stringent
When feminist crusaders launched their campaign for a new law, we tried reminding them that the IPC provisions against obscenity plus the existing film censorship regime were more than adequate to deal with vulgar or sexually gross portrayals of women in the media.  Therefore, there really was no need for a new law. Here is a summary of our reservations against the easy to abuse provisions of that Bill as presented in our article “Using Women as a Pretext for Repression”:
The definition of “indecent” in the 1986 law was a mindless adaptation of the definition of “obscenity” in the IPC of 1860 with new absurdities added to good effect.  To quote the exact provision of the Act:
“indecent representation of women” means the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman; her form or body or any part thereof in such way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals;
The punishment for a person “publishing or cause to be published or take part in the publication or exhibition of any advertisement which contains indecent representation of women in any form—book, pamphlet, paper, slide, film, writing, drawing, painting, photograph, representation or figure which contains indecent representation of women in any form” is the same as in IPC:  It invites imprisonment of up to two years for first offence plus fine of up to Rs 2,000.  Subsequent offences invite a jail term of up to five years plus a fine of at least Rs 10,000 which may extend up to Rs 1 lakh.
The Act gave any Gazetted Officer authorized by the state government to enter and search any premise where he suspects such an act is being committed.  He can also seize any material he thinks is derogatory to women. Needless to say, this amounted to adding to the enormous arbitrary powers of police and sundry government functionaries to intimidate, harass and terrorize any citizen who they wished to extort money from or settle personal scores with. The danger is especially serious since the Act also lays down that under this Act, “no suit or legal proceeding shall be permitted against the government or its officers” if they carried out raids and got people arrested in “good faith”. This is clearly meant to protect officers misusing the law for blackmail or extortion.
Such misuse is especially easy since the very definition of what constitutes “indecent representation of women” is altogether vague, overarching and lacking in specificity. There are plenty of people who consider women without burka or ghoonghat indecent. For others a woman in a skirt or a plunging neckline or the traditional backless blouse of Rajasthani women is “indecent”.  In the co-ed Delhi University college I used to teach in, some leftist lecturers were in the habit of nabbing students for “indecency” and threatening them with expulsion if they found a girl and a boy holding hands or hugging each other in the privacy of the college terrace. For some, the pelvic thrusts and sexually provocative gestures that have become routine ingredient of every Bollywood film are indecent while others balk only at explicit scenes of copulation. The Victorian-minded British considered a novel like Lady Chatterley's Lover indecent. It remained banned in England till 1960 and its author Lawrence was persecuted and hounded all his life for his erotic writing.  Today, Lawrence is celebrated as a writer of great classics.
The absurdity of such an overarching definition becomes even more glaring when the very same Act repeats verbatim the provision of the IPC Section 292 that the law would not be invoked against any book, film, painting etc whose publication or distribution is justified “in the interest of science, literature, art or learning.” The exemption was meant as a safeguard against nutty prudes, of which there is no dearth, who may want to ban school lessons in physiology which include a description of the sex act and the process of reproduction. 
The Act also exempts materials that are kept or used for bona fide religious purposes as also ancient monuments, temples, idols etc—exactly as the IPC did. This too amounts to an open admission that there is much in our religious literature, art, architecture and rituals etc which in the eyes of many in the contemporary world amount to “indecent representation of women.”
We also warned the ban enthusiasts that the law could easily become a pretext for political censorship.  For instance, a detailed and graphic report I had published on the gang rapes and other sexual atrocities on Sikh women during the 1984 pogrom of Sikhs could well be dubbed "prurient" and hence invite a ban as well as a jail term. (See article “Gangster Rule, The Massacre of the Sikhs” http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/articles/Gangster%20Rule.pdf) That it was not a case of crying wolf was proven by the vindictive cases lodged against The Illustrated Weekly editor Pritish Nandy when he published an article exposing the sexploits of then chief minister of Orissa J.B. Pattnaik through gross abuse of power.  However, no action had been taken against Nandy for routinely publishing features containing large photographs of semi-nude women. Quite predictably, none of our warnings were heeded and the new law came to be touted as a major feather in the cap of feminist activism.  

Feminist U-Turn on Obscene Portrayal of Women
But the very same feminists lost interest in this law because in America and Europe, feminism moved on to other issues.  This was in large part due to the fact that in the US, the anti-obscenity pornography stance got associated with right wing politicians who were traditionally opposed to many dimensions of women's rights, especially the right to abortion. Therefore, the left wingers, including many American feminists, began taking a libertarian position. Some of them also began to see both pornography and prostitution through the prism of “pro-choice”, arguing that sex work should be treated at par with any other occupation or profession.
Therefore, an influential section of feminists began to adopt the same position vis a vis obscenity, pornography and sex trade. The reasons behind his U-turn are revealing. By the 1990s, the spread of AIDS began to pose a huge challenge even to western societies. One of the strategies adopted by western countries was to promote the use of condoms and health checkups among sex workers. With it came the demand for legalization of all forms of sex work, including porn. Millions of dollars were poured into western donor agencies to fund NGOs that lent support to this campaign. Therefore, it did not take long for an influential section of Indian feminists and prominent journalists to use ingenious arguments justifying prostitution and pornography as legitimate professions.
An additional reason for this U-turn was no less instructive. The campaign for law against indecent representation of women was led by feminists either directly aligned to left parties or those who saw themselves as part of the left political spectrum.  Since western donor agencies show a distinct preference for patronizing those with a leftist orientation, leading feminist NGOs are well-trained to be virulently against those they dub as “right wing”. This term, borrowed mindlessly from the political divisions in Europe and America, was thrust on to BJP and related outfits as well as all those traditional women’s organizations that are unfamiliar with leftist feminist lingo.
When those alleged to be “right wing” organizations of women, especially those allied to BJP, began to invoke the anti-obscenity law to protest against excessive use of sex and violence, the feminist NGOs and women’s wings connected to Communist parties began condemning such demands as retrogressive and trashing them as “moral policing”—another term blindly borrowed from the western feminist experience of battling right wing conservatives in their respective countries. This trashing happened despite the fact that “indecency” and “obscenity”—however one may define these two terms—grew by leaps and bounds after the enactment of a fairly stringent law against “indecent representation of women.”  With the growth of private TV channels and internet access, entertainment was no more confined to State-run Doordarshan with its sanitized programmes or cinema halls which could show only those films which were cleared by the Censor Board. Countless private TV channels invaded every home, every bedroom, including that of children. Within no time, came the internet which provided access not just to sexy movies but also hardcore porn at the click of a button.  Mobile telephones put pornography virtually in every one’s hands, including that of kids.  Therefore, anxiety about alarming dozes of sexually explicit material through these varied sources began to aggravate even otherwise progressive parents. 
But left wing feminists and their collaborators in the media erased from their memories and writings their not-so-distant contribution to bringing in a legislation for “moral policing”—more draconian than the one left behind by our colonial rulers.  Ironically, left wing feminists were the first group in India to invoke State censorship of what they termed offensive to their tastes, morals and sense of dignity as women. They seemed to have acted under the naive assumption that they alone would have a permanent veto in deciding what is to be banned and what constitutes indecency.

List of Ban Enthusiasts Keeps Growing
The fact that small women’s groups without any political base managed to get a special law enacted to ban what they considered offensive, emboldened other social groups also to press for similar bans on whatever these communities defined as “hurtful” to their sentiments.  For instance, Marathas became hyper-sensitive about non-hagiographical accounts of warrior king Shivaji’s life and reign. They began demanding ban of scholarly books that are even remotely critical of Shivaji.
Likewise, Sikh leaders get virulent if their “hurt sentiments” do not result in speedy bans on films and books, including scholarly studies that do not meet with their selective beliefs about the Sikh Gurus.  They were ready to kill Baba Ram Rahim simply because he dared to dress up like Guru Govind Singh.
The zealous followers of Babasaheb Amebdkar will not just stop at demanding ban of a book or film which offers even mild criticism of Babasaheb’s political or personal life. They go on a riotous spree if their demand is not met.  
This list of “ban enthusiasts” is not only endless but an ever-expanding one.
All these tendencies got strengthened in India by witnessing the success of Muslim leaders vis a vis Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Taslima Nasreen’s books critiquing Islam and the rabid mullahs of Bangladesh.  It is noteworthy that the Congress Party always went along and surrendered before ban enthusiasts if they came from communities that affect its electoral fortunes. Under Rajiv Gandhi’s “secular” government, India was the first country in the world to ban Satanic Verses under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists. It is also worth remembering that it was under the CPM government that Taslima Nasreen was thrown out of West Bengal under pressure from Islamic zealots who were furious at her expose of the persecution of the Hindu minority in her country.
But the path to censorship was first shown by Indian feminists who didn’t ask for a ban on this or that book or film but on anything and everything that this minuscule elite group considered offensive self-appointed guardians of women’s dignity.

Double Standards of Libertarians
But, as I mentioned earlier, as soon as desi women’s organizations including BJP women picked up the issue and used their sensibilities to decide what products deserved ban, the “progressive” feminists not only disowned the law they had authored but they also began attacking all such demands as “retrogressive” forms of “moral policing.” If the demand came from Muslim groups, it was treated deferentially as an assertion of minority rights to safeguard their culture. But any protest that emanated from a group that was not virulently anti BJP, it was dubbed freedom-averse, anti-women Hindutva which began to be equated with “fascist intolerance”. 
Among the many such instances, the most telling was the controversy over M.F. Husain’s nude paintings of Hindu goddesses—some of them great art but a few were truly offensive.  Among them, Hanuman finding goddess Sita sitting nude on Ravan’s thigh as he comes to rescue her was outrageous by any standards.  Likewise, a naked Durga in a sexual posture with a lion, goddess Lakshmi sitting naked on the head of Ganesh, a naked Sita riding the back of Hanuman in a sexually suggestive manner, or a naked Mother India deeply upset the Hindu community. This was especially so since Husain never took similar liberties with the beliefs and sentiments of the Muslim community. For example, in a painting depicting a Muslim Sultan and a Hindu priest, the former is fully clothed while the Brahmin is totally naked and far more diminutive in size.
Husain’s defence that statues of Hindu goddesses are invariably nude or semi-nude didn’t cut any ice because Sita is never depicted nude—that too on Ravan’s lap! Nor has Mother India ever appeared in the nude. Moreover, the traditional stone or bronze idols of goddesses may not be clothed, but they are crafted to evoke reverence not lust. A stone or bronze idol of Parvati sitting in Shiva’s lap has a very different meaning than Hanuman finding naked Sita in Ravan’s lap.
However, the very same feminist groups that had mobilized opinion in favour of banning “Indecent representation” of ordinary women in media—came out in defence of brazenly obnoxious portrayal of the most sacred feminine icons of Hindu community. The same media that had given laudatory coverage to small vigilante groups of women defacing cinema or ad hoardings or demanding ban on this or that film was upset when Hindu groups demanding a ban on the public display of those controversial paintings held protest demonstrations.  When some of them took Husain to court on charges of “obscenity”  and hurting their religious sentiments, the once pro-ban feminists and media suddenly saw in the legal proceedings against Husain a mortal threat to artistic freedom at the hands of “fascist Hindutva forces.”
They forgot that fascists don’t go to courts or seek redress through due legal process. They simply eliminate those they don’t approve of. Husain chose to leave India and settle down in the UAE under the generous patronage of the royal family of Abu Dhabi in order to escape defending himself in Indian courts. This response is not very different from Lalit Modi’s escape to England. Yes, some fringe Hindu groups did issue death threats but none of them dared inflict the kind of violence Taslima or Rushdie faced, because Husain had the backing of the Indian government.
Both Husain and LaMo claimed that they felt unsafe in India. But Husain became a cause célèbre—a symbol of the Hindu majority’s persecution of Muslims, a victim of Hindutva’s supposed intolerance towards artistic freedom etc.  By contrast, Lalit Modi, who alleges that the Dawood gang and their associates in India, pose a threat to his life gets no sympathy. He has been dubbed a bhagoda who evaded trial in India. His escape to England is being described as a criminal act even though no case had been filed against him when he escaped. Husain was never given the bhagoda title, nor was issued any notice by the government to come back and put his faith in the courts of India.
In sharp contrast to Husain who got oodles of sympathy and support from left liberals in India, even though he lived a luxurious life as a guest of the royal families of UAE, Taslima Nasreen never got a fraction of sympathy or support from left liberals even though she faces serious death threats, not just in Bangladesh but also from militant Muslims in India. She lives an obscure life as a fugitive in India, thrown out of this country as and when Muslim leaders build a hysterical campaign against her. As someone who spoke for the endangerdered  Hindu minority in Bangladesh and spoke against the tyranny of radical mullahs, leftist secularists should have embraced her. But because the CPM turned hostile to her in the interest of safeguarding their Muslim vote bank, leftists of all hues keep a safe distance from her.

Pornography becomes Cause Célèbre for Liberals
Thus the recent controversy over pornography has to be viewed in the context of existing laws enacted during colonial rule and further solidified under Congress rule with ultra-progressive Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister. 
Let me make it clear at the outset that I am not a great enthusiast for government bans. Let me also state it loud and clear that the manner in which somecrack pot within the NDA government decided to issue orders to internet providers to block 857 porn sites was ham-handed, impractical and counter-productive. That is why within a day or two, a fresh order was issued saying only child porn sites are to be banned. The internet service providers have responded saying they don’t have the wherewithal to identify child porn sites and therefore the government should make up its mind what it really wants. The government has thus made a mockery of itself.
But it is equally if not more absurd that anti-BJP intellectuals, mediapersons, self styled “progressives” including a section of feminists, have come out in defence of pornography as though porn deprivation amounts to crushing people’s liberty, threatening their well-being and an assault on their fundamental human rights.
Here is a small sample of the passionate responses in defence of porn:
Ø  with the ban on porn sites, the government takes one more step towards the Talibanization of India.” Milind Deora, former Congress MP.
Ø  By banning porn, India has kicked itself into the dark ages. Watching pornography is one of the most private things an individual can do…All regressive governments start by banning internet pornography…It hits people at the very core, inside their private homes, and allows governments to regulate what people do in the confines of four walls of their room…Once a society has accepted a ban on pornography; it is ready for other restrictions.   Jawed Anwar on website dailyO.in
Ø  Considering the sheer popularity of porn, whichever government owns up to banning it is sure to be wiped out of existence in the next election…To deprive consenting adults of the harmless fun they are having of (sic) watching porn is equivalent to what Taliban and ISIS is doing to freedom…It’s a proven fact by international surveys that instead of fuelling sex crimes porn actually provides safer outlet for sexual repression.”  Ram Gopal Varma, film maker
Ø  The paradox is that India was not sexophobic then. Every possible sexual posture is carved in the stones of Khajuraho and Konarak temples. We also had Vatsayan’s Kamasutra then.  It is a great heritage.” Mahesh Bhatt, film maker, Times of India, August 5.
Ø  We should have destroyed Khajuraho and several other temples in the country. How are depictions engraved in stone at these places of worship any different? We are the creators of porn in stone.  Then how can we denounce it? Of course porn that violates human rights should not be encouraged.”  Mani Shankar, film maker, Times of India, August 5.
It is noteworthy that all those feminists who worked with zeal to push for the enactment of “Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act” in 1986 have not come out to support government action against porn sites. They have mostly been silent or made non-committal statements like the following one by Donna Fernandes of Vimochana in Bangalore who said: “Instead of knee jerk actions like bans, we should look at the problem more deeply.”
It is also ironical that the very same westernized elite class that thought nothing of passing a draconian law against ‘indecent representation of women “ in 1986, has emerged as defenders of hard core porn! The pro-porn proponents should understand that the government needs no new law to prosecute the consumers and peddles of pornography.  The IPC covers this “offence” adequately.  The 1986 law made it more stringent.
Nobody has ever thought of challenging the validity of the 1986 law or Section 292 of the IPC law even though anyone who scratches the surface of its implementation would know that it has been widely used by the police to extort bribes from those publishing, producing or selling smutty magazines, videos, films etc. The police themselves are habitual consumers of such material and therefore know each and every location where it is produced or sold. Just as the police collect regular hafta from brothels and pimps supplying call girls, so also the “obscenity” producers and peddlers have for long been a regular source of “extra income” for the police.
No surprise then that the extent, scale and depravity of such materials kept increasing in India as the production of such materials acquired the form of a well-entrenched industry in the West.  India was at first slow in catching up with the West. Because of the social stigma attached to it, men who consumed porn, semi-porn or even magazines with pictures of nude or semi-nude women had to do it surreptitiously.
But today, watching porn is being peddled as a fundamental human right.

The responses against the porn ban fall in the following broad categories:
Ban is impractical and virtually impossible to enforce: It is argued that unless India follows the way of dictatorial regimes like China or South Arabia, there is no way blocking of porn sites can have even marginal impact.
This is indeed true and the most valid argument against the ban, especially given the lawless, corrupt police we are saddled with. Anyone who still has some faith left in the ability or intent of our police force should watch the recently released film Masaan which depicts the horrific abuse of power our police routinely indulges in while pretending to combat sex crimes. Before the internet arrived, one saw pornographic videos being sold in the form of VHS cassettes even in villages where piped water was not available and power supply extremely erratic. Today India has caught up with the West in hosting even live porn shows, thanks to the complicity of the police.
Apparently, there are over 40 million porn sites on the web and growing every day.  Those who are hungry for porn manage to procure it just as nashedis manage to access liquor even in states or countries that have enforced prohibition. However, as the experience of Gujarat shows, while liquor may be available through not-so-secret networks for all those who want it, it is rare to see a drunkard creating a nuisance in public as happens in the rest of India. Gujarat’s towns and cities are among the safest in India. Young women freely move around late into the night on their scooties either in groups or even alone because there is no risk of being harassed by drunkards and hoodlums. Even if people drink, they do so slyly in the privacy of their homes. The fear of being caught by the police keeps them from appearing in public since social legitimacy attached to drinking has been taken away. Therefore, far fewer people drink even among the working class. Women are the biggest supporters of prohibition since it means less domestic violence and fewer chances of men blowing up what they earn on liquor.
Similarly, ban on pornographic sites may not be totally effective, but it will surely deny pornography the kind of social legitimacy it has come to acquire in recent years. By making access difficult, it will certainly inhibit its consumption.

Blocking Porn Sites Invades the Right to Privacy: This libertarian position holds that the State has no business to interfere in what a person does in the privacy of his/her home.
This is an eminently reasonable position for most part.  But it acquires a spurious character when used with regard to pornography. Firstly, porn is today being downloaded and viewed on mobile phones, being shared not just with close friends but also being posted on Facebook and other social media sites. People are watching it in offices, including government offices. There are theatres that specialize in running porn films. People organize porn parties to be followed by partner swapping, group sex and much else.
Thus the porn industry is not a “private bedroom” affair. I would have no issue if a couple invited their friends to watch them engage in sex in the privacy of their homes—whether as a lesson in innovative sex or for plan titillation. But pornography is today a trillion-dollar industry where women are often held captive as sex slaves. 
What is more, a large part of porn materials on the net are surreptitiously-filmed sex acts which are then leaked without the consent of the concerned women.  Incidents of gang rape being video recorded and put out on the net are not uncommon either.

Porn is a Harmless Pleasure Sport: Pornography is a product of perverse male fantasies which treat women as mere objects of pleasure and male gratification, and as pieces of flesh to be consumed by men, like carnivorous animals feed on the meat of weaker species. A large part of porn is a deadly mixture of sex with violence, sadism and outright bestiality. Even ordinary porn is not an edifying introduction to sexual pleasure. The one and only time I saw a porn movie some 20 years ago, I was simply revolted. Far from titillating or arousing me, it nauseated me for the degrading way it treated women as slavish recipients of male lust in its crudest manifestation. No less revolting was the projection of men as brainless, heartless emotionless stud bulls. And this was not even one of the sadistic types. Women whose partners/husbands are addicted to porn will tell you how messed up their sexual and emotional life becomes. 
A student currently interning with me described it very aptly in the following words, though he admitted to being an occasional consumer of porn for relieving stress: “It’s like dogs going at it. The whole thing is extremely crude and unrealistic. It certainly messes up male sexuality by giving men performance anxiety since they cannot possibly match the stud bulls of porn.  That is exactly what ultimately puts you off porn.”
Moreover, today it is the product of a well entrenched industry, a commercial empire spanning continents—and a very unethical one at that. People who work in it do so for money, not for pleasure, just as those who risk selling banned drugs, do so for making a quick buck not for the love of that trade.  Barring exceptions like Sunny Leone, most porn actors end up with tragic lives. It has been widely reported that porn actors tend to die young because they are given steroids, hooked on to deadly drugs and also run a much higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The same libertarians who will emote profusely over working conditions of bonded labourers in agriculture show absolutely no concern for the sex workers trapped in the porn industry. 
One can only feel sorry for those whose idea of “pleasure” and “sport” doesn’t balk at degradation of women who either get sucked into this trade for quick money or are trapped in it as sex slaves.
Those who argue that porn is a necessary part of adult life, is a harmless fun sport—need to answer whether they would let their own daughters—or even sons—become porn meat even if it means becoming as famous as Sunny Leone!

Adult Porn is about free choice but child porn should be banned: This too is clever posturing. All those who piously declare that child pornography is not kosher but adult porn is OK pretend to be unaware that children, especially teenagers have become major consumers of porn. With what moral authority can parents prohibit their teenage kids from watching porn, if they are themselves regular consumers? The difficulties in blocking child porn sites are the same as for adult sites.  Since most of these service providers are based outside India, there is very little that the Indian government can do to block them, especially since these sites have a way of resurrecting themselves in new avatars within hours of being blocked.  Moreover, special service providers like “deep and dark internet” enable access to child porn, bestial porn and a lot more to its clientele with governments having no way of controlling it.
Most important of all, it is almost impossible to tell with certainty the age of porn actors. A 16-year-old girl could easily pass off as a 19-year-old with the use of hormonal drugs or surgical interventions to give the girl heavy rounded breasts and artificially induced all-round growth. Teenage boys on steroids can also pass off as above 18.
Those who take a moral stand against use of children in the porn industry need to tell us whether consumption of porn by young kids is OK.  If it is not acceptable, how do you control their access to porn in the day of mobile telephones, without resorting to blocking porn sites?

Porn not out of place in the land of the Kama SutraThe most devious of all arguments is that in the land of the Kama Sutra and in a culture where ancient temples like Konarak and Khajuraho exist, we can’t afford to be prudish about sex or pornography.  We are reminded that “India’s cultural history is unique in recognizing sexual desire as a highly desirable attribute of human beings, that pursuit of kama (sexual desire) is one of the four pillars of Hindu life along with dharma, artha, and moksha.
It is ironical that the westernized elite who rarely find anything worthwhile in the Hindu culture and are forever trashing Hindu civilization for being oppressive, backward looking, life-denying, anti-women, anti this, anti that—latch on to the Hindu heritage only when it comes to Khajuraho and Kama Sutra!
But to compare Kama Sutra or the stone carvings in the temples of Khajuraho and Konarak with porn is like comparing chalk with cheese. To equate crass commercialization of sex through porn with celebratory depiction of sex in ancient Hindu art and literature is to not know the difference between Casanova’s promiscuity and Lord Krishna’s raas lila with gopis.  The very fact that sexual union in myriad forms finds place in Hindu temples shows that kama was treated as sacred only so long as it was grounded in dharmaKama doesn’t stand alone, it is one of the four pursuits of life which are to be kept balanced by adherence to dharma just as pursuit of artha (material wealth) or even moksha (liberation from worldly attachments) could not ignore the requirements of dharma—the code of ethics for diverse situations of life. That integral bonding of kama and dharma is what enabled the Hindu tradition to display and worship the symbols of sexual union in temples.  This celebration and worship of sex was not a hidden, secret cult.  It was displayed on the outer and inner walls of our temples and worshipped in the form of Shivalingam in the main sanctum—open to all—men and women, old and young, adults and children alike.
Ethical indulgence in sex includes caring for your partner, respect for his or her feelings, emotions and desires, including taking responsibility for its intended or unintended outcomes--such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Ethics in sex also means not treating it as a secret vice even though the sexual act takes place in the privacy of one’s bedroom.  Kama and dharma going together have no place for rape or one-way sexual gratification. When dharma guides kama, one doesn’t cheat on one’s partner or exploit the poverty and vulnerability of a woman for prostitution. Dharma will not allow making sex into bazaroo pleasure or crass buying or selling of sex. 
Can the most avid defenders of porn say the same about commercially available pornography and the sleazy industry that produces it?  Would all those who equate the sculptures of Konarak with porn flaunt the pornographic images they consume as a secret pleasure on the outer walls of their homes or offices?
The bald fact is that over time, pornography coarsens human sensibilities and robs sex of all ethical considerations. Most of those who consume it have to hide it not only from their children or parents but also from their wives. This is how a young man who watches porn on his mobile phone fairly frequently responded when asked if he shares porn films with his wife: “Oh my god, I watched porn with my wife once but its impact rattled me. No man should ever make this blunder. A woman who starts watching porn expects her husband to perform in the same manner—continue hammering her for an hour or two non-stop. No man can satisfy a woman fed on porn. It kills your relationship. If you can’t meet with her porn-aroused expectations—which are totally unrealistic, she starts looking around for other men. Porn is meant only for women who are into professional whoring.”  
Most male friends/relatives I spoke to, barring a few new age couples, had similar responses. They admitted to watching porn occasionally but most were emphatic that they would never share it with their wives. In fact, a majority of them said their wives would haul them over the coals if they got to know of their secret indulgence. None of them wanted their children to even get a hint of it lest they lose respect in the eyes of their kids. This sense of shame in itself speaks volumes.

State has no business to interfere in private lives of citizensThis too is an eminently sound position to take, but westernized “modernists” use it very selectively only in those areas where they want to appear in tune with prevailing intellectual fashions and social trends in the West.
For instance, incest takes place mostly in the privacy of homes, but such a relation is treated as a crime in western countries. Therefore, the Indian elite too accept it as a crime. The day American society decides to treat it as “normal”, Indian libertarians are likely to readily fall in line.
Let me illustrate this through an example. Western governments, through their donor agencies, have managed to convince countries like India that they have to control women’s fertility and limit family size to a maximum of two children. Consequently, the educated elite of India fully support any and every coercive measure to impose the two-child norm on the poorer sections of society, including disqualifying people from contesting panchayat elections if they flout the norm. No western government in this day and age dare enact a law restricting a family’s right to have as many children as they want. But since the West thinks Indians need such authoritarian controls, our elites don’t find it abhorrent.
Similarly, the libertarian elite have no objection when the government enacts a draconian law making sex selective abortion a serious crime , even though abortion per se is not only legal but also upheld as a woman’s basic right. Whether a couple wants a son or a daughter is a personal choice. The State ought not to have a say in such matters. But we allow the State this intrusion in the overall interest of society.
Another example: For millennia the terms of marriage and divorce in India were decided by biradari norms and no ruler dared impose laws to regulate these matters among the diverse communities of this land. But in the West, even though marriage and divorce are considered a personal affair between two individuals, yet States have imposed a range of laws to determine its terms and conditions. Consequently, the Indian elite also brought in elaborate legislations to regulate relations between husband and wife, including their sexual conduct vis a vis each other. Similarly, at what age two persons can engage in sex or get married without being treated as offenders in the eyes of law is today decided by the State. Indian libertarians don’t find fault with such legal intrusions because they have been adopted from the prevailing norms in western countries.
But since pornography has become legally permissible in western countries, our copycat elite are not willing to brook any opposition to it.

Women have also become consumers of pornography: In recent years, the porn industry has begun to produce female-oriented porn in an attempt to neutralize criticism that it projects women as brainless bimbos who exist only to cater to male sex fantasies. So now we have porn which projects women as active agents who use men as their playthings. Apparently, this has increased the number of women that watch porn as a counter to the fact that much of the opposition to porn traditionally came from women. As per a recent study of dubious worth, even in India, 30 per cent of porn watchers are women. This claim is aimed at strengthening the case of pro-porn lobby that there is nothing anti-women in it.
This argument may work with the most gullible variety of feminists but it won’t convince those whose sense of ethics is not derived from the brute force of numbers. For instance, smoking or tobacco chewing does not become healthy just because a lot more women have become addicted to its use. Theft and dacoity does not become socially acceptable just because the number of women engaged in these crimes has increased manifold. Prostitution cannot become respectable just because an increasing number of middle class women are voluntarily opting for it to make a quick buck.
The great gift of western capitalism is that it knows how to manufacture consent through many devious means. It can seduce people into believing that they are enhancing their life quality even while consuming patently harmful products. A good example is that of aerated colas and sundry bottled drinks. It has been well established that they are bad for health and addiction to them at an early age can damage children’s mental and physical growth, and yet, through seductive advertising and aggressive marketing, corporates have managed to invade the pockets of even the poor by making its consumption appear as a symbol of good life and upward mobility. Coca Cola will not become less harmful even if a thousand market research findings showed that it is more popular among girls and women than among boys and men.

There is no relationship between consumption of porn and rising graph of sex crimes:  It is noteworthy that almost all the studies that claim that there is no correlation between porn and crime have been done by those who support porn. Conversely, those who are opposed to pornography marshal contrary evidence to show that it strengthens negative stereotyping of women as sex objects, coarsens sensibilities and feeds into sexual brutalization and crimes against women. It is also noteworthy that most of these studies have been done in the West. There is no serious attempt to study the correlation between the two in India.
True, most who watch pornography don’t turn rapists, just as all those who consume liquor don’t turn into wife beaters. But there is direct correlation between high incidents of drunkenness and wife battering. In communities where liquor consumption is looked down upon or is kept within control, domestic violence is relatively less common. It is rampant among communities where majority of men are habitual drunkards. So also with pornography, especially since a large part of porn is a deadly mixture of sex and violence, with women shown even enjoying the brutalization of their bodies. A strong dose of sadism is an integral part of porn. When such attitudes and images are implanted repeatedly in the minds of the young and impressionable, they are likely to make them seek similar forms of gratification, using sex as an instrument of gross domination rather than mutual pleasure. While people from stable families and internally cohesive communities who exercise a measure of social restraint among its members can handle small doses of porn without being damaged emotionally, by all accounts porn has a very explosive impact on the socially rootless, mal-educated, underemployed army of lumpenized youth being produced in India.
Rape was not uncommon in India but in today’s India, the sheer demonic brutality with which the bodies of women and even little girls are being vandalized and done to death in gruesome ways is likely to have a direct correlation with the ferocious spread of sadist porn. This phenomenon deserves serious study.

The Bane of Copycat Elite
The raging debate between defenders and opponents of porn is not a clash between prudes seeking sexual repression versus freedom lovers opting for joyful assertion of sexuality. It is essentially a clash between westernized Indian modernists pitched against those with traditional sensibilities towards male-female relations. The English-educated elite have a strong tendency towards blindly aping the dominant social values of the time in the West. Unfortunately, the western cultures are known for unstable tastes, forever swinging from one extreme to the other in their blind pursuit of change and novelty. What is fashionable today—be it in the domain of clothing , art , architecture, literacy genres or intellectual ideas—becomes unfashionable and discardable  tomorrow.
Western modernity demands a sharp break from tradition. But in India, we prefer to inhabit a world of continuities where past and present are intimately and creatively connected. The donning of denim jeans does not make the traditional Banarsi or Kanjivaram silk sarees we have inherited from our mothers or grandmas unwanted or unfashionable. They continue to be valued in their own right, occupying a pride of place in every woman’s closet. This is what makes most of us in India reject wholesale adoption of western modernity. We are more comfortable adopting it in palatable doses that don’t uproot us from our past traditions and culture. In the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
But the hyper-westernized modernists want violent rejection of our traditional culture and values and swing with abandon with every changing fashion in the west.
During the Victorian era, the British managed to convince the Indian elite to adopt their prudish values as a mark of “civilized behaviour”. This included looking down upon matrilineal communities where monogamous marriage of the Christian world was unknown and women were free to choose and discard sexual partners at will. The matrilineal communities were subjected to aggressive ideological warfare aimed at convincing them that their social practices were immoral and depraved.  The mission was indeed successful.  Matrilineal communities of India are now history. 
Likewise, tribal and other communities where live-in relationships have had the same status as regular marriage, with no stigma attached to children of such unions, were targeted by missionaries to convert to Victorian/Christian norms of marriage, divorce and stigma of illegitimacy attached to children born out of such unions. Similarly, Bengali bhadralok were made to feel ashamed of their women wearing blouse-less sarees. Consequently, women of elite Bengali families adopted Victorian-style high-necked, full-sleeved blouses as a sign of “high culture” and women’s modesty.
The devadasis in the South who were repositories of classical arts, music, dance et al were condemned as prostitutes and vigorous campaigns launched for the abolition of this tradition at enormous loss to the classical art traditions.
These are just a few of the countless examples one can cite of the English-educated elite in India happily adopting the ideological prism and dominant norms of the West in viewing their own culture and slavishly adopting western norms as hallmarks of “progressive thinking.” This tendency did not get curbed after India won freedom from British colonial rule. On the contrary, this has gotten further entrenched in post-independence India in all those spheres of life controlled and influenced by the English-educated elite.
That is why when feminist voices in the West grew strong against obscene portrayals of women and equated pornography with prostitution, they went ahead and demanded any law to ban such portrayal without caring to build safeguards against its easy abuse.
As old-style feminism lost its clout in the West and divisions appeared within feminist ranks on this issue, the anti-porn position got intellectually junked  because of its association with right wing politics which has a strong track record of illiberal, anti-choice positions vis a vis women’s rights such as right to abortion, divorce etc. Therefore, the westernized elite in India also swung in favour of porn as a symbol of liberated sexuality.
Our westernized elites rooting for porn feel moral doing so because the United States Supreme Court had upheld in the Stanley vs Georgia case that people could view whatever they wished in the privacy of their own homes, thus establishing “right to privacy” law. This view was further bolstered by the US Commission on Obscenity and Pornography appointed by President Lyndon Johnson whose report in 1970 concluded that “there was insufficient evidence that exposure to explicit sexual materials played a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behaviour”. The verdict of this Commission has been used as the ultimate weapon in the hands of libertarians that legislation “should not seek to interfere with the right of adults who wish to do so to read, obtain or view explicit sexual materials, “ but that such material should be restricted to adults.
This Commission actually undertook massive original research which established among other things that repeated exposure to pornography “caused decreased interest in it”.
But these words of wisdom were not heeded in 1986 because at that time anti-porn voices within the US feminist movement such as Robin Morgan and Susan Griffin were in the political centrestage.
The issue was never settled even in the US because certain members of the Commission submitted a minority report expressing disagreement with the majority view. When Republicans came to power, a new commission was set up in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, headed by Edwin Meese. In 1986, this commission reached the opposite conclusion. This was not backed by solid research unlike the earlier commission and most members had an anti-porn bias, nevertheless its conclusions can’t be altogether rubbished, especially the following observations:
1.    Pornography that portrays sexual aggression as pleasurable for the victim increases the acceptance of the use of coercion in sexual relations.
2.    Acceptance of coercive sexuality appears to be related to sexual aggression.
3.    In laboratory studies measuring short-term effects, exposure to violent pornography increases punitive behaviour towards women.
In short, there is a solid opinion even within the US that pornography constitutes a serious threat to “public health”.
However as the feminist movement waned, the anti-pornography stance came to be associated mainly with the right wing of American politics. That is why in recent years, leftists and self-styled liberals in India began to emerge as defenders of porn and dubbing the anti-porn opinion as a product of right wing “Hindutva” ideology. This amounts to mindless aping of western categories and political battle lines on to an altogether different scenario in India.
In India, there is no comparable “left wing” versus “right wing” divide on this and other women’s rights issues even though the pro-porn proponents would like us to believe that only “Hindutva” votaries are against pornography. The truth is that here, not a single party including those who are virulently anti-BJP, anti-Hindutva, would dare take an openly pro-porn position. They would be lynched by their own cadre, including those who may be secret consumers of porn.
We cannot blindly rely on research findings of other countries, most of which have an ideological bias. The least we owe ourselves is to think the issue through our own lenses instead of using borrowed lenses and copycat wisdom.

Feminize Men, not Masculinize Women
The State can only deny legal legitimacy to the consumption of porn, not curb or eliminate it by banning porn sites because in this day and age of the internet, bans don’t work.
The real challenge lies in combating the growing social legitimacy of porn which has come about ever since the westernized elite began to flaunt their indulgence in it as a legitimate and “natural” expression of sexuality.  For instance, smoking and tobacco use are negligible among Sikhs in comparison to most other communities of India simply because these are really looked down upon by the entire Sikh community. No law against smoking could achieve comparable abstinence. So also with sex crimes.
The stand we take on porn has far-reaching implications for the fate of the family as an institution. Porn as an industry is an offshoot of the free sex movement in the West. Just as unrestrained individualism which accepts no cause bigger than I, me, and mine spells the death knell of the family as an institution, so also unrestrained pursuit of kama or sexual indulgence without any roots in dharma spells the doom of marriage as an institution, which demands loyalty and commitment as its founding rocks. Without these qualities and willingness to exercise sanyam (self-restraint) you cannot provide a stable family life to your children. The proof is for all to see—in most western countries, irresponsible notions of sexual liberation have severely eroded the role of family as an institution.
Those who deride the value of sexual restraint need to understand that every society, including the most sexually liberated ones have set moral limits. For instance, it is not uncommon for men to feel sexually attracted to their younger brother’s wife or even their own daughter-in-law. Some even end up establishing illicit relations or raping their bhabhi or bahu. But I can’t think of a single society which does not look down upon such relations as shameful. That is why such sexual indulgences are kept under check. Without a healthy dose of “moral policing”, family and society will fall apart.
Thus far, most societies have adopted double standards in “moral policing” which are grossly in favour of men. The tyranny of these double standards has pushed many women into thinking that freedom lies in emulating men. The world over, male sexuality has displayed a tendency to express itself in forms that demean women. Rape, prostitution and sex slavery predate the emergence of porn as an industry. But in most civilized societies, these were socially disapproved as brutalities that respectable men would not stoop down to committing.
The history of civilization can well be described as the history of society trying to put male sexuality under certain restraints. Hence the universal move towards criminalization of rape, sex trade etc as well as enactment of laws which force men to take responsibility for their marriage partner. However, pornography encourages men back in the direction of restraint-free, amoral sex which is totally dissociated from caring and love. This may work for men but is lethal for women. Therefore, the least women owe themselves is to act as restraining influences on men instead of adopting their vices as a sign of liberation. It is not for nothing that Mahatma Gandhi thought the future of humankind lay in feminizing men instead of masculinizing women!
That is however a long-term battle. In the meantime, we need to undertake serious studies in India keeping our own social challenges and cultural traditions in mind to find out whether:
a)    Addiction to pornography has an enduring impact on male female relations.
b)    Does it legitimize the use of violence and coercion in sexual relations?
c)    What is the impact on marital relations of men or couples that watch porn? Does their sex life improve or worsen?
d)    At what age are young kids in India getting exposed to or seeking out porn? How does it impact their relations to females, whether of their age or older?
e)    Are males and females addicted to watching more likely to have extra-marital relations?
f)     What is the proportion of child porn, soft adult porn, hard porn, sadist porn and bestial porn being watched in India?
g)    What is the incidence of porn addiction among men convicted of rape and other sexual brutalities? Do they see a link between porn addiction and sex crimes?
Questions to these and many other related questions require serious countrywide social research through our own lenses, keeping our social requirements and notions of dignified male-female relations in mind. If it turns out that porn has indeed emerged as a serious challenge to mental health and increased violence and perversion in male-female relations, we do need to find ways of dealing with this menace.

First published at http://swarajyamag.com/ on September 12, 2015: http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/to-ban-or-not-to-ban/ 

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar
इक उम्र असर होने तक… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …اک عمر اثر ہونے تک

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