violence against women in the name of culture

Newsletter Jan - April 2009


On January 24, 2009, young women in a pub were attacked by members of a group called the Sri Ram Sena (SRS). They claimed that women drinking in a pub was not part of ‘Indian Tradition’. The attack was carried out after TV cameramen were called to cover it. The incident got wide publicity in the media for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the media attention tended to sensationalise the news and got diverted into the pros and cons of pub culture, whether women should drink or not and so on. The fact of the violence against women in this case and the connections to other forms of violence and policing were absent. The issue thus got diluted, the accused got acquitted and the media made TRP through sensationalising all of this.

The discussion about modernity and tradition, western culture and eastern values, liberty and limits has been taken to new heights in the past few months. Self-proclaimed defenders of culture and tradition in many parts of the country have sought to outline a woman’s ‘place’ in the society. As the mastermind of this attack in Mangalore said in an interview, "Women are being misused and misguided. We oppose this. Women have to be protected as the law has failed… We are the custodians of Indian Culture…" Pramod Muthalik, president, Rashtriya Hindu Sene.An attack on women to protect them where the law had failed?! The ‘real’ agenda of these ‘custodians of Indian culture’ and the ‘Indian culture’ they were trying to preserve is unclear not only from the past history of the string of attacks that never made it to the press. Also in a tragic incident a few days after the attack in the pubs, a young girl committed suicide after being publicly humiliated for speaking to a muslim bus conductor. The nature of the these lesser known attacks showed that the issue was not ‘Indian Culture’ as much as what they perceived as the ‘threat’ of inter-religious and ‘choice’ relationships. Women have been attacked if seen with men, irrespective of whether they are brothers, sons or husbands. Non-Hindu men get beaten up in public places such as juice stalls, buses, trains, colleges, if they are seen with Hindu women. Citizens of Mangalore who have lived their lives experiencing a sense of safety now feel threatened by the rising cases of targeted violence based on religion and gender. There were a series of incidents reporting violence against women in Mangalore before and after the attack on women in the pub. Women were attacked whether alone or with men, in pubs or on the streets using public transport or traveling in their own cars. The attacks seemed to be based on an assumption that these women were ‘outsiders’ corrupting the city like Bangalore! This is made evident in the extract below from an account reported in the newspapers: On condition of anonymity, the traumatised woman said: "Everyone could see that they were being aggressive and yelling obscenities in Kannada. No one came to my rescue." One of the men… moved threateningly close. When she slapped him in self-defence, he punched her. "Aggravated, I shouted at him in Kannada. He was stunned to hear me speak the language. He noted down my licence plate number and told the guard he would harm me later," she said. February 26, 2009, The Hindu.

Apart from playing on the idea of the insider-outsider, the attacks were focused on cutting interaction between people from different religious communities. It is clear that these attacks were not merely to control women but critically to further their right wing communal agenda. It is also no coincidence that these attacks have coincided with the BJP being in power in Karnataka.

The incident of violence on women at the pub got the kind of attention and coverage it did because the hooligans from SRS had roped in the media. The media instead of intervening or even informing the police swooped in to cover the scoop and sensationalise. This role played by a section of the media is not a new – and is reminiscent for example of the media presence when the police swooped down on ‘couples’ in a park in Meerut under Operation Majnu.

What this media coverage did succeed in doing was to give the SRS a lot of publicity. This has been a tried and tested method by politicians and political parties to establish themselves, make clear their agenda and register their presence amongst the public. It is but a tactic by the likes of Raj Thackrey, Pramod Muthalik and now Varun Gandhi with the objective to obtain short-term political advantage. With the elections round the corner, the publicity was precisely what this group wanted.

Promod Muthalik of the SRS also threatened to get couples who were seen together on Valentines Day married! He claimed his activists had been working for the last 10 years and had ‘succeeded in putting an end to the Valentine’s Day celebrations in five districts of Karnataka’. He said that the SRS has been divided into five teams that will roam around with a hidden camera and a priest on their side with a turmeric stub and ‘mangalsutra’! And even claimed that the marriages will be registered!!! Whether they would have forced the, marriage of hindu-muslim couples is of course the question – since these are the relationships that the SRS seeks to prevent!

However, by Valentines Day, Muthalik and a couple of others from the SRS were arrested from Manglore and Banglore districts on preventive measures. The charge under which Muthalik was arrested was for a pending case against him for making inflammatory speeches. Later on March 16, 2009, Muthalik was banned from entering Dakshina Kannada for one year for various reasons, including the attacks on women in Mangalore and for making threats of further violence on Valentine’s Day. It is unclear whether this ban is being implemented. The ruling BJP in Karnataka went from justifying the acts of violence to then distancing themselves from the outfit as a result of the pressure on them. The BJP at the centre maintained a strategic silence on the issue. Despite the initial arrests there has been little action after.

The National Commission for Women sent a team to Managlore to investigate the attacks. The chairperson of the committee, NCW member, Nirmala Venkatesh’s report on the attack was shocking. Not only did she blame the attack on the lack of security within the pub but also on the women who she claimed were ‘skimpily dressed’ and ‘dancing’ and said that the women should know how to fend for themselves. The NCW rejected her report and dismissed her from her office claiming that she went out to the media with this report before submitting it to the NCW. Following which Nirmala Venkatesh called herself a victim of a deep political conspiracy to tarnish her home state of Karnataka, resigned as a member of the Congress and promptly joined the BJP!


OF FEARLESSNESS AND PINK UNDERWEAROne of the voices of resistance to emerge after the attack in the pub was of the ‘Pink Chaddi campaign’. The campaign started on Facebook, a social networking website, and soon had over 45,000 followers - both women and men. The campaign group called itself ‘The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women’ asserting the right to be in pubs and resisting the ‘ideal’ image of women as domesticated and docile. They sent out a call to women and men to send Pink Chaddis (underwear) on Valentine’s Day to Pramod Muthalik and his SRS to express ire at the increasing number of attacks on women in Karnataka and its neighbouring states. What ever the rationale, the movement caught on with a large number of people tired of being policed and controlled. A large number of pink coloured underwear were put together at various Chaddi-Collection points in Delhi, Mumbai, Banglore and other cities and also posted by individuals to the SRS’ office in Hubli, Karnataka. This campaign caught the attention of the media and got a lot of media coverage. There was a mixed reaction from the some groups in the women’s movement who expressed a discomfort in the choice of the colour ‘pink’ and of chaddis. They asked why pink chaddis were being sent. Was this like sending bangles to men - a conservative strategy that tries to shame men by imputing that they are feminised, reinforcing gender stereotypes. Some saw it as a ‘cheap’ gimmick. On the other hand, others asserted that this was a powerful symbolic act that said NO to the control and policing of women. The symbolic act played on the idea that getting rid of your underwear implied a kind of boundary crossing. It sought to deflect the shame surrounding underwear – part of the assertion of ‘pubgoing, loose and forward women’. The campaign was responded to by several counter campaigns such as the Pink Condom Campaign and also the SRS’ promise to send back pink sarees to people who sent in Pink Chaadis!

The campaign also called on women to fill the pubs on Valentine’s Day – to resist the policing of the SRS by ‘taking back’ the space they had made taboo. Valentine’s Day then came to stand for a day to claim the right to love, to claim liberation from policing, a day to celebrate one’s right to choose what to wear, whether to drink or who to be friends with. For many including feminists who had been critical of the way Valentine’s Day has been projected and monopolised by business whether of card manufacturers or by those selling diamonds, felt that symbolically this was day to assert the right to love and to chaim spaces. However, the fact that this was a campaign addressed to the middle class was clear both given that the internet was the site of mobilising and that women were being called to fill pubs. It thus seemed disconcerting when a minister made a call to women to fill the pubs! Women’s groups in Delhi came together on February 3, 2009 to stage a protest at the Karnataka Bhavan condemning NCW’s position on the Mangalore attacks and the inaction of the State administration, police and political leadership on the situation. The protest was well attended and a memorandum was given to the Resident Commissioner. A memorandum was also given to NCW regarding the appalling conclusions of their fact finding committee on the Mangalore incident. There have been many other initiatives to resist these continuing attacks on women. Several groups in conjunction with several concerned individuals started Fearless Karnataka / Nirbhaya Karnataka, a citizens’ initiative. These groups and people came together ‘to provide a support network for victims, to design a "sensible" media campaign to highlight the issue without sensationalising it, and to create a united front with which to approach higher authorities and discuss measures to tackle this problem.’

On March 7, 2009, after failed attempts to meet the Commissioner of Police, Fearless Karnataka / Nirbhaya Karnataka members attempted to have a talk with the DGP who vanished even after having given them an appointment. They submitted a memorandum nonetheless and also held a Take Back The Night march at Banappa Park, near Hudson Circle, Bangalore on March 8, 2009.

Apart from the joint action protest outside Karnataka House, Saheli organised a Saturday meeting around the Mangalore incidents. At the meeting a film made by Sutapa Deb for NDTV called ‘Take Back my Night and Day’ was screened. The film highlighted the string of violent attacks by the SRS in Mangalore and the threats that inter-community couples who want to marry have to contend with. The meeting was an opportunity to start a discussion on the ways in which we can start planning a sustained campaign against the policing of choice relationships, the so called ‘honour killings’ in incidents of inter-caste or inter-religious marriages or relationships, and the shrinking of spaces that women are experiencing in many parts of the country. We hope that in the near future the women’s movement will be able to build such a sustained campaign.