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Time to make a choice: are we a modern democracy or a tradition enraptured society?

Sagarika Ghose sagarikaghose

Updated: January 9, 2013, 9:18 AM IST
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Almost as shocking as the Delhi gang rape has been the range of voices that have sounded after it. Patriarchy is chillingly omnipresent and kicking harder than ever before.

The son of the President of India, Congress MP Abhijit Mukherjee called anguished young women seeking answers about their safety, "dented and painted" women. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said rapes are occurring in India and not in Bharat, because of decline in Hindu values and the rise of western culture. Kailash Vijayvargia of the BJP said women who step outside the lakshman rekha should expect to meet Ravana.

Asaram Babu's statement that the gang rape victim could have prevented the crime if she had said a few mantras, fallen at the attackers feet and called them "brother" is the latest utterance from society's "leaders". Not a single male society leader or politician so far has been able to say anything that remotely suggests that he is a modern democrat for whom rape is a crime like murder, not a nudge-nudge-wink-wink morality play. Not a single male politician has had the courage to say that he views women with sympathy and solidarity, as equal citizens of democratic India.

Politicians and community groups - like the RSS and even the Jamat-e Islami Hind, mostly made up of of men - are deeply anxious about western culture as personified in the Indian modern woman. The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind has suggested abolition of co-education and "sober and dignified" dress for girls to the Justice Verma committee looking to strengthen anti rape laws. The modern woman is seen to be on a collision course with our age old traditions, she is part sex goddess part super achiever, loathed and desired in equal measure. A profound fear, a deep almost pathological hatred, of the woman who aspires to be anything more than mother and wife, is justified on the grounds of tradition.

Pummelled by waves of globalisation, with malls, Hollywood and the internet raging all around us, we glorify a golden age pre-British Bharat as the authentic India, the place of the true Indian self before the British and Macaulay came along and made us into pathetic colonised beings. Social media is full of young techies located everywhere from New Jersey to Reykjavik extolling the virtues of the Rig Veda on the internet and using American slang to proudly declare their attachment to "pure" bharatiyata. For these young NRIs, the age of Shiva is a collective role model, not the Constitution of India. In this globalisation-inspired love affair with ancient Indian culture, the modern woman is seen as the enemy.

India's sarkari feminists, for too long cocooned in the worlds of Women and Child Development ministry, National Commission for Women, and other official organs of state sponsored feminism, have so far not fought the war on the streets with the cultural traditionalists as robustly as the young protesters on the street are doing on a daily basis. Today's brave new pioneers have joined battle with cultural orthodoxy frontally, challenging every Asaram Bapu and Mohan Bhagwat through publicly raised voices and open forum debates. The battle is fiercer than ever before and it can no longer be fought in seminar rooms and government meetings. The battle will have to be fought on every issue from dress codes, to mobile phones to love marriages to divorce to the right to education. Keeping an antiseptic distance from the traditionalist patriarchal opposition, and hoping for laws to change them, cannot win hearts and minds.

An honest interrogation of the role of tradition in our rapidly changing lives has to be the need of the hour. Is karva chauth really necessary to assert our bharatiya identity against the West? Has superstition, blind faith and hocus pocus replaced the true spirit of religiosity? Can gurus and god men really help us overcome our personal problems? Are arranged marriages with the right caste and right family, leading to terrible abuse and unhappiness?

Just as we need to introspect about the traditions we are loudly asserting, we also need to analyse the new fashionable markers about "empowerment". When all top Bollywood actors vie with each other to do item numbers, are they pursuing empowerment? Is the all -consuming desire to be as "sexy" as possible, a pursuit of empowerment? When a wardrobe malfunction is staged at a fashion show, is this again a pursuit of women's lib or simply a flaunting of "hey-I'm-so-rich-and-elite-that I- can- show- off- my- bare breasts? Are sex surveys in magazines promoting women's rights? Is an alien sexual brazen-ness passing off as women's emancipation?

We need to renew the contract with 1947 once again. In a country overwhelmingly poor, illiterate and rural, the Freedom dreamers brought democracy, new laws and a constitution designed to kick-start social change. Modernity is not about miniskirts, and tradition is not about opposing miniskirts. Modernity is about constantly interrogating traditions and interpreting them for a new era but just wearing skimpy clothes can't be used to assert modernity. Similarly, using an imagined "Indian tradition" to curtail fundamental democratic rights, such as the right of any citizen to travel wherever she wants, at whatever time she wants and dress however she wants, is a horrible misinterpretation of tradition.

It's time to make a choice. Are we a modern nation, determined to keep our tryst with modern democracy, or are we a tradition-enraptured society, where an imagined bharatiya sanskriti and an imagined "pure" ancient culture handed down from the mythical past will be the guiding light for our future? We have come this far because our founders believed in open-mindedness, progress and modernity. To turn the cultural clock back towards some fairy tale Indraprastha because we're panic stricken about Western influences, would be to return to a slippery slope towards sati, child marriage and ostracism of widows.
First Published: January 9, 2013, 9:18 AM IST

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