Why has the debate occasioned by the incident of violence against women in Mangalore been labelled a debate about “pub culture”, when it is clearly about something else? When Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, which led the attacks, is quoted specifically as saying that drinking is fine so long as men are the ones doing it (“Bars and pubs should be for men only”), there’s no misconstruing what he means. Or which half of society he seeks to regulate. (“Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapatis?”— Valke again.) So we need to abandon the misleading “pub culture” tag and start addressing the real issue. Which, it appears, is much less about the general unhealthiness or amorality of consuming alcohol (however much Anbumani Ramadoss may wish to deflect our thoughts in that direction) than it is about the outrage large numbers of men in this country feel about the perceived emergence of a class of women, Indian in blood and colour, but so shockingly Western in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect as to think nothing of bonding over a beer, in public, with men who are not even their husbands (with apologies to Lord Macaulay). As Pramod Muthalik, president of the Sri Rama Sene, put it, “We took steps to protect our Hindu culture and punished girls who were attempting to destroy that tradition by going to pubs. We will not tolerate anybody who steps out of this code of decency.”
A cursory reading of the newspapers reveals two broad kinds of critical response to the Mangalore attacks. The first kind defends a woman’s ability to go to a pub and drink as an individual right. It draws on a notion of freedom, of a woman’s right to live as she chooses, which becomes tied up with the idea of a progressive society. Such a defence can sometimes take off in somewhat absurd directions, such as when Ramadoss’s declaration that India will not progress if pub culture continues is countered by Page Three nightlife aficionados pointing out that developed countries have far more developed pub cultures than ours, thus turning the public consumption of alcohol into an index of socio-economic advancement. In either case, such a response is not concerned with actually engaging those who associate women going out and drinking with a lack of morals and a loss of tradition. The second type of response takes the other side’s appeal to Hindu tradition more seriously, and seeks therefore to defend the consumption of alcohol by women as traditional. This kind of response ranges all the way from representatives of Mangalorean citizens’ groups pointing to a local tradition of women drinking, at least among the large fishing and toddy tapping communities, to a newspaper columnist describing how much ancient Indian women liked their liquor (including Sita’s preference for a particular sura called maireya). The appeal to a plural, multifarious, open-ended tradition is doomed to failure, if only because the last two hundred years of our history have worked to cement the move towards a singular, usually proscriptive one, which can be recognised as a “tradition” by the state, and in whose name outrage can be voiced. So while one might want to hold on to the hope that the Sri Rama Sene might be struck dumb if actually confronted with real-life Mangalorean grandmothers defending their right to toddy, the well-researched “traditionalist” argument is unlikely to actually help defuse the simmering moral conflict that seems to affect so much of Indian society today.
So what might a more helpful sort of response be? What are we, as urban, educated, self-professedly socially liberal people to do when confronted with situation after situation in which it seems that the lives we live are somehow out of joint with the country next door? Whether it’s the Delhi cops who book a (married) couple on obscenity charges for kissing in a metro station, or the villagers of Ghadi Chaukhandi near Noida’s Sector 71 who continue to express their outrage about “couples coming in cars... and doing disgusting things next to our homes” even as they defend their sons against rape charges, there is something going on which demands a more thoughtful engagement with class-based moral divides than we have seen so far. There is no question that some people’s violent attempt to bring into existence their version of a morally cleansed society is abhorrent and must not be tolerated. But it might be worth pondering over why it is the “liberated” woman’s body that ends up bearing the burden of festering class resentments in post-globalisation India. While defending our freedoms as women and as citizens to the bitter end, I suggest we start paying attention to the undercurrents of class that inflect so many of our urban interactions — interactions otherwise framed in terms of tradition, morality and especially, gender.
Editorial published in the Indian Express, 5 February 2009.