May 23, 2007 / 1:42 PM / 12 years ago

Cultural bigotry rises as India sees social change

MUMBAI (Reuters) - A barrage of kisses on Shilpa Shetty’s cheeks, paintings of naked Hindu gods, Valentine’s Day, Fashion TV and sex education — all are unacceptable according to India’s increasingly sensitive moral police.

Richard Gere (L) kisses Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during an AIDS awareness programme amongst truck drivers in New Delhi April 15, 2007. REUTERS/Tanushree Punwani

Small but growing and ever more vocal groups of cultural vigilantes are attacking anything that does not conform to their notion of purity and morality, from paintings, books and films to modern dress, Western attitudes and even beauty salons.

It is an assault some ascribe to the dislocation caused by a booming economy, and the gap between an affluent, urban youth embracing Western values and the more traditional rest of society, whether older or poorer.

“Lopsided economic growth has created a dispossessed population which cannot relate to Western cultural values and norms,” said S. Parasuraman, head of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “The political class exploits this.”

More often than not, the religious card gets played.

As the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party tries to reach out to the moderate centre of Indian politics and redefine itself after its national election defeat in 2004, its radical fringe is looking for issues to reinvigorate itself.

With a profusion of 24-hour television news channels, these groups get disproportionate air time and publicity which media analysts say only emboldens them further.

Earlier this month, an art student was beaten up and his exhibition destroyed for portraying Hindu deities in the nude. The student, Chandramohan, was himself arrested on charges of offending religious sentiments, but later freed on bail.

No charges have been laid against the vandals, who were surely encouraged by the success of like-minded radicals in forcing one of India’s top painters, M.F. Husain, into exile about a year ago for a similar offence.

In April, effigies of Hollywood star Richard Gere and Bollywood actress and “Celebrity Big Brother” winner Shilpa Shetty were burnt after they kissed at a public event. An Indian court even ordered Gere’s arrest to face charges of obscenity.

Meanwhile, anything from Valentine’s Day to sex education in schools is denounced as an alien Western import. Lovers are beaten up for kissing or even holding hands in public.

“Western countries are fighting psychological warfare to influence Indian youth,” said Abhimanyu Gulati, a BJP leader.

“We are saving the country from cultural anarchy and they call us the Indian Taliban.”


But Hindu radicals are not the only ones trying to reshape society through direct action.

In Kashmir, an 18-year-old insurgency against Indian rule has radicalised a section of the Muslim population — with the encouragement of neighbouring Pakistan.

Muslim women activists have raided and shut down beauty salons and even attacked women who don’t wear the burqa.

Many Indians see the radicals as a national embarrassment. But politicians, police and the courts have often turned a blind or conniving eye.

The book and film “The Da Vinci Code” was banned in several states after protests by Christian groups. Dance bars were banned in 2005 in the western state of Maharashtra because they were said to corrupt young minds and breed prostitution.

And in New Delhi, the central government occasionally bans channels like Fashion TV or AXN for showing too much female flesh or too many raunchy advertisements.

Part of the problem, according to commentators like Vir Sanghvi and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, is that India has failed to engage in serious debate about the balance between art and religion, and between freedom of expression and the defence of religious sentiments.

“There is a perception, right or wrong, that when Hindu gods or goddesses are lampooned, free speech is mobilised as an argument; but a lampooning of Islamic symbols is seen as an anti-minority move,” Mehta wrote in the Indian Express.

For Mehta, the right of free expression should apply equally.

“I find it the height of impropriety and hubris that we humans are in the business of protecting our gods rather than the other way round.”

Liberals in India fail to apply the same standards to all religions, agrees Sanghvi, and have never engaged in any serious debate about what should be allowed to be shown in public.

“Our problem in India is that we have no standards, no barriers and no sense of what is acceptable and what is not,” he wrote.

“Each time the issue erupts we engage in the same finger-pointing debates, and call each other names.”

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