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Monday February 9, 2009

Pub culture kicks up a row

The beating up of girls in a Mangalore pub touched off a huge controversy – alleged decadence of the West against an old-fashioned Hindu values system.

THE recent attack on young girls in a pub in Mangalore, Karnataka, by a group of self-proclaimed guardians of Indian culture and tradition has touched off an angry debate.

Though the attackers were arrested and subsequently freed on bail, they did manage to provoke a nation-wide controversy, with votaries of modernisation forcing the upholders of Indian culture and tradition on the back foot.

It began rather innocuously. On one lazy Saturday afternoon last month, a 20-strong mob raided a little known pub located in a shopping complex in Mangalore, hitting and chasing young women having a quiet drink with friends.

Hoodlums belonging to a local group, Sri Ram Sene, had tipped off a local television channel before the attack. So their dastardly act was soon on the television channel.

Later that evening, the same footage of young men chasing terrified girls, pinning some of them to the ground, was on national television channels, with anchors doing much hand-wringing against “barbarians and the Hindu Taliban, forces of regression, moral police, vigilantes”, et al.

With the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party in power in Karnataka, rival politicians sought to link the party to the Mangalore attack, though Pramod Muttalik, the leader of the Sri Ram Sene, had been expelled from the BJP several years earlier.

Indeed, Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa saw a conspiracy against his government in the pub attack.

While the traditionalists, led by the Sene, railed against what they called pub culture or liquor culture among the young, most talking heads on the small screen spoke of individual choice and tolerance.

But BJP wasn’t alone in the political arena. The attack on the party lost its sting when Ashok Gehlot, the Congress Chief Minister of Rajasthan, virtually endorsed the case against pub culture.

Gehlot said he was against “young boys and girls holding hands, going to pubs and shopping malls for drinking whiskey or whatever …”

Indeed, Gehlot accused the former BJP Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje of having encouraged liquor culture in the state during her five years in power.

Further support for the traditionalists soon came from Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss. He too railed against the growing pub culture, saying that it was alien to India’s traditions. Besides, consumption of liquor was a growing health hazard and must be curbed.

Most state governments, however, earn substantial revenues from the manufacture and sale of liquor of both varieties, that is, the country-made liquor and the Indian Made Foreign Liquor.

Nonetheless, the Mangalore incident touched off a huge controversy, pitting westernisation against the traditional way of life, modernisation and globalisation against orthodoxy, alleged decadence of the West versus an old-fashioned Hindu value system.

Blindly aping the West without imbibing its values of hard work, personal honesty, hygiene, education, etc, could well end up with Indians having the worst of both worlds, it was argued.

Due to a growing exposure to television and Bollywood films, and due to envy of the English-speaking upper classes, modernisation has come to be equated with westernisation in the popular mind.

Small towns and villages have nursery schools galore with French or English names. Since ordinary people attach great value to all things foreign (which in the popular mind means all things American or English), these schools, mostly run by half-literate educational entrepreneurs, seek to exploit the ingrained Indian weakness.

Gender equality activists saw in the Mangalore attack a reflection of the alleged male bias against women. For ages, women activists argued, men had treated women as their chattels, denying them equal rights in property and, above all, the right to dignity and decency.

Traditionally, women had been denied the right to education, were generally confined to the four walls of their parental house, and on the onset of puberty given away in matrimony as bonded cattle, fierce warriors for gender equality argued.

So the attack on the Mangalore pub was not so much in defence of Indian culture as it was an assault on the dignity of women.

“These men were angry at the sight of women imbibing liquor with their male friends … It was all right if boys drank, but it was sacrilege if women did,” said one battleaxe of a woman on a television channel.

Sociologists spoke of a schizophrenic split in society, with the haves blindly aping the western mores and the have-nots feeling envious and resentful.

It was an economic divide with the poor bereft of a decent livelihood and the rich using surplus income to eat in fancy restaurants, patronise West-inspired fashions in clothes and housing and imbibing liquor in beer-bars and pubs.

Though not exactly a class war, the vast unwashed masses, envious of the big-spending upper income class, do associate all things western with decadence and immorality – while secretly aspiring to do the same should they have half-a-chance or acquire the economic means to do so.

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