Monday, February 23, 2009

Speaking out

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, February 22, 2008

The Other Half

Two days before February 14, in Rajnandgaon in Chhatisgarh, a group of young girls and boys met for a dinner at a local restaurant, one of only two in this non-descript small town. The restaurant served the ubiquitous selection of “Punjabi/Chinese”. On the lawn behind the restaurant, a party was in full swing with loud Bollywood music blaring out.

Ten years ago, would we have seen boys and girls meeting like this in a town with just over one lakh people? Unlikely. Some of the girls wore western clothes, one wore a salwar kamiz. I asked my host whether this gang of boys and girls were from outside Rajnandgaon, a place with several educational institutions in and around it. He said it was a possibility but they could also be local girls and boys. The presence of the lively group went virtually unnoticed by others in the restaurant. It seemed as if such meetings were commonplace.

In many ways, that group of young people represents the changes taking place in several parts of India, where education and economic mobility are allowing young women to lay claim to the public space as they never could before. They can be seen riding bicycles to high school and scooters to college and work and meeting in mixed groups without fear of being attacked or rebuked. Their mothers would never have dared do this, even if they had wanted to. Perhaps these girls will go on to earn degrees and then get married to the men their parents choose for them. Perhaps some of them will decide to move out of the small town and seek work elsewhere. Perhaps a handful will even be bold enough to decide whom they want to marry. None of this is beyond the realm of possibility.

This is a generational change that the loony fringe who train their guns on hapless couples on Valentine’s Day fail to understand or do not even wish to think about. It has nothing to do with an imposition of another culture. It has to do with education, opportunity and urbanisation.

This year February 14 came and went with the predictable reports of some shops being attacked, random couples being humiliated and demonstrations about “decency” and “culture”. The awful case of the brother and sister being beaten up in Ujjain because the Bajrang Dal gang thought they were a romantic couple was a particularly distressing incident as also several other cases where couples had their faces blackened and one in which the boy was “married” to a donkey. Yet, compared to previous years, this time some state governments did act and the preventive arrests of likely trouble makers managed to dampen the enthusiasm of the “morality brigade”.

But this year was different for another reason. In the bigger cities, for the first time, people decided to fight back. As one television channel dubbed them, the “Love Sena” also came out with assertions of why they had a right to express themselves as they wished in a free country. For instance, students of Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and the Jawaharlal Nehru University took out a march in the Delhi University campus and then went on to perform street plays in Kamla Nagar market, an area where the Sangh Parivar’s activists had attacked shops selling Valentine’s Day cards in previous years. “Love is not a crime. So why fear the Sanghi terrorists?” they shouted.

(To read the rest, click on the link above)

1 comment:

Rahul said...

This discussion can go on for years and we will never see the end of it. But there is a darker side to this story of women growing independent as they claim to do so in India. I am thinking about this alot ever since I read your articles here. Will try and put my thoughts together write up something for you. Not against what your saying, but this whole thing is being interpreted to one's own convenience or should I say to help one's own motive.