Too many of us Indians are unnecessarily too proud of our “Indian culture”. We tomtom it as the best thing ever created on earth. Unfortunately, an intrinsic part of this culture is the way we treat our women. The entire system of dowry. The ghastly sati system which existed for the most part of our history. Female foeticide. The “purdah” culture. Widow re-marriage issues. Branding women who wear Lipstick. Opposition to Valentine’s day. Angst against Public Display of Affection (PDA)…..these are all shameful aspects of Indian culture. Yet, for every one person who protests against these, there are a hundred others out there who fight for continuance of that very culture. India is a much divided country. But never is it more visible than on the subject of our culture.
As an example, consider the statement issued by the Shiv Sena today that it agreed with Abhijit Mukherjee’s recent, utterly nonsensical statement. From the TOI: “Stating that the Congress MP had spoken the truth, the ‘Saamna’ editorial said the “lipstick gang” should pay heed to the feelings of all countrymen.” What heed should the lipstick gang pay? Not to wear lipstick or work or go to discos or aim for the skies? The Shiv Sena – and most other political parties – have become the culture minders of the country. The moral police as they are often called. But are political parties out of touch with the people as newspapers and TV channels suggest? Unfortunately, no. They are very well connected. The problem is that the vast majority of our people – both urban and rural – feel the same way as the Shiv Sena does. This is the real challenge we face as we go about enacting new laws and providing more security for women. The aam aadmi is heavily prejudiced; and he’s not about to change.
Take another part of our “Indianness” (this one comes from religion) that needs to change immediately, but will not because of vested interests. Casteism. Today, we are angry because of the rape of the girl. But if we look at the even more gory incidents of crime against the lower castes, we will have to make changes there as well. I am not talking of intermittent violent crimes. I am talking of the constant, daily denial of equality of rights and opportunities to the lower castes. Here, the guilty ones are the upper castes. They don’t want to give up their privileged status. The system works to their advantage. If we don’t iron this one out quickly, imagine the outpouring that will take place when it becomes a burning issue.
The problem is compounded by our misplaced notion of “nationalism”. When we talk about our culture, we suddenly become defensive and unnecessarily compare it with, typically, the Western culture. We love to criticize the West. We hate their nuclear families, their “dented and painted” women, their fast-food culture, their sexual independence (we call it promiscuity) and their “family values” whatever that means. We fail to appreciate the better parts of their culture. For example, when teenagers make a living by working in McDonalds, we mock their parents for not fending for their children, but we refuse to accept how that experience makes them confident, independent and ready for life. The fact is that there are good parts and bad parts in any culture. We must have the intelligence and courage to accept the bad parts of our culture, and make appropriate changes. We must also be willing to accept the better parts of other cultures. But our xenophobic belief that we are the best in the world does us no good.
Unfortunately, it is only a small section of society that has evolved socially. We see a sliver of this section in the protests across the country. Such people are in a minority. That is why, we shouldn’t expect much action from politicians. The urban politicians might be a little more sensitive, but not much, since even our cities are full of bigots. The large majority of our politicians – like Abhijit Mukherjee – have to face an even more orthodox bunch of voters. A bunch that still lives with 17th century social mores. Let’s not forget; a politicians is really alert when it comes to matters of survival. Abhijit Mukherjee said what he said not by mistake, but as a calculated and thought-through plan. Why? Because he was in his rural constituency, probably in the middle of a male crowd of potential voters. I can take a bet that rather than howls of disapproval from the crowd, his statement must have elicited huge applause. Can we then expect the likes of Abhijit Mukherjee to support progressive laws that go against their voters? The unfortunate thing is that the women voters are so subjugated that they will anyway do their men folk’s bidding.
The biggest reform taking place in the country is thanks to the growing reach and influence of media. Especially TV and digital. Foreign programming – and Indian programming influenced by foreign programming – is showing a new way of life to women. They are realizing that it needn’t be like it is right now. Slowing and gradually, there is a movement starting to happen within their own hearts and minds. The men are not liking all this. They call it “cultural invasion”, of foreign cultures. Thank god, we still have a genuinely free media – even if it is irresponsible in many cases – in this country. This media gives us hope.
The digital medium is another huge change agent. Digital is breaching the divide between different sections of society. Facebook and twitter and email and websites and e-shopping and Google searches are non-discriminatory. But access to broadband unfortunately still is. The rich have it. The poor don’t. We should ensure that broadband – especially on mobile phones – spreads rapidly if we want a cultural revolution in India. We should have demanded a roll-back of costly 3G auctions because the costly spectrum will impede the growth of mobile broadband. Instead, we made it the gold standard and enforced it even on the humble 2G. Today, 3G penetration is barely 2-3%. Just imagine if this could be made 30% to 50%. Just imagine the impact it would have on the cultural transformation of the country.
The real truth is that unless we accept the flaws in our culture, we will not be able to change. There is no reason for us to be blindly proud of our Indianness. We must be prepared for a slow process of change. Be that as it may, the process has to begin. And never be forgotten. Lets keep our fingers crossed. And pray that digital grows faster….