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Conservatism or cultural hypocrisy?

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The extreme response of right-wing groups to young people ex-pressing love in public has ignited a debate on cultural hypocrisy.

That people in India are touchy when it comes to matters of love and sexuality is well known. But the extreme kind of socially conservative response from right-wing groups to young people expressing love and affection in public has ignited a debate about the element of cultural hypocrisy present in such reactions. This is more so given India’s own cultural and literary history being replete with examples of open expression of love and sexuality.

Renowned arts editor and cultural critic Sadanand Menon said, “Go to any Vaishnavite temple in India, and you will find the 12th century poet Jayadev’s work Gita Govind being recited during morning prayers. The Sanskrit verse has several lines in which Radha urges Lord Krishna to make love to her ... While religious minded men and women seem to have no problem chanting these lines, they seem to get offended when a couple kiss in a park.”

Describing the reaction of right wing groups, in the name of preserving the Indian brand of morality, as an instance of Victorian morality at work, he noted that several aspects of cultural expression in India, including dance forms like Bharatnatyam, celebrated free expressions of love and sexuality and this was not considered taboo.

Padma Venkatraman (who writes under the pen name Mangai), Professor of English Literature at Stella Maris College, Chennai, said that India’s cultural expression as embodied in works such as the Kamasutra and temple carvings freely explored aspects of love and sexuality. “If you study ancient Tamil texts such as Tholkappiyam, describing the body is part of what is known as Ani Ilakanam. Even works such as Meghadootam and Shakuntalam are full of tales of love, separation and union,” she said.

She referred to the works of 12th century Saivam poetry by Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka, in which she describes her love for Lord Shiva, and said: “In her works, you will find lines such as ‘2000 vaginas have I come.’ These poets are part of our cultural icons. Therefore, matters of love and sexual expression are deeply embedded in our culture and opposition to these go against the culture of free expression that is part of our society,” she said.

Moral policing

Ironically, in the very college where she teaches, the college handbook mentions that girl students should not wear T-shirts, short tops, short skirts and so on. This kind of moral policing of women and controlling their freedom to decide what to wear is just one instance of how moral policing of women’s self-expression takes place in India every day.

Chennai’s engineering colleges, for instance, are notorious for not allowing boys and girls to sit together and speak to one another for the fear that they may end up “crossing the line.” A student of Jeppiar Engineering College, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said that such policing of students continued outside the college as well and boys and girls hanging out together even after college hours were reprimanded by faculty members.

Limits to freedom of expression

But our cultural history notwithstanding, the debate is basically about whether the protesters are correct in demanding the right to kiss freely in a public place. The opponents’ arguments are that this cannot be construed as suppression of freedom of expression and choice as it is about public decency. Lawyer Geeta Ramaseshan, however, was ambivalent with regard to her response to the ongoing debate. “Demonstration of affection in public is a form of self-expression. On a day-to-day basis, people are subjected to policing in parks and public areas, which is perhaps undesirable.”

She acknowledged that freedom of expression came with “reasonable restrictions.” What is at the centre of this controversy is the failure to understand the sensibilities of others, she said.

“It is a young India that we are living in and as demonstrated by these events, police powers are quite high. Therefore, law enforcers need to be careful before going all out to suppress what is evidently a peaceful movement in support of free expression.”

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 8:58:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/conservatism-or-cultural-hypocrisy/article6578703.ece

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