India's Hindu Taliban pull down the skirts of several young women
- Friday, May 1, 2009
A Rising Anger in India's Streets
Hindu Extremists Lash Out Against Symbols of ChangeSLIDESHOWBy Emily WaxWashington Post Foreign Service
BANGALORE, India -- At a trendy pub in this cosmopolitan IT capital, Hemangini Gupta, 28, and some of her girlfriends were recently relaxing with cocktails after work. A group of Hindu men later followed them outside, verbally accosting them for drinking in a public bar and for wearing jeans.
"These guys went psycho," Gupta said. "This isn't Afghanistan. But here in Bangalore, as a young woman on the streets, if you are driving a car or in a pub or dressed a certain way, you just feel this rising anger."
The incident was mild compared with some of the violent assaults on women that have taken place here. The attacks are part of what many see as rising Hindu extremism in much of the country over the past few years, especially in places such as Bangalore, precisely because it is a bastion of India's fast-changing culture. Bangalore is home to an explosion of software companies, a lively heavy-metal rock music scene and burgeoning gay rights and environmental movements.
The growing extremism has sparked a national debate -- especially with national elections this month -- over what has become known by the Indian media and analysts as the "Talibanization of India." It features a rise of moral policing and an increasingly active constellation of Hindu right-wing groups that believe in a politicized form of religion known as Hindutva.
In Bangalore, recent street protests by Hindu extremist groups have targeted the emblems of globalization. The demonstrators have thrown rocks at the glass office buildings of call centers and software companies. They have shut down clubs that feature dancing and live music. They have hurled verbal and physical abuse at women in jeans or skirts. They have vandalized Christian churches, which are regarded as foreign trespassers.
Political experts predict that the rise of Hindu extremism will spur greater participation during India's marathon, month-long elections by the secular middle class and by those who support traditional values.
Some Indians see the growing number of attacks as a national embarrassment. The issue has resonated among young urban voters, frustrated that politicians and police have turned a blind eye or have themselves taken on the task of moral policing.
For India's young, the debate goes to the heart of India's new identity. In this fast-changing society, long-held religious sentiments about public behavior are still being negotiated in Indian homes and on the streets. The discussion is complicated by the fact that India's economic growth has been lopsided: Well-paid urban youth tend to embrace Western values, while the country's poor appear more eager than ever to stick to traditions that have been shaped by Hindu religious teachings.
"Before the IT culture, things were very peaceful. Our youth enjoyed their own Indian culture," said Vasanth Kumar Bhavani, 32, president of Bangalore's branch of Sri Ram Sene, a right-wing Hindu group involved in a string of attacks on women. "Now it's been spoiled by all these outsiders flowing in, and it's all because of this IT sector. They need to be taught a lesson."
His lesson plan apparently includes violence. In January, his followers -- 40 men wearing saffron-colored headbands -- barged into a pub called Amnesia in the southern city of Mangalore as television cameras rolled. They pulled down the skirts of several young female patrons in an effort to embarrass them and kicked others, accusing them of being prostitutes. Since the stunt, which was billed by the group as an effort to "preserve Indian culture," nearly a dozen cases of attacks on women have been reported in Bangalore.
"What they did was correct in some ways and wrong in others," Bhavani said. "When something is wrong, you have to respond. Sometimes the reaction is too much. But you must respond."
On a recent afternoon, he sipped coffee at a hotel garden in Bangalore, as his buff bodyguard hovered nearby, and said he sees his group as a custodian of Indian culture. It will soon be launching social outreach programs: visiting with tech companies and putting on street plays that preach traditional values. It will also provide marriage counseling.
Bhavani said he was concerned about the opening of more retirement homes in Bangalore, which he said indicated that young people were abandoning their parents and grandparents instead of caring for them in their homes, as is India's family tradition. "These IT youths are partying at pubs after work instead of spending time and their new salaries on their parents, who gave them everything," Bhavani said.
Bhavani is also at the forefront of crackdowns on the closing time of discos -- known here as Cinderella laws -- and protests against Valentine's Day, which Bhavani and his followers say gives young people the wrong ideas about love and romance. Combined, the efforts have given Bangalore a new nickname in the Indian media: Bans-Galore.
In response, a group of artists and writers that calls itself the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women mailed his group a Valentine: hundreds of pink panties. "We felt enough is enough. You suddenly see a state that is going berserk," said Nisha Susan, 29, who organized the protest and started the consortium. "The attacks are just spreading like crazy along with Hindutva. We didn't want the protest to be wishy-washy. We wanted to thumb our noses at these right-wing groups."
Few places symbolize a changing and youthful India more than Bangalore. It is a destination for young people from across the country who come here for well-paid outsourcing jobs or to escape the pressures of family.
It's common to see young women wearing saris with jasmine strung to their long braided hair walking alongside girls in miniskirts with pixie haircuts and bright purple highlights.
"It's a clash of cultures, for sure. But the heart of the issue is that in India, globalization has left many more people alienated from development and confused. That frustration has been converted into hatred," said Arvind Narrain, 33, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore who wrote a report on the state's rise of cultural policing. "So many young men can't afford a drink at those pubs, can't afford Western clothes, can't speak English. The girls they are attacking wouldn't look twice at them."
Narrain pointed out that every place where the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing parties have whipped up communal strife, they have been able to remain in power and have become even more popular. In the Western state of Gujarat, controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi is accused of complicity in the 2002 violence against Muslims. But he was overwhelmingly elected last year.
Both sides of the debate have been moved to political action in Bangalore, where the BJP was elected to the state government last year. Elections for the national government here are dominated by debate over cultural policing.
"They call us Hindu Taliban. But we are not against modernization," said P.M. Girdhara Upadhyaya, 36, of the Hindu Awareness Forum. "This country has its own heritage and way of living. If you ask the common man if he wants his daughter going to a pub, he will of course say no."
Sitting at a fusion restaurant that serves Belgian beer along with pomegranate mojitos, several generations of women recently had lunch to the sounds of blaring Bob Marley music.
"India is going through a very confused phase. There are many cultures coming at us. But at the end of the day, we are a secular democracy. That means we don't all have to wear a sari every minute of the day," said Lakshmi Khanna, 26, an Indian classical dancer who was dressed in a sexy, low-cut Western dress.
Her grandmother, Sarla Seth, 76, was wearing a sari and gently smiled, agreeing. But she also joked with her granddaughter to put on a scarf.
"Women have progressed so much in India," she said. "Still, there are limits."