A friend said that last week in Bangalore and the drama(s) around Valentine’s Day would make a wonderful PhD thesis if one had the time and the distance. Two things are of relevance here.
One, the spread of communal politics that is inherently violent and divisive is not new to our country. Moral policing forming a major part of it and translating primarily into the control of the everyday lives of women, control over the institutions that could keep the regressive ideas around religion and caste in place such as marriage have been the standard points of attack in many parts of the world and in India. To maintain the notion of the ‘other’ that these divisive forces base their politics and everyday activities, we should never meet or get to know the ‘other’. And thus the attacks on young people who had friends across communities. It is these incidents that have sometimes spiraled into well-planned, thoroughly executed, state-sponsored carnage of people from certain communities, namely the imaginary ‘other’.
Two, the protests against communal forces and the condemning of moral policing are not new. We have activists and progressive thinkers- writers, painters, actors, etc- who have spent most of their lives articulating this politics.
Over time, activists have evolved a language of anti-communalism and secularism to counter these divisive forces to protest/avoid the loss of life, property and liberty of common people in different parts of the country. No protest leads to the demise of the politics/people one is protesting against within one life time. This is known to those who are involved in sustained activism and sometimes is the cause of much angst.
The past week in Bangalore had a many things to think about. If any process makes one think without your blood boiling, we could safely conclude that it is a sign of hope.
We can start with the famous Pink Chaddi campaign. The questions are obvious; who is on facebook? Who can afford to buy and give away or even give away a used chaddi? Why is the media so interested in this and has not been when a bus full of students in Mangalore were attacked by the same group that attacked the women in the pub in Mangalore?
The traditional activist in me reared her un-creative head and spun it around with these questions. Then, as per activist tradition I read about it. Read about underwear and protest, media and sensationalizing and also all the debates on the facebook group that organised the campaign.
While all my questions remain, the campaign gave me hope not just because of the overwhelming response from common people and the press, but also because it led to vibrant discussions among many people about these very questions that popped up in my head. These are people who might not be part of one’s politically correct activist world, which often consists of anything between 20-200 people in a city. Often, our political, social circles remain within these relatively few people. Even if we have friends with other interests in life, we wouldn’t talk about ‘politics’ either because we think they don’t know enough, or that they don’t care, or that you are too tired to go on and on about it. This notion of the ‘they’ broke down for me this ‘valentine’s day’ week.
On V-Day, a small group of us stood in the corner near that severely over used Mahatma Gandhi Statue on MG road next to the fancy chamiana with many young men (abysmal number of women) who were also there to oppose the Shri Ram Sene and support ‘love’ and valentine’s day. There we were; many of us activists who probably would have been writing a fact finding report on any other valentine’s day. We wore bright red and/or pink, holding roses, heart shaped balloons and little heart shaped chart papers with messages such as ‘Born to love. Not to hate!’. We even came up with these messages ourselves with a little help from resourceful and well organised websites with an obscenely large number of ‘love quotes’ on them. We walked through the highly commodified, capitalist streets of brigade road and church street and went to bourgeois bars to drink upper middle class beer.
All the sarcasm not withstanding, all the questions about the class/caste politics of these new forms of protest remain. But so does the consciousness that we should and have asked them of all protests, even the standard format ones! Representation of people and issues is always a challenge.
What became clear the past week is that we need to reinvent the wheel in creative means to get the unlikely out to the streets. The times call for it and we should rise to the occasion.
On the 12th of February I ambled on to the gates of Mt.Carmel college and was shocked to see 150 college girls on the street holding hands and shouting passionately against moral policing. The sight of all these young women on the streets in such large numbers with leadership and passion made my day.
One of the reasons for these protests to happen and to be so successful, even if for a short-term, is because some people took the time and energy to re-invent the wheel. There are, however, many questions.
For example: One is aware that one of the pegs of these divisive groups has been to indulge in ‘social welfare’ among the poor as a recruiting strategy. The women in the pubs not only anger Hindu fundamentalists but also various other groups of traditionalists of different religions, caste and class. The absolutely fair anger of the economically under privileged can be and has been used effectively by these divisive forces. How then do we explain creatively, that it is these very groups who show them dreams of a world where there woes will be taken care of are the ones who propagate a ruthless capitalist economy that does not include a concern for the rights of workers or the poor on the whole? This ideal protest where the connections between different social oppressions of caste, class, gender, sexuality, region and religion has happened only on surfaces of placards. Maybe this ideal protest lies in placards but also outside of them.
The activist practice in its zeal and in its passion to create a like minded community may be alienating many with potential to get on to the streets and say things very similar to those that has been said by all of us today, those before us and those after us. We also often forget that sometimes fire-fighting or reacting is not enough or even useful but we need to create this world we want to see. Our protests could and maybe should use that as an image while we plan.
The forces one is up against affects all our lives. The effects differ across class, caste, region, religion, gender, sexuality, city and village. We need to come together and establish a basic line of argument that we agree upon. Conversation is not always a compromise and differences are a weakness if pushed under a carpet and a strength if used productively to work together even if in moments. Creativity and change is imperative and what makes processes of social change vibrant and worthwhile.
The standard format protest and the newer forms of protest (most of which also have histories), both have a lot to offer. They could lead to exciting conversations which would be productive to oppose those who spread hate. These conversations and the resulting work may lead not only to oppose oppressions but also to create in small spurts and at least in moments the world we all dream of. A world where all human beings live their lives with freedom, dignity, respect, love and hope for oneself and one another. The past week, with all its questions is a sign of hope and we need to hold on to that hope with our dear lives in these difficult times. Hope is not enough but it will keep us going.
(A version of the piece to be published in Bengaluru Pages.)