Cultural Policing in Dakshina Kannada: Vigilante Attacks on Women and Minorities

[This summary comes to us from ARVIND NARRAIN (ALF) of a report brought out by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka (PUCL-K) in the wake of the attacks on women in Mangalore by cadres of the Hindu right-wing Sri Ram Sene.]

It was only after the continuous telecast of the images of the women who were subjected to an horrific assault by cadres of the Sri Ram Sene in a pub in Mangalore on January 24, 2009, that public attention gravitated towards what was happening in Mangalore. Self styled vigilante groups in Dakshina Kannada have begun to police social interactions between members of different religious communities such as boys and girls drinking juice together or sitting together on a bus merely because they come from different religious communities. Cultural policing also targets women in particular and lays down norms with respect to public spaces they can occupy and the clothes which they can wear. Cultural policing has as its primary target, young people. From Shefantunde (16) who was attacked for talking to a Hindu girl to a college student Shruti and Shabeeb for talking on a bus to Anishwita (23), Akeel Mohammmad (24) and Pramilla(22) for drinking a juice together, its the young which has come under vicious attack. Perhaps we also need to think of the young not just as victims but indeed as agents of social transformation who through their everyday acts of fraternal living are fulfilling the promise of the Indian Constitution and thereby imperiling the ideological agenda of those who see India differently. Cultural policing aims to punish all those who try to live out the meaning of the Preamble’s promise of ‘fraternity’ and is a fundamental attack on the very Constitutional order. The promise of fraternity held out in the Preamble is what is contested at its very roots by cultural policing. What cultural policing wants to produce are monolithic self-enclosed communities with no form of social interaction between them. It is antithetical to the idea of ‘We, the people of India’ and insists that India is no more one nation, but rather a collection of separate peoples. This Report documents how sixty years after independence, the vision of the framers of the Constitution is sought to be so completely repudiated by organizations which are bent on ripping out the heart of Indian Constitutionalism.

The full report is available on the Alternative Law Forum website and can be accessed here.

8 thoughts on “Cultural Policing in Dakshina Kannada: Vigilante Attacks on Women and Minorities”

  1. Thanks for this report Arvind. Needless to say it is timely and urgently required. The levels of organisation are truly frightening and the way in which they have managed to turn a once cosmopolitan city into a space where communities are scared of talking to eachother is terrifying. Of course the question always is how we can respond to this form of cultural assault when it seems as if the very fabric of everyday life is being compromised.

    Perhaps we also need to think of the young not just as victims but indeed as agents of social transformation who through their everyday acts of fraternal living are fulfilling the promise of the Indian Constitution and thereby imperiling the ideological agenda of those who see India differently. Cultural policing aims to punish all those who try to live out the meaning of the Preamble’s promise of ‘fraternity’ and is a fundamental attack on the very Constitutional order.

    I understand why the Constitution is being deployed in this fashion, particularly if part of the attempt is to build a justiciable case against these chaps. But I had a small critique of the way in which the report deploys the language of the law and constitutionalism.

    I am not sure at all that young people are doing anything more than hanging out with their friends when they share an ice cream or a juice. And I am deeply uncomfortable with some idea of living out the principles of the constitution being read as the justification for why these actions must be defended. Tomorrow if inter-religious fraternizing were banned by the constitution, would we not still defend spaces of sociality? Further I am not at all sure if social transformation comes through living out the principles of the constitution or the visions of its framers. And finally I find discomfiting this idea of the Constitution as the source from which sociality flows.

    In our political practice we certainly do rely on the law and the Constitution as strategic supports through which the domain of democratic rights can be defended from assault, but surely we must keep going a simultaneous discussion of the slippages and dangers inherent in collapsing so completely the domain of the law and everyday life in our descriptions and discursive actions.

  2. I wonder if the invocation of the Constitution is nearly as problematic as that. It’s certainly true that the Constitution’s endorsement of some principle (or lack thereof) does not *by itself* give us reason to share that endorsement (or not). We can and should have a discussion of the issues at stake independently of what the Constitution happens to say on the subject.

    But that said, surely we don’t need to go so far as to say that appeals to the Constitution are *purely* strategic (forgive me if you weren’t suggesting anything quite so strong). I can think of a good few reasons why it’s reasonable and desirable, for entirely *non*-strategic reasons, for us (progressives, etc) to invoke the Constitution in our political practice, and to make such invocations central to (even if not exhaustive of) the arguments we make.

    The first has to do with the unique historical moment in which the Constitution was written: at the culmination of an anti-colonial movement driven at its most successful moments by strongly progressive ideals. For all their bourgeois respectability, the framers revealed a foresight and view to the long term deeply admirable given the fraught conditions of the time.

    A single glance at the depth and incisiveness of the Constituent Assembly’s debates is reassurance that it emphatically isn’t thanks to the purest good fortune that our Preamble says all the nice things it does, but rather to the combination of some particularly thoughtful men and women and their successful seizing of the opportunities afford by a unique historical moment.

    (And we might note in passing that the Constituent Assembly was an elected body, even if it didn’t quite pass the highest democratic muster, and therefore possesses a certain legitimacy).

    My point is then that there is a certain moral (i.e. not just strategic/political/legal) authority that appeals to the Constitution enjoy, regardless of its content. This owes partly to the manner in which it was drafted and remains open to democratic debate. But of course the actual content is important too: why discount the fact that the Indian Constitution is, with all its flaws, a bloody good one?

    The language of the Preamble, with all its vagueness and non-justiciability(?), provides us with as many conceptual and activist tools as we need for _most_ of our political battles. Liberty, equality, fraternity, justice, dignity — what progressive would deny that these form significant part of the grounds on which we contest various forms of oppression?

    Their presence at the head of that document give us ammunition to mount various kinds of attack, including attacks on the government of the day, and on the body of the document itself. This is not to say that there aren’t other sources of ammunition, but that they are seldom as rich as this one, and should therefore be exploited sparingly.

    I don’t want to discount the possibility or legitimacy of more radical, extra-constitutional, critiques. But it seems to that we shouldn’t have to turn to them when the constitutional critique is doing a more than decent job (conceptually, not just strategically): Arvind’s deft and dare I say *radical* employment of the concept of fraternity in the PUCL report is an excellent example.

    Which is why I find it hard to be uncomfortable with the idea of using ‘living out the principles of the constitution’ as at least *part* of the (moral, not rhetorical or strategic) ‘justification for why these actions must be defended’. I suspect, on the contrary, that training conservative Constitutional ideals *at* the conservatives might be the most radical move of all.

  3. In response to Aarti:

    I agree with you when you say that the the young people were not living out some constitutional principles while hanging out with their friends and also your concern regarding collapsing law and everyday life but fail to understand your statement that you cannot see any transformative potential in/through the constitution particularly when you admit constitution as a strategic support to protect our domain of democratic rights. Even though we fail to appreciate the transformative potential of the constitution I guess the cultural policing brigade is very well aware of it. Remember the way NDA govt. formed a constitutional review committee or their assertion that religious sentiments are above the courts of law or their stand on minority rights. So their attack is always two pronged both at the level of everyday practices and at the level of law/state/constitution because I guess they see the connection between the two in the modern world, they understand that constitution as a document is an emancipatory for dalits, women and minorities and can transform the everyday practices of the people.

  4. But, don’t you think that the Constitution has changed the way we live? In personal, political and material ways? Land reform, gender relations, reservation in the context of education and employment opportunities, attacking untouchability, enabling a movement for rights of traditionally discriminated and ‘unpopular’ minorities- like gay people, etc. In so many ways, the constitution has enabled an aspirational matrix, as well as being instrument that enables advocacy for a more equitable order. Our society historically has not been a just or equitable one, and we’re far from that place that the constitution aspires to- but atleast it demarcates the path. That is not to say that much of what has been traditionally ‘cosmopolitan’ about this country is not being lost in this storm of bigotry. Despite appreciating the contemporary nature of this kind of organised muscular bigotry- frankly I’m not really sure that historically – a Muslim man and a Hindu woman could have had an ice cream together without trouble. That there is intrinsic and inherent value in these acts and interactions is undeniable- that they are being attacked and must be fought for- is also obvious. To locate them in in the constitutional imperative of ‘fraternity’ imposes an obligation on each of us to safe guard the space for such interactions, and hold the state accountable- in a way that it has traditionally never been.

  5. A somewhat late comment, when most of what can be said has already been said. But nonetheless, I do want to make one point. I see fully the point of a civil liberties organization taking up the constitutional aspect of the matter in order to assert ‘our’ case. However, I do not think the point is just that; nor that that was Aarti’s point. My feeling is that the way Arvind’s post poses the question one gets the sense that the issue could be somehow reduced to one of fulfilling a constitutional agenda that inadvertently then makes ‘us’ who merely want to enjoy fruit juice etc – as social agents. The meaning of the thus ‘meaningless’ (in a world-historical sense?) acts of enjoyment is thus retroactively provided by the fact that there is a constitution.
    My own sense is that there is a point beyond which the constitutional argument does not work – and that is probably what Aarti was drawing attention to. Many of us who have seriously believed in invoking the constitution at this level, actually have watched in horror as the Hindu right marched from one destructive success to another and when we went out to ‘campaign’ among the ‘unconverted’ people, were even more aghast to find that the legal-constitutional argument had the least purchase. The battle, in other words had already moved to another terrain. The question then is also about finding a language that is adequate to the task of speaking to those who do not understand the constitution or maybe simply associate it with the state and the power that oppresses them everyday, in some form or the other, namely the police and the judiciary. That is where ordinary folk primarily encounter the law.
    Aarti’s point however goes beyond this ‘strategic’ question in my view to asking why, in the first place, Law and the Constitution should be accorded priority (logical and existential) – as the source of all sociality. A question that needs to be grappled with much more seriously.

  6. Thanks all for a good discussion.

    The point I was trying to make (in response to Nakul) was not that the constitution does not provide us with a space on which both to locate ourselves from where we can respond to attack on our liberties, as well as activist tools with which these incursions can then been challenged, resisted, fought against.

    Nor (to menaka) that historically the constitution has not acted as a catalyst for social change, even radical change, in a context such as India of deeply entrenched social inequalities. Certainly when it comes to caste, land reforms, gender the constitution has played a decisive and tranformative role : both as a horizon to which you push forward, and a benchmark against which this movement is measured.

    I was trying to raise a slightly tangential point, which Aditya raises, as to how we think of the realm of, if you will, politics and which terrain we locate our political articulations on. And here I think a separations needs to be maintained between the domains of the law and the domain of life. Thus certainly I fully support the legal battle on the terrain of the legal, to use the law as a strategic tool, to turn the rhetoric of the conservatives against them. But I would be wary of ascribing to this move a larger moral value. This is not to say that we do not work from or deploy or hold onto values. Of course we do. But there is a way in which we then begin to see the realm of the social and the political, and subjects who act in this realm, as being *constituted* by the law, and that to my mind is a dangerous move. Our fidelities then shift from human beings to texts. Conceptually that is. So certainly we must use the law, and the constituion. I am just not sure that we must also, necessarily, *believe* in them.

    The other issue is a larger question of how we think of the domain of politics in general, and its relationship to the law, and whether we need to also recognise the inherent limitations of this form of doing politics.

  7. Wait a minute. In general, I tend to view the law as the weapon of the hmm. let me use a term that has long gone out of fashion for want of anything better — the bourgeoisie. It can some times be used against it. Some times, when you make a moral claim it ends up in producing what seems like an empowering law. But ultimately the law can only be a weapon of the bourgeoisie.

    That said, there is a useful difference between the constitution and the law. The constitution gives us a moral, philosophical universe. We can debate what that universe happens to be. We can espouse some interpretations and challenge others. We can even say that the very basis of that universe founded in private property is unacceptable to us. In any event, it makes no sense to me to use the constitution strategically. Strategic invocation of a set of moral principles from is dangerous. (some parts of the law flow, some parts of the constitution may themselves read like the law… but that is a slightly different issue).

    That is why, I have no difficulty with the PUCL report posted here. Within the civil liberties discourse, the constitution is only an enabling framework (it can be argued even that it enables its own subversion) and the law is a terrain of struggle – not faith.

    But quite apart from all that, there is another problem with what Aarti and then again by Aditya have said. It is possible that I am missing something here completely…but….

    The report invokes the constitution to give meaning to the act of sharing juice or ice cream – an act that seems so ordinary that it can easily be read as meaningless. But it is hardly meaningless. If it were there would have been no assault, unless the assaulter is indulging in an equally random and meaningless act. In other words, rendering the act of sharing an icecream meaningless is to render the assault meaningless.

    I am sure everyone here will agree that nothing can be more irresponsible than representing the assaulters as mindless. So if the question is how should we render the assault meaningful, then it is imperative that we render the sharing of the icecream meaningful. The PUCL report makes that meaning flow from the constitution. Sure it is not the only source of meaning. Sure one can make a persuasive case for drawing meaning from some other source. But to be able to do that we need to acknowledge that sharing an icecream or juice is not a meaningless act – not even from a world historical perspective. (I am guessing that the world history sense – means the longue durree of history. But even then…??!!)

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