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CHENNAI, India — Even in the best of times, politically, it is difficult to interpret Indian culture, which encompasses an ocean of thoughts and ideas and a river of traditions and beliefs. Yet, some rightwing political organizations have prepared their own treatises, or just about, on what the nation’s culture really is or, better still, what it ought to be.

Recently, the rabidly Hindu Sri Ram Sene sent its goons to a pub in Mangalore in the southern State of Karnataka on a Saturday afternoon to beat up college girls who were out enjoying a drink, strip them and molest them.

In court, the Sri Ram Sene alleged that it was un-Indian for women to imbibe alcohol, claiming it was a religious sin and a criminal offense. The state, administered by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, made little effort to hide where its sympathy lay.

For days, the government laid low, while independent media and women’s groups shouted from the rooftops. Finally, the leader of SRS, Promod Muthalik, and some others were arrested only to be freed on bail soon after. An emboldened Muthalik has now warned that couples found courting on Valentine’s day will be dragged to the nearest temple and forced to marry. If a couple resisted, the girl would have to tie a “rakhi” on the boy’s wrist.

A decorative pendant attached to a “holy” thread, the rakhi signifies a sibling relationship that is often considered more sacred than the one a sister shares with her biological brother.

Such arbitrariness makes it tempting to interpret Indian culture in a suffocatingly narrow manner. In a nation where the beauty of sex has been immortalized in stone carvings in hundreds of temples and where wine drinking was once not considered shameful, the Ram Sene and other extremist outfits, such as the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal, appear to be trying to rewrite social mores.

They have become self-styled experts on culture, its very keepers. They make social and community laws, amend and enforce them, choosing public areas like parks and pubs to test the efficacy of their ruthless diktat. The political organizations send their squads of unemployed youths to smash wine glasses and savagely separate dating couples. If in the process the women are assaulted, the goons and their political bosses are not bothered. In other words, they indulge in a rank barbarism that is not permitted by any religion or culture.

Mixing culture and politics is fraught with danger in any country. But in India politics has largely become a profession for those who find that they are not welcome elsewhere. It is the last refuge for such rogues. They get to influence a constituency, and culture is not only an attention-grabbing, headline hitting subject, but also one that easily lends itself to myriad interpretations, opening the way to threats, imaginary or real. A culture thus “threatened” by what is conveniently construed as “un-Indian” practices is to be protected and saved from decline by Hindu groups.

These scoundrels are usually those who have been left behind when globalization helped elevate a percentage of the population. The Mangalore college girls, for instance, are children of relatively wealthy parents, who had done well either at home or abroad. The girls were seen as unconventional and intimidating. They wore daring clothes, frequented pubs and partied late into the night, a lifestyle not unknown in urban India metros but one that is often resented by have-nots.

Such resentment easily turns into frustration and anger in a society that is overtly patriarchal, which India is. Men are uncomfortable with the idea of women drinking, an act that threatens the concept of male superiority. Women drinkers thus become a symbol of empowerment and independence that must be bullied into submission. What better way to deal with that than a physical assault on those who celebrate a society where sexual repression and limited mingling of sexes are considered impediments to a healthy lifestyle?

Ultimately, drinking or partying women are not the real issues here; they have merely been used as excuses for young men in India to unleash their frustrations.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist.

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