Skepticism

Panties for peace

Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day.  As we found out yesterday, some people have pretty strong feelings about this holiday.  But there are few who care as much about this holiday as this guy:

What’s up with scowly guy?  His name is Pramod Mutalik and he’s the chief of a right-wing Hindu group called Sri Ram Sene (Lord Ram’s Army).  The group believes that Valentine’s Day is ‘un-Indian.’ They are threatening to attack any Indian couples celebrating Valentine’s Day.  That’s right, if you celebrate a holiday that is about love and intimacy, they want to beat the snot out of you.

The group members consider themselves the caretakers of Indian culture, which of course means their own, very specific definition of what Indian culture is. They want to get back down to good old-fashioned Hindu values, by threatening to attack or expose couples showing affection in public. In Pramod’s words:

Valentine’s Day is definitely not Indian culture. We will not allow celebration of that day in any form.

What an old softy.  He’s not kidding. Last week, members of the Sri Ram Sene launched an attack on a bar in Mangalore, in India.  Women were attacked for being in the bar, men were attacked for taking women to the bar.  Parts of the incident were captured and are on YouTube.

But wait! There’s more to the story. And it involves pink underwear.  Read more beyond the foldThere are those who agree with the SRS, but there has also been a huge amount of outrage expressed in India over the attack. Lord Ram’s Army remains unabashed.  They believe that they are in a cultural war for the identify of the country and that their tactics are fully justified. From SRS general secretary V.K. Rajesh:

“We are not against love. But we are against loose morals we see among the younger generation who are blindly aping the West. And we will not spare these people and we will take whatever action is needed within the law.”

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell V.K. that assault is not technically within the law. Several of the attackers were arrested but released on bail a week or so later. They continued to make threats against couples seen celebrating Valentine’s Day, including threatening to force couples to marry (it’s unclear how they were going to accomplish this. One can only assume they had a fleet of ugly bridesmaid’s dresses, drunk uncles and 80’s music on standby).

But the authorities aren’t taking any chances on that either.  Yesterday, police rounded up almost 100 of the activists and took them into custody as a preventative measure. 

The detentions follow calls by federal Home Minister Palaniappan Chidamabaram urging Karnataka’s Hindu nationalist administration to take “preventive and punitive” action to ensure law and order in the state.

So I guess they’re within the law now, literally. But there’s more.

My favorite part of the story is how a group of Indian women is responding to the SRS with a very traditional Indian approach. Gandhi first introduced the concept of Satyagraha or nonviolent resistance during the British occupation of India. Gandhi broke British laws by hand-spinning his own cloth and walking to the sea to make salt.  The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women is sending Pramod Mutalik pink underwear. In large quantities. Called the Pink Chaddi campaign, they are asking their supporters to send them pink chaddis (Hindi slang for knickers) which they will then forward en masse to SRS. After all, all armies need the basic necessities, right? The group is also encouraging women to go to pubs on Valentine’s Day. Founder Nisha Susan says:

People have signed up to drop chaddis at collection points in their cities, which will be sent to Bangalore. Those who have signed up also plan to go to pubs with their partners or friends on V-Day. Most of the members don’t drink and some haven’t ever visited a pub, but the spirit is to band together against moral policing and curbs on women’s freedom.

Awesome.  So, no matter how you feel about Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to join the Facebook group and send some knickers to Pramod.  Or a Valentine’s Day card or a box of chocolate. Or even better, go to a bar and raise a toast to the Pink Chaddis. Best. Protest. Ever.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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32 Comments

  1. Pathetic. Another self-appointed, wound up fundie jackass with a microphone. Just what the world needs. More religious and cultural intolerance.
    I hope on the the people his followers attack is really a kung-fu Master. It would serve them right…

  2. I would have thought polytheists would be more tolerant of other people’s religious and semi-religious holidays. But then this isn’t really about religion. It’s about conservatives trying to reject something that they feel isn’t supposed to be part of their limited little universe.

    The important question, I suppose, is whether they have a fair point. Ignoring for a moment their stupid methods, is it unreasonable of them to want the people they live around to be more like them? After all, we want people to be skeptics. Is our desire intrinsically different at all?

  3. @Spatula: The difference between skepticism and these guys is that skeptics want to equip people with attitudes and cognitive tools that will help them navigate the modern world. These guys, on the other hand, want everyone to obey their arbitrary rules blindly.

    It’s the distinction between science and creationism, or The Golden Rule and Proposition 8.

  4. @Spatula:
    Certainly, we wish others to be more skeptical. I don’t think their beliefs are the issue here.

    I think that we are being more critical of their approach than their beliefs. I don’t know of any skeptics group that threatens to beat up those that don’t agree with them. I have no problem with their trying to persuade others to their cause. The problem I have is their reaction to those that refuse to agree with them.

  5. I wonder about when fundementalists of our country read a story like that. Do they say: “How dare they not like Valentines day we love it here in America” or ” That’s their country and they should keep their traditions pure”

  6. @whitebird: There was a campaign last year to send panties to the tyrannical leaders of Burma, where there’s a superstition that contact with women’s panties sap men of power.

    These women are awesome. It’s exactly the best way to fight back.

  7. I love everything about these women, especially their complete refusal to be intimidated and silenced, and hey, if I have to drink alcohol to support women’s freedom, well I am a committed feminist, so I don’t think I have a choice.

    Also fun to note is that the Sri Ram Sene is saying they will send women back pink saris in exchange for their panties so they can cover themselves up properly. Now consider what a pack of cotton bikinis cost compared to a sari. I’m not sure they realize how large this protest is getting to be.

  8. @ fmitchell and QuestionAuthority:
    Two completely different answers. We’re all agreed that the means Sri Ram Sene are using are unacceptable. But the ends? fmitch reckons there’s something sinister about their goals, while QA is perfectly happy to let them work towards kicking St. Val out of India.

    So what makes an objective acceptable? This is an important consideration for skepticism, which is supposed to be self-analysing and self-correcting. Can we draw a meaningful distinction between different kinds of goals? And if so, what should our own goals be like in order to meet our own definition of acceptability?

  9. @Circe of the Godless:
    What do you think I meant by “stupid methods”? At no point did I get anywhere near suggesting that beating anyone (of any sex, for whatever reason) is acceptable. What I asked was, is it wrong for them to want to keep Valentine’s day out of their community? That’s all.

    Next time, kindly read what I’ve written properly before attacking me. I don’t mind being criticised over things I’ve actually said, but words you put in my mouth shouldn’t be my problem.

  10. I thought there were Hindu temples with stautes depicting explict sex all over them? I thought they’d be less encumbered with judeo-christian ideas about sex.

    Or is that something that my teenage brain cooked up and I’m now remembering as something from History lessons at school?

  11. Spatula whether you meant it that way or not,
    your tacit idea that these groups “might have a fair point” is offensive. It would be on-par with me standing at a lynching asking the same question, albeit disagreeing with their methods.

    The fact that these people ARE using violence against others to control their behaviour eliminates them from any argument over the rationality of their cause.

    For the record, I have no particular desire for everyone around me to be a skeptic, nor would I persucute them from going on about their own business so long as they let me mind mine.

  12. @Circe of the Godless:

    Using violence is always a poor argument, albeit too often an effective one. But say for argument’s sake that we had two groups, both with the same goal. One tries to get ahead with violence, the other doesn’t. Obviously the violence from the one group doesn’t negate the non-violent arguments from the other group. And that’s another way of looking at my question: If there were a non-violent equivalent to Sri Ram Sene, would their goal of rejecting Valentine’s day still be a cause for concern?

    Your emotional response to this violence is perfectly reasonable, and I completely agree with you on that. But your focus on the specifics of this case seems to be distracting you from the broader ideas I was discussing.

    Or even more simply:
    1. Beating people bad.
    2. Rejecting Valentines bad?

  13. @russellsugden: No, you are right. There are several sites in India which depict large cave statues and paintings of gods and people in sexual positions. But the current conservative culture still says public displays of affection are completely taboo.

    @Spatula: I know what you are trying to say, I think. The main focus of the Sri Ram Sena is supposedly to preserve Indian culture from Western influence. Specifically they think Valentine’s day is a way for Western influence to corrode traditional Indian culture.

    Whether or not that’s a noble goal is a matter of opinion. In my opinion, it’s not a good goal at all. Every culture has to fight the battle to maintain their individuality while embracing the globalization of the world, economically, culturally and socially. I don’t have a problem with trying to maintain certain cultural traditions, but there are plenty of traditions that should be eschewed because they are unfair or simply stupid. The fact that ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ is a never good enough argument for me.

    And in general, the only way you’re going to keep Western influence out of India is through violent means or censorship or other ‘bad’ methods. Even if you think that it’s a good idea to reject V-day in India, or anywhere else, how do you do that?

  14. @Spatula: You said “What I asked was, is it wrong for them to want to keep Valentine’s day out of their community? That’s all.”
    Who’s “they”? All Indians? I didn’t realize that Indian’s were one monolithic community where the individuals have no independent rights. Would it be fine for me to say that the Christians have a right to keep abortion out of their community (meaning the entire US)?

  15. @Masala Skeptic: Thanks for posting this. I remember the first time this happened 8 or 9 years ago. I was in India then and we heard reports of the RSS and Shiv Sena harassing couples and women in Mumbai and Bangalore. That youtube clip you linked to was particularly upsetting. I am no stranger to the fact that women in some parts of India are treated like property, but never in my memory have I seen such a public showing of intolerance and barbarism by the “morality police” in India.
    Dr. Narendra Nayak, the president of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and hailing from Mangalore himself, has written about such atrocities. Similar violent actions against women are seen in India when Hindu girls are seen in public with Muslim men. Funnily enough, the Hindu extremists never seem as upset when it is a Hindu man with a Muslim girl.
    This makes me so angry …ahhhhrrgghhh

  16. @Ajita:

    Good job putting words in my mouth. ‘They’, in context, is obviously a reference to the people I was discussing, i.e. Sri Ram Sene. I can’t see how you could take anything I said (in proper context) as a general, sweeping statement about everyone in India. I was never discussing that, your comments on it are thus irrelevant.

    But going back to your own analogy, about Christian fundies trying to keep abortion out of the US: Is it really wrong for them to do so? I’d argue yes, because it infringes on the mother’s rights if you don’t let her. (But let’s not touch that can of worms.)

    Does the same hold true of Valentine’s day in India? I’m not as certain. Do people have a full-fledged right to celebrate foreign holidays? Maybe, but I can’t think of any case where that would be a matter of life or death, whereas the abortion issue clearly is.

    It seems to me that your right to exchange cards & chocolates is roughly equal to my right to bitch about (not actively prevent) your exchanging of cards, etc. My bitching is effectively a warped sort of celebration, on par with Valentine’s day. Or is there some factor I’ve missed?

  17. @Spatula: I don’t have a problem with people bitching about the celebration of Valentine’s Day, or the concern that Western traditions are influencing Indian culture. (See my earlier comment). But in this case, ‘bitching’ and ‘actively preventing’ are linked so closely that it’s pretty hard to distinguish the action from the idea. However, if SRS had a non-violent method of protesting Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t have a problem with it and neither would most Indians, I’d wager. It’s the tactics that are cause for concern.

    That being said, I still disagree the VD is anything worth protesting about, but of course, that’s a matter of opinion. They are entitled to whatever opinion they want, as long as they don’t express it in violent or subjugating terms.

  18. @Masala Skeptic: I think I pretty much agree. I’m just a bit concerned with how quick some people were to slap down my attempt to think this through publicly, even after I’d made it clear that I was specifically opposed to the violence bit.

    After all, what’s the point of being a skeptic if you can’t have a decent argument with absolutely everyone, including other skeptics?

  19. @Spatula: Well, I don’t think the point of being a skeptic is about argument; I think it’s about critical thinking and discussion. But I’m not a big fan of argument on the Internet – all too often, it’s argument for argument’s sake, which is annoying and boring.

    Discussion is great though and I’m happy to do that. The key is making your point clear and I think the reason that some folks had issues with what you were saying was that they didn’t fully understand your point – at first blush, it sounded like you were defending SRS’s tactics, rather than asking whether the general concept of what they were trying to do was acceptable.

  20. Sure, I didn’t mean argument as in confrontational row, I meant discussion from two or more points of view. And how can you really think critically without a dialogue like that? It’s hardly critical if everyone’s always automatically singing the same tune.

    I’ll try to write more clearly in future.

  21. @Spatula: “‘They’, in context, is obviously a reference to the people I was discussing, i.e. Sri Ram Sene. I can’t see how you could take anything I said (in proper context) as a general, sweeping statement about everyone in India.”
    You’ve missed the point entirely. I know that you didn’t mean “they” to include all Indians. I was being sarcastic. My point was that ‘they’, meaning the Hindu right, don’t represent all of India, just as the Christian right don’t represent all Americans.

    By your reasoning, Americans have individuals rights but people in other countries can be dictated to by certain groups who claim to act for the whole population. Whether the issue is one of life or death is irrelevant. I didn’t know that was a requirement for basic human rights in a democracy. You’re simply pulling at straws here- freedom of speech and expression is rarely about life and death issues. So what if my example was?

    I am not here saying you’re wrong to bitch, so you’re the one who’s twisting the argument here. What I am saying is that you’re wrong in implying that one subsection of the population has any right to dictate “culture” to the rest. I fully support your right to bitch about whatever you want, but you’re “not as certain” about my right to celebrate love because apparently Valentine’s day is “foreign” to my culture. I am the one defending individual rights here, both yours as well as those of any Indian. Don’t cast me as attacking your right to bitch.

  22. @Ajita: I should point out that I’m not American, I’m African, so don’t waste your “oppressed former colony” card on me.

    And the question WAS about forcing beliefs on people, before I went and asked a completely new question. I digressed. I changed the topic to serve my own nefarious purposes. Try to keep up.

    Should one person have the right to dictate the culture of others? No, probably not. Few things work well when forced.

    But does one person actually have the right to dictate culture in practice? Yes, it’s a de facto right, taken by those who take the initiative to do so. And it’s not only taken by physical force; the advertising guy, the sunday school teacher, the skeptical podcaster, the random stranger in a bar who tries telling you about his amazing lifestyle as a travelling hairdresser/author… All of these people are trying to push their own culture on you, trying to make you more like themselves. Right now, I’m trying to dictate my cultural norms to you, and you’re trying to do the same back to me. Culture is actively pushed onto people (consciously or unconsciously) at least as frequently as it is passively observed and absorbed.

    Should people be sheep and just take whatever norms a more dominant personality dumps on them? Of course not. But I think it’s naive to think that we’re dictating our culture to others any less than Sri Ram Sene; we’re just doing it in a more pleasant format.

    And finally, the life-or-death issue of abortion isn’t necessarily more important than the Valentine’s issue, as you seem to have interpretted me as saying. Rather, its simply more urgent, something that needs more attention sooner, because lives depend on it. Whether or not people celebrate Valentine’s day is not a dumb thing to consider, but it can wait a while, can’t it? Missing it one year probably won’t kill anyone. Probably.

  23. I thought there were Hindu temples with stautes depicting explict sex all over them? I thought they’d be less encumbered with judeo-christian ideas about sex.

    Russell, all of that was before the muslim invaders established the Mughal empire in India in the 16th century. Imagine around 250 years under the muslim morality police followed by around 150 years under the christian morality police . The hindu culture had to adapt the fuck out of its sexually liberal ways under threat of sword and gun. What remain today are the strains that could survive by adopting the puritanical mores of the ruling cultures.

    It makes me want to weep. The Indian poet Kalidasa wrote in one of his poems on how the hindu goddess Parvati was seperated from her lover Shiva and masturbated to satiate her horniness. This was in the 4th or 5th century in India, and he was a celebrated poet. Today, he would be lynched by these crazy nuts for “disrespecting” “hindu” “culture” were he to write the same poem today.

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