As dusk falls on the Rajasthani ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur, the once sunlit vistas of Amber Fort fades-and a celebratory ambiance descends on nearby Chokhi Dhani village. The scent of incense fans the air, a ‘dhol’ beat wanes-and then strengthens repeatedly, as the chink of folk dancers’ dresses synchronize in the foreground. A symbol of North Indian culture and a tourist resort, Chokhi Dhani reflects the synergy between the old and contemporary India.
Roy Brown, former President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, opened the Emerge 2010 India student conference at St Gallen University in Switzerland with his keynote speech on ‘the two Indias’. He dramatically reflected on the religious charlatan allegations directed at the now deceased Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, as a symbol for what may hold back an emerging India. In a country where there were 24,206 reported rapes in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, there may be some unfortunate validity to Brown’s sentiment that deeper socio-cultural factors could be holding India behind.
In December, Jyoti Singh Pandey was brutally gang raped in an abhorrent but shamefully not too irregular crime. Her case was unique in being brought to the fore by social media, creating the critical mass sufficient to bring it past the red tape of Indian bureaucracy, unlike countless other cases. The case has raised the question of any deep-seated deficiencies in India causing people like Jyoti’s murderers to behave so heinously.
Flying into Mumbai airport, over the Dharavi slums one notes the obvious shack laden landscape below, devoid of adequate sanitation, but amongst which lurks vast TV aerials, in a somewhat visual antithesis. Idolisation is an innate part of Indian culture, from deity worship, to the worship of cricket and Bollywood stars. Star plus, an Indian TV channel estimates that it has 80 million weekly viewers in India. The portrayal of women in media could have a significant impact on reality for a poverty-stricken Indian populous idolising success.
Traditionally women have been cast purely as a sign of beauty, which provides contrast to an India coming to terms with an increasing female presence in education and workplace, in a highly patriarchal environment. Inadvertently such portrayal emphasises the value of women to be seen and not heard. Despite improvements including greater female presence in parliament, and foremost the election of India’s first female President, Pratibha Patil, Thomson Reuters ranks India as the ‘fourth most dangerous country’ in the world for women. This will continue to be at conflict whilst India accustoms itself to a ‘westernisation’ to parts of its culture. Recently CNN reporter Mallika Kapur investigated whether the sexualisation of Bollywood is to blame for the poor treatment of women. Whilst Bollywood plots often plays on the hopes and aspirations of those forgotten in India’s economic growth story it becomes clearer that in a now media driven world ‘the way men think needs to change, not what they see’ adds Bollywood actress, Chitrangda Singh ahead of her next film Inkaar, which is about sexual harassment at work.
The teachings of gurus such as Asharam Bapu, who this week was lambasted for reportedly saying that ‘guilt is not one-sided’ in Jyoti’s rape case, can also come to conflict in India’s changing modern social landscape. Evening ‘Puja’ beside the River Ganges where the banks are adorned with petals and ‘pandits’ carrying out prayers, as waves of candlelit lotus flowers float downstream , has become a synonymous image for Haridwar in India. Religious figures are sometimes questioned for their motives, and whether they are merely extracting the money of the faithful. To many, their teachings of faith and hope become a major part of daily life. Their lessons of altruism, equality and devotion are important to spiritual development in an Indian society sublimating into western influences.
However some teachings and beliefs can conflict in the contemporary India, reflective of Brown’s opening speech. The prevalent role of Karma for example, or cause and effect, has frequently played scapegoat as an inherent cause for the perpetuation of a caste society in some parts of India-which places the blame of poverty on the fault of the poor. Placing the fault elsewhere for poverty or crime, as in the case of Jyoti’s murderers, prevents India from progressing, and tackling the key issue-challenging backward perceptions.
There are traditional societal influences still placed on women, including dowry. Despite passing the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act, there continue to be many cases of dowry-related domestic violence and suicide. It is also possible cause for the high level of reported female infanticide and sex selective abortions in India. Child marriage also continues to be a concern in rural India, where a ‘State of the World’s children’ report by UNICEF in 2009 showed that 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India. These aspects of Indian culture may still have some inertia in shaping male attitudes and the treatment of women as objects in some parts of India today.
Whether we place emphasis on India’s socio-cultural traditions to explain current maladies begins to miss the point. India can assimilate into the modern world by adopting a culture for progress and challenging these existing perceptions. Jyoti’s case has spurred a mass of female activism, and refocused the necessary questions on Indian society.
As the fire lamps burn out on another night of celebration in Chokhi Dhani, the rest of India is awakening to find a balance between the old and new.