By: Priya Das*
What started out as public misbehaviour with women has now become a larger debate on cultural corruption of Indian society by pubs. This debate completely ignores the primary issue – the moral policing of women by the saffron brigade or the Ram Sena. What they did in Mangalore needs no elaboration here.
Exactly, which culture the Ram Sena is talking about, with the fact that drinking by women is not so alien to our ‘culture’? A brief visit to any of the celebrations or festivals in the tribal home of Himachal will make it evident that home brewed alcohol is generously consumed and offered by men and women equally.
One of my most memorable experiences of a visit to a village in Kullu, is of an invitation to join a feast being given to celebrate the retirement of a resident from his fourth grade government job. I was welcomed by the toothless grin of an old, “high spirited” (read inebriated) woman of the family holding out a glass of lugdi (their local brew) to me!
The same is true in higher reaches of Himachal, in Lahaul and Spiti, where everybody enjoys chaang without discrimination on the basis of gender. Further, in areas of Rohru, lugdi comes into play again that is served during festivities to both men and women. Bordering Himachal are Tuini and Naitwad in Uttarakhand. People of this area are generally known as ‘Kirna‘. They have a culture, where by both men and women not only celebrate festivities with liquor but in fact mourn the death of a near and dear one with liquor. Kirnas are more philosophical than many of us if their argument of celebrating death is better understood. They celebrate death. Death frees the soul from the captivity of a body. Death actually is a new birth, and a movement to the higher level. That exactly is Indian culture.
Unless we want to impose the Bhramanical culture (extremely discriminatory and patriarchal in nature) as the only culture, denying the vast socio-cultural diversity of our country, then it is time we recognise that alcohol consumption by women is ‘culturally’ acceptable in many parts of our country.
The handling of the issue by the governments and media is full of evasion and duplicity with very serious implications.
The ignoring of the primary issue – that is the violation of rights of women – has probably given the licence to the mushrooming fanatical groups in the country that they can now become the moral police of women-misbehaving as and when they please. This is already evident in Ram Sena’s latest attempts to stall Valentine celebration in Bangalore.
On the issue of acceptability of ‘pub culture’ – the government’s stand is one of evasion and double standards, apart from the disabusing the word culture. Let us first look at the government’s stand on pub culture.
A licensed pub is a place that has the legitimate right to serve alcohol to people above 25 years of age (an age that the Constitution grants the right to an individual to exercise their choices and therefore vote). Besides, a pub only becomes the space to provide alcohol – alcohol is made/ imported through licenses provided by the government. If pubs are bad then so is alcohol – why is that not being debated?
The duplicity of the government’s stand is further evident in the fact that while ‘pub cultures’ are being derided in the urban centres, across the country (both rural and urban), the government actually promotes local alcohol shops as a means of revenue generation. For the majority of the Indian States, the second biggest revenue earning is from the sale of alcohol. In Himachal, I have personally witnessed block development officials encouraging Panchayats to raise revenue by setting up local alcohol vends. So far as health implications are concerned, alcohol is equally bad for men and women -then why single out women? Besides, when men consume alcohol, the adverse economic, social and health implications are borne by women in their families.
Let us now look at the justification of an unconstitutional act in the name of ‘culture’. Gender is a social construct – the role and status of women in a society is created by social norms and practices that are created by patriarchal mindsets that simultaneously marginalise women and make them the keepers of societies/ families’ honour and morality. These norms that pass off as “culture” then dictate the code of conduct of women, wherein the women find their rights regulated not by their own choices but by the society at large. Social acceptance of violence acquires cultural legitimacy as a means to keep women reined in and in turn the purported culture and morality of a society. Hence, rather than justify actions in the name of culture, it is time that culture itself needs to be examined and questioned.
Further, it needs to be understood that culture does not exist in vacuum nor is it static – if we are keen on decimating slums and rivers for the Commonwealth Games to make Delhi at par with cities that are acceptable and admired by international visitors, then pubs come as a part of it. It is also part of the rest of the development story of the metros, the industry and the human resource development of the corporate houses that are constantly stretching themselves to meet the developed ‘global’ standards.
* The author is a Shimla based social development consultant.