Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ajmer's culture police Vs. blogs' anti-taliban squad

The blogs seem to have converged on to the ‘talibanisation’ of Indian culture theme based on this BBC story about the Ajmer district administration posting guidelines to "educate foreign tourists about local culture and sensibilities." Ashutosh, Mridula and Sepia Mutiny have separately talked about this issue

My first reaction to the story was similar to theirs. “Just another ploy by the district administration to enforce a morality code.” The context provided in the BBC article and the non-derisive tone of it however made me ponder whether it is really as reprehensible as the blogopshere is portraying it to be.

Our reactions to such stories are no less stereotypical and predictable than reaction of a Shiv Sainik to skimpy dresses. We tune out and look at all of them as an attempt to enforce antiquated views, missing the nuances and the context of the particular case.
The context provided by BBC was revealing. The case of the Israeli couple kissing after a Hindu wedding in a temple had happened in Pushkar, which is 14 km away from Ajmer city and part of Ajmer district administration. There was a hue and cry after this incident happened. It was a spontaneous reaction of the locals, since they found kissing inside a temple unacceptable. Therefore, I think, it is fair to assume that kissing in public might affect local sensitivities. In fact the couple was charged Rs. 500 by the court. The other example provided about the Finnish lady walking naked on the streets was bizarre and I am sure is a one-off incident.

The following are the guidelines:

· Men should never touch women in public, even to help a woman out of a car, unless the lady is very elderly or infirm
· In Indian culture... men socialise with men, and women with women
· Married couples in Asia do not hug, hold hands or kiss in public. Even embracing at airports and train stations is considered out of the question
· Generally it is improper for women to speak with strangers on the street and especially to strike up a casual conversation
· Drinking alcohol or smoking in public, no matter how innocent, are interpreted as a sign of moral laxity and are not acceptable.

Given our socio-cultural background and the India that we have lived in, these seem 18th century norms. But what is wrong with posting guidelines? Nobody is getting fined. There is no possibility of a jail term. The tourist is free to flaunt them if he/she deems fit without any hassles, apart from those he/she might face from the local population. One might argue that this may dissuade the tourists from coming to Ajmer and lead to loss of revenue. Since the tourist is the customer we ought to be catering to his/her needs not ours. But a tourist is not your regular customer. He/she is visiting the tourist location to experience the art/architecture/customs/culture of that place. In fact, wont packaging the experience smartly by allowing them to live the way locals do for 4-5 days might be a better marketing strategy. The egalitarian cosmopolitan ‘untalibanised’ India they can experience in the Bombays and the Bangalores, but a tourist comes to Rajasthan precisely for the exotic. The guidelines might actually help improve tourism as locals may not balk and react adversely by trying to protect their culture by banning tourism altogether or for that matter look at the tourists condescendingly for their ‘lack of moral values.’ Besides tourism isn’t about fostering a melting pot culture. It is about getting a flavour of the place. And I don’t see any reason why the place should change its social norms to accommodate the tourists.

The next thing I say may be very touchy. I am not saying that this is true, but just as a matter of conjecture. We need to reflect whether part of this stems from our inferiority complex vis-a-vis western culture. I know I am going out on a limb here. But if this were the other way round, and tomorrow a lot of tourists from India started visiting the United States and while walking around in public gardens begin plucking flowers or shouting out to each other in public places or go to a national park split in groups and start playing antakshari singing songs at the top of their lungs or do something that goes against the accepted normal behaviour in the U.S., then do you think the Americans wont post any guidelines? I am willing to bet the district administration may consider imposing a fine. That no Indian will do such a thing is because we immediately consider the social norms of a western country as innately superior and therefore try to be as discreet about our own wants and sensibilities. That is not to say that we should go ahead and start playing and screaming songs under moonlit sky when visiting Yellowstone or Shenandoah, (those Grizzlies and the Deer might file a lawsuit!) but just as we automatically respect others’ customs and social norms what is wrong in expecting Western tourists to respect ours? And while we are deriding the guidelines the affected people find it perfectly reasonable. The tourist couple quoted in the article think they make sense.

"It is quite important to know things beforehand about local sensibilities, like covering your arms and not getting too close to your partner in public."

Her partner, Wayne, says: "We do not kiss or embrace each other in public because I know it is not liked here. When you open up a bottle of beer you can make out from the looks around you, it is not liked," he says.

He is saying it that he can sense the resentment about drinking in public. The guideline about public drinking is more for protection of the tourists themselves, to avoid somebody hitting on them just because they are drunk. Loathsome though it is the reality is that Indian men immediately assume that a woman who drinks is ‘available.’ This happens in the hippest of pubs in cosmopolitan cities let alone Ajmer. Why then is it so condemnable to state the obvious that Ajmerians interpret drinking in public as morally lax? It's better, I think, to warn the tourists rather than have a case like the couple kissing getting fined which gets so much publicity in the international media that it ultimately affects tourism more than any guidelines can.

Read this well-written post about the Indian reality of women and men fraternising separately on college tours. Many of us may have experienced how on college trips boys and girls inevitably spread out in separate groups. Even today in cities women sit separately in classes than men. This particular article refers to the state of Kerala that has the highest literacy. Yet, when the guideline states that men socialise with men, we are aghast at the ‘talibanic’ implication. We need to face the reality. Sad though the state of affairs is, it nonetheless exists. Denying it because it is embarrassing and suggesting that the Ajmer administration is out of sync with the true social reality is simply being in denial. They may be out of sync with the urban India’s social reality, but they aren't providing these guidelines for the rest of India, are they?

Yes, Rajasthan’s customs may be antiquated. As educated, well-read people we might find them unacceptable in today’s egalitarian world and would like them to change. I would love to see that happen too. But I think we should let the change stem from within. When the young men and women in Rajasthan are more educated I am sure they will come to the same conclusion that we do regarding acceptance of display of public affection. These should be debated and discussed in the community rather than being forced down their throats by asking them to be ‘tolerant.’ Why can’t we be a bit more tolerant of their intolerance? Let the Rajasthani people make the choice rather than us telling them that they are shaming us by not being accommodating of western culture. Condescending to them about their culture will only provoke an even adverse reaction.

A beautifully written and well-sourced article about Pushkar is carried by Outlook in this weeks issue. It is an amazing tribute to the city of Pushkar and its people who have absorbed many of the tourist influences.

But Pushkar is a unique anthropological case study on how a few thousand visitors from abroad can sustain a sleepy temple town and its economy and make an impact on its lifestyle and culture. It shows in the Ganesha T-shirts, in those single, white females riding pillion on the mobikes of the local dudes, the precocious, multi-lingual kids who can sell just about anything to anyone, and restaurants that go by names like Pink Floyd Cafe. There’s a strange bazaar mix of the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane. Besides the mantras, the most oft-heard chants are of trance music. Internet cafes still run on dial-up rather than on broadband. Nutella and Marmite flood the local stores. Rickety camel carts move around with AIDS awareness banners.

This is the same town, which lashed out at the Israeli couple kissing, and yet is accommodative of so many outside influences. This is the same town who’s Brahmins called for those guidelines and yet are vocal in saying that they do not want a ban on the tourists. The tourists themselves find the guidelines helpful. And here we are reveling in our own interpretation that India is getting talibanised with a not so subtle reference to the Muslim population of Ajmer. I find it unfortunate that we choose examples that we can condescend to while ignoring the local population’s capacity to change, albeit, at their own terms.


demondoll2001 said...

I read your comment on Sepia Mutiny, and I wanted to tell you that I could not agree with you more!

We Indians have such an inferiority complex. When we travel to foreign countries, we abide by their rules. Then why is it wrong for them to abide by ours when they are in our country?

I'm saddened that more Indians don't see this.

demondoll2001 said...

Oh, by the way, I also live near Washington, DC. Pleased to see that there are people like you on the East Coast.

Chetan said...

Demondoll2001: Thanks. Incidentally I am amongst those Indians who don't see this and probably wont see it the next time this happens. But a recent reading of Ashis Nandy's books made me question a lot of my patent reactions on such issues. Not that I have changed my views but have been much more questioning about them. Another thing is that most Indian bloggers come from very simlar socio-economic cultural urban centric background so there is a good deal of groupthink that occurs in the blogosphere. I was just trying to avoid falling into that trap.

Manasi said...

I read your post and must tell you, you couldnt have said it better!
It makes sense to expect tourists to behave according to the Indian customs and conventions when in India. How else would they get a real feel of the place and the people. But then on second thoughts, acting contrary might actually help them understand us better! Wont it?

BD said...

I think respecting local culture is valid globally. guidlines are also given for businessmen who travel to japan. So I don't see any problems with that.

Can't blame BBC for that, they are always looking for masala from the east. I'm not sure whether it's for entertainment or enlightenment.

You might also wanna see this post on BBC's reporting standards.

demondoll2001 said...

Chetan, I agree with you. Most Indian bloggers come from a Westernized urban background. And most of them have been indoctrinated into believing that everything Western is automatically better than anything Eastern. That is dangerous.

I spent most of my life in the US, and I'm from a middle-class suburban American background. All of my life, I've seen that Americans and Europeans have pride in their culture. If you talk to a European, he might state something outdated about his culture, yet he will not be embarrassed about it. Italians and Greeks especially have very "old-fashioned" societies, where the women cook, etc. yet I've never seen people from those countries call their own societies backwards. But Indians always seem to do that. How sad.

I think Indians ought to learn to think critically about these things.

Anonymous said...

You want to feel about dowry burning? You want to feel proud about the number of rapes happening? Sati in Rajasthan? Eve teasing? Spitting in public and throwing kachra? You want to feel proud about criminal politicians? Illiteracy rate? Female fotecide?

We have a long way to go.

Anonymous (a different one) said...

I see it as both sides commiting extreme reactions inlcuding the administration, the dutch female, the israeli couple and lastly all these bloggers taking sides like this. While outsiders have to learn to respect the native sentiments, we also
have to grow out of our narrow mindsets and see the issues in the right light. Sex or even male-female interactions is a touchy topic in Indian culture - and now understood as the big reason in our failure to deal with AIDS. So would all these bloggers also take pride that we are on the verge of having a 25% of our youth AIDS affected, would they take pride in female infanticide/dowry burning etc...grow up guys, do you know what it means to be AIDS affected, have you ever met a person who is AIDS affected. My humble advice to these supporters- develop a litle bit of sensitivity to human lives/suffering and you would apreciate these issues better. That said, I also dont approve of these few outsiders behaving stupidly. Now, dont generalize that only tourists coming to India can be stupid. Stupidity does not repsect barriers, Indians visiting outside can be stupid as well !!!

Chetan said...

Anonymous (a different one):

Has anybody in the article or even in the comments section ever said anything to the effect that we ought to retain our 'narrow mindsets?' Where has anybody talked about being proud of female infanticide/dowry burning etc. I am completely mystified by your comments suggesting the same. But not being proud does not mean being blind. If the things mentioned exist in the society there is no shame in saying they do or hiding them from outsiders. That more than anything else is responsible for spread of AIDS. You ought to work at changing them and that change should stem from within the society. What has that got to do with the guidelines, which are for the foreign tourists and not the local population.

We project our own beliefs onto what we are reading. This is precisely why I wrote this post, since I did the same the first time I read the BBC article. I challenge you to point out any sentence in my post that can be construed as supporting the issues you mentioned? I had taken issue with the bloggers' unfair portrayal of these guidelines as laws, their suggestion that what was said in the article existed in 18th century India when in reality it still exists, and their suggestion that this amounts to 'talibanisation.' These guidelines are not for Indians or the local population they are for foreigners and they are only for Ajmer not rest of India. The guidelines aren't asking the foreigners to go to their own countries and don't kiss in public. They are telling the foreigners that if you do those things in public in Ajmer, given the prevalent social norms there is a possibility of your actions being wrongly interpreted by the local population and this may lead to unpleasantness. The guidelines reflect the reality. Nowhere in the guidelines is it mentioned that the district administration is proud of the prevailing situation. And to derive the conclusion that anybody who points this out has to be automatically proud of bride burning is absurd to say the least.

The problem is that when such a topic is discussed immediately everyone splits into two sides. Either you have to be completely against or completely for. There can be no nuanced positions at all. And if you say something in favour of the guidelines you ought to be a cultural supremacist or a Hindu nationalist or a Muslim fundamentalist. You are branded despite the fact that none of the branders know you or your beliefs. The same goes for the other side. Anybody who says anything against the issue is someone who is a secular commie fool who doesn't value any culture or worse derides his own culture. When I say that we ought to question whether we have an inferiority complex, there is an immediate assumption from people who disagree that I have a superiority complex about Indian culture.

In the article I haven't said anything personally against any of the bloggers who had a different viewpoint. In fact I had the same reactions of repulsion that they had when I first read the post. But am I not allowed to question my own beliefs? Am I not allowed to point out fallacies and other facets, nuances which they may have overlooked? The reaction that I got even from my good friends on this article was confounding. In spite of knowing me personally some of them felt ok to label me as belonging to the other side. I have high regard for the bloggers I have linked to. I respect Ashutosh, Mridula and Ennis' opinions. But why should pointing out fallacies and factual errors be taken as a personal affront in blogosphere? Can one not have a questioning attitude, probing issues from different sides? Why does everybody have to condescend to someone with whom we don't agree? Why did you and also the Anonymous before you have to insinuate that I am a supporter of bride burning/dowry and regressive attitudes towards women, just because I questioned my own personal bias?

Yes the language used in the guidelines was atrocious. But every one of the things mentioned in the guidelines ring true for 85% of rural and semi-urban India. Did the bloggers take an issue with the language and said apart from the language the reality is true. No. They weren't willing to accept that Indians in today's era do such things. They automatically tied it to the narrative in their mind about Shiv Sena, Khushboo and other hot button issues completely missing the point that these were for the foreigners not for the locals that these were guidelines not rules that these were published so that tourists dont embarrass themselves or worse get fined or beaten up because they weren't aware about taboos regarding public display of affection. Bloggers called this 'talibanisation' (The most reprehensible thing here was the reference to Muslim population of Ajmer) of India. Arrey was the administration saying that if you dont do the the things mentioned in the guidelines we will cut off your hands? There was not even a fine or let alone a jail term. Yet, everyone is happy when they read such things as it feeds into their own fears and insecurities. Read my Balbir Pasha post. There was no adverse reaction from the Indian society even though sex was discussed so boldly and so much in open. Done creatively and uncondescendingly every Indian wants to change.

And if you still blame the Ajmer administration of Talibanisation consider this fact pointed out in an anonymous comment on Mridula's blog: Footprints is a popular tourist guidebook published in UK. Many tourists consult that before coming to India. The guidelines there says many similar things that the Ajmer administration does.

"How you dress is mostly how people judge you. .. Scanty tight clothing draws unwanted attention. Nudity is not permitted on beaches in India... it causes much offence. Displays of intimacy are not considered suitable in public"
"Kissing and embracing are regarded in India as part of sex: do not do them in public. Is is not even a good idea for couples to hold hands.... It is always best to dress modeslty whenever in public - a salwar kameez is perfect or baggy clothing - and refrain from smoking and drinking in public"

So what the Ajmer administration printed was present in many of the tourist guidebooks worledwide about India anyways. Now would you call the publishers of these guidebooks as the 'taliban' or supporting Taliban like views? How does telling the tourists about the existing realities make someone a member of the Taliban? And how can tourist guidelines for foreigners ever be held responsible for encouraging bride burning, female infanticide? If you think they are responsible, please care to explain how so?

Mridula said...

Chetan, after reading your comment on Desipundit on this issue, I have to say one thing. When we were discussing the tourism guidelines at my postI should have argued with you in a better way, more patiently, rather than becoming dismissive. I will try to do better the next time.

Shruthi said...

I admit I now look at the issue in an entirely different light. When you see that these restrictions are put at a place in which such things are a total no-no, it makes a lot of sense. It hurts the sensibilities of the people who belong there in the first place.