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.