Moral panic in India

Transitions and disruptions are changing relations between generations, between genders, between classes and between religious groups. It is not just a simple conflict between tradition and modernity that sparks occasional violence. India has become an excellent laboratory for studying change. 

L.K. Sharma
L.K. Sharma
20 January 2014
Large group of protestors, India

Demotix / Louis Dowse. Some rights reserved.

India has been gripped by a moral panic as a result of a spate of sexual and financial scandals. Seemingly unrelated, these have a cumulative quality. The Indian male is on trial. Indian institutions have been diminished. Indians have woken up in a consumerist heaven with an uncontrollable craving for money and sex.

Hardly a week goes by without a financial scam or a sexual offence hitting the headlines. Lurid stuff about sexual offences, heinous crimes and scams is retailed by politicians and the media, causing mass anxiety. There is a feeling that something is rotten in the state of the Republic. Perception matters in politics and thus a few months before the national elections, the people are hankering for change.

The situation has a comic dimension too because the contradictions in this traditional society’s approach to money and sex are also being highlighted. The new heroes are those who make a fast buck and display an entrepreneurial animal spirit. The films that once used two swaying flowers to represent a kissing couple now come suffused with semi-nudity and vulgar lyrics. The sexualisation of culture by Bollywood, the media and the fashion industry has followed economic liberalisation. An occasional conservative backlash cannot curtail the insatiable demand for soft-porn and beer bars.

In the aspirational India, the ends justify the means. In a collective mad rush for sex and money, cutting corners is the new normal. In the past, some chased money while the others sought fulfilment through sex or through intellectual endeavour. Now the elites have formed a nexus and all want everything.

The sex-related allegations hit a billionaire ‘godman’ and his son, a state governor, a state chief minister, two state ministers, two members of a legislative assembly, two other political leaders, a prominent editor and even two retired Supreme Court judges. One judge was found guilty by an informal committee of judges and ultimately forced to resign his post-retirement job. A dentist and his wife were found guilty of murdering their teenage daughter. A film actor was arrested after a singer-actress from the UK charged him with a violent attack. An elderly state governor, with a life-long illustrious record in politics, has had to leave his prestigious job because of an alleged sexual scandal.

The complaints of corruption, rape, sexual harassment and official snooping targeting a woman are keeping the investigative agencies and law courts very busy. As the discourse on scandals gets shriller, the Supreme Court has queered the pitch by restoring the ban on gay sex.

In this case, the social consensus is missing. The conservatives and liberals are fighting a battle on homosexuality. The main ruling party, the Congress, does not favour the reimposition of the ban while the main opposition party, the BJP, is against homosexuality. The Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the law that criminalises gay sex was reported by a daily under a front-page banner above the faces of two young men. It shrieked: LOVERS OR CRIMINALS?

Silence is ending

It is not that the sexual conduct of the Indian male has suddenly acquired a criminal dimension. The conspiracy of silence has ended as some newly empowered women have started sharing their personal experiences of sexual harassment. Every now and then, a high-profile woman talks about what she has had to face in an office environment.

An unprecedented wave of public protests and candle-light vigils followed the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi a year ago. The rape of tribal, low-born or village women had never got that much media attention. The widely prevalent gender-insensitivity and assertion of male power in a patriarchal society then became a major topic of public discourse and media comments.

The popular backlash against the rape and murder of an educated middle-class girl led to more stringent laws and guidelines to ensure the safety of women in homes, offices and public places. In one case, the court awarded the harshest possible punishment to the guilty. Nothing seems to have served as a deterrent. Several rape cases have been reported since then.

Reports have come in of sexual harassment in the universities and law courts. Women teachers said they avoided going to the male-dominated staff rooms. Some women advocates complained that their male colleagues frequently harassed them on a High Court premises, making lewd remarks, touching them and watching inappropriate video clips on their mobile phones.

A university professor, ironically teaching gender justice, was suspended after one of his girl students complained of sexual harassment in his chamber. A few weeks ago, a Delhi University laboratory assistant was driven to self-immolation after her complaint of sexual harassment against the principal went unheeded. Earlier, a woman personal assistant in another college lodged a complaint against the acting principal for asking her for sexual favours. A year ago, a university girl student died after which it was found that she had been repeatedly raped by an assistant professor.

Dealing with complaints

Most universities have not constituted committees to respond to complaints of sexual harassment in the work place. These were recommended as far back as in 1997 by the Supreme Court. A retired woman vice-chancellor of a university recalled that when a woman colleague was raped no one came out in her support. A woman in Mumbai took to social media when the railway police failed to respond to her complaint against some hooligan commuters.

Foreign female tourists at times face sexual harassment. A public service TV ad shows a foreign woman tourist being molested and then rescued by another auto-rickshaw driver who is applauded by a Bollywood actor. A European diplomat says sexual harassment discourages foreign women students from joining Indian universities. On the radio and in newspapers, the police advertise their vigilance against the ‘eve-teasers’ and encourage women to ring up help lines and register complaints. Young women from a particular region, studying and working in the national capital form an association in order to feel safe.

In the most talked-about case, a crusading editor named Tarun Tejpal faces a charge of rape, as defined in the latest anti-rape laws. What Mr. Tejpal tried to do to his young female employee in the privacy of the hotel lift in Goa during a festival of ideas has been reported, interpreted and commented on by hundreds of journalists. If private conversations about this episode are included, the number of discussants will go into millions. The extensive media coverage given to the Tejpal case opened the flood gates of complaints. Just one day’s newspaper carries as many as five reports on sexual harassment.

The recent cases of sexual misconduct have two special features. These involve high-profile and accomplished men - “people like us”. Secondly, not the callow youth with raging hormones but fairly mature men. So it is not the “permissive” youth culture that is being attacked by the violent anti-immorality activists who drag out young girls from beer bars.

What about money?

If it is not sex than it is money that generates scandals. Here, the official regulatory mechanism is unable to cope with the situation. The delivery of the public services is riddled with bribery. The nexus of the political and business leaders has been exposed in several sectors including telecom, military equipment and infrastructure. The phenomenal increase in land prices has made a clean government impossible. The terms “mafia” and “gate” (borrowed from Watergate) have been appended to commodities ranging from coal to sand. Millions of people have lost their savings in fraudulent investment schemes. Ministers and bureaucrats have been sent to jail.

The activists organise rallies and undertake fasts to press for new legislative measures to control corruption. The TV debates focus on high-level corruption. With every TV news bulletin, moral outrage shoots up. The self-righteous brigades are proliferating. Noisy moral entrepreneurs target deviants who appear to be threatening the traditional social order. It may be a religious community, ideological opponents, feminists or young women just enjoying themselves in a beer bar. An inter-caste or a Hindu-Muslim love affair may cause a riot. “Our women’s honour” has become a war cry that has recently caused a communal riot in one rural area.

Collective guilt

The anti-corruption rhetoric resonates with the people, including those who readily give bribes and accept undue favours. Participating in the anti-corruption rallies is one way of assuaging the collective guilt. The current bout of social moral panic is acute since it has occurred in a political season. The security of woman has become an issue in the recent state elections. The opposition’s political campaign in the national capital was fuelled by crimes against women.

Some states have witnessed vicious election campaigns and the national elections are to follow in a few months. There will be some shows of synthetic outrage in order to use corruption as a political weapon. The anti-corruption activists find the politicians in power easy targets and generally spare the corrupt corporate entities. A wider cultural revolution covering the bribe-givers is not on the agitators’ agenda.

Of course, this social moral panic has had some positive influence on the conduct of the governments, political parties and the corporate sector. The activists fighting against corruption and for the dignity and safety of women forced the State to respond. The drip-drip effect of the daily reports of financial and sexual scandals had a political fall-out in the recent state-level elections. The voters of the national capital threw out the ruling party, giving an impressive lead to a new and untraditional party which formed the Government. Its appeal transcended caste, class, regional identity and religious barriers. Its campaign against the use of money and muscle power to influence the voters had a sobering effect and after the poll, the other parties refrained from horse-trading.

In Parliament, the major political parties came together to pass a Bill that seeks to establish the highest-level institution to check corruption. The idea behind the Bill has been discussed for decades but in the new atmosphere, no political party has wanted to be seen as indifferent to fighting corruption.

New media and moral panic

Every country suffers from a moral fit from time to time. One set of politicians uses a social moral panic and forces the rival section to manage its fall-out. The political class and the media need titillating tales and a strong social response. The former makes political gains and the latter draws commercial benefits.

Sociologists say that like dissent, a moral panic can also be manufactured. But in the Indian case, the moral panic was not engineered. The media and politicians only intensified it. With the arrival of the new media, the stories of misconduct by the rich and powerful can no longer be suppressed.

Transitions and disruptions are changing relations between generations, between genders, between classes and between religious groups. It is not just a simple conflict between tradition and modernity that sparks occasional violence. The situation is more complex because contradictory economic, moral and social trends have surfaced simultaneously. India has become an excellent laboratory for studying change.

The current crisis is having a greater impact because the political leadership is seen as weak. In such a situation, people get drawn to a demagogue “messiah”. They chase folk devils and false gods. The problem-ridden characters of the TV serials are turning in desperation to the “true” Gods of the temples. In an earlier era, the young heroine would barge into the district collector’s office or a police station to resolve the people’s problems. These days in every TV serial, the trouble-stricken families resort to prayers in front of an idol! The outbreak of religiosity too can be attributed to the current crisis.

At a time of radical social and economic changes, anxiety-provoking issues abound. The classic symptoms of a moral panic – distortion, exaggeration, over-reaction and dire warnings about failure to act – will last for some time as the rapid and unsettling change spawns more demons.

Stricter laws and new guidelines cannot bring about a social transformation. Office managers are putting in place internal units to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. The male employees are being asked to keep both their hands in their pockets while chatting with their female juniors! But in a liberalised India, the innocent drunken banter will not remain interrupted for long and the ongoing sexual revolution cannot be arrested.


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