Jan 012013

A few days ago, I didn’t know there was a rapper called Yo Yo Honey Singh (no, seriously) Hardly surprising given that the main form of music that i consume is Hindustani Classical Vocal.  Yet, today i know more about him than i need to.

In brief, Yo Yo Honey Singh is a punjabi rapper, supposedly popular, done some Bollywood numbers. He has written and sung some grossly offensive lyrics, where he raps about women in (im)purely sexual terms, often violently sexual terms. Not surprisingly, women, men and activist groups  are outraged.  One policeman in UP was so outraged that he filed a FIR against the rapper.

At one level there is the absolute bad taste and obscenity of the lyrics, at the other end is the concept of Free Speech. It is next to impossible to legislate bad taste. Obscenity can be legislated but it is a slippery slope. You find Honey Singh’s lyrics offensive; I find swear words that suggest incest with sister, daughter & mother offensive; someone else finds girls showing their legs offensive; yet others find homosexuality offensive; there are those who find casual sex offensive; yet other who find live in relationships offensive. There are people who find paintings offensive, yet others who find depiction of Gods and Prophets offensive; others find books offensive, and there are those who find music videos offensive. Unfortunately you cannot just have the things you find offensive banned. In a democracy, either everyone demands to get things banned are accepted, or there are no bans.

On Yo Yo Honey Singh and his alleged lyrics (alleged, because his lawyers claim that they are not written by him) the excuse used is that it promotes misogyny and ‘bad’ behavior towards women. I could give you the academic arguments – No message is that strong as to have such a powerful impact on its audiences; that audiences consume a plethora of messages from a multitude of media and choose which medium and messages to accept and which to reject; but this is not my classroom :D I could give you the strawman argument – where were you when Kolaveri went viral; did you laugh at that famous chamatkar balatkar speech in 3 idiots ; did you dance to jumma chumma de de - but that is neither here nor there.

The list of films and TV shows that are misogynistic and encourage ‘bad’ behavior towards women are too many to be listed. Domestic Violence, Marital Rape, Sexual harassment,second class status are par for the course. And, why do they succeed – because they reflect society. Every time media tries to create content that is not regressive, not misogynistic, it fails. A few years ago a channel had created a show that featured a female protagonist who fought for women’s issues. Her back story was that she had survived rape and rebuilt her life to fight injustice (in the courts) against women. The show flopped. Post show research revealed a very interesting attitude. The audience feedback was ‘aurat ghar ke bahar jayegi, toh balatkar to hona hi hai’.

Lonavala Market 8The fact remains that our  societies are deeply misogynistic. And that is going to take time to change. Atleast two more generations, if not more. Given the misogynistic nature of society – the State has to bear a greater burden in ensuring that equality for women does not remain a paper provision. They have to provide for basic security. Both within the household and outside it. The System has  to modify its processes and procedures, sensitize its employees – from elected officials to cops on the beat and be more accountable to the people. It is time the system came down heavily on non Constitutional bodies like the Caste Panchayats from impinging on women’s freedoms.  The government needs to move the courts to proactively protect women’s rights from organized religion.

The State, the System and Society have been failing on most counts vis-a-vis women and women’s rights. Other interests are more important. Caste, Community, Vote Banks and the rest have succeeded in tethering women’s rights.

In the scheme of things issues like Item Numbers and Honey Singh are great diversionary tactics – we can discuss freedoms and obscenity; objectification and misogyny till kingdom come. But neither the rapper nor the dancer cause rape or sexual harassment. That is the product of a society that kills its daughters, that burns its daughters-in-laws; that traffics its wives. A society that values stupid machismo, where honour means beheading your sister for daring to find happiness, and where culture means covering up the woman incase the man gets tempted. It is the product of a system of policing that makes women feel incredibly unsafe; of political parties that choose Misogynistic Pigs (with all due apologies to all the pigs in the world) to represent them.

Discussing Honey Singh or Item Girls, diverts our anger from the things that need to be changed. it diverts our anger to easily achievable things – shutting down a new year concert or filling airtime with outrage on “Item” numbers. I am not saying outrage is wrong – by all means outrage – it is a free country and outrage is good for the soul :D but, in this constantly moving target of outrage scenario, focus on change is lost. And, unless there is focus on  systemic change – women are going to remain unsafe.

It really is not about Honey Singh… it is about taking the System to task and ensuring they deliver.
Jan 012013

My blog for Tehelka last week :

There is a fabulous quote from the fantastic BBC comedy “Yes Minister“.  It deals with ministers and their memoirs :

“Any statement in a politician’s memoirs can represent one of six different levels of reality:

a. What happened.
b. What he believed happened.
c. What he would have liked to have happened.
d. What he wants to believe happened.
e. What he wants other people to believe happened.
f. What he wants other people to believe he believed happened.”

Protests in Delhi. PTI photo

A decade from now, when Ministers in the current Government pen down their memoirs, I  wonder how they will account for the last eighteen months since the beginning of the first Anna Hazare protests in Delhi,  in particular their role in them. Will they be heroes? Will they be villains?  Will they be buffoons? Or will they come across as people who were clueless about the changes that are taking place in society and the demands of a newly empowered people? I am afraid, no matter how they spin it — their 6 levels of reality will read the same “we didn’t know what was going on”.

For the majority of India (70% under 35 years of age), Independence took place eons ago. There is little or no connect with either the freedom struggle, the British Raj or issues from that time. For almost half of India (50% below 25 years of age) the world is one of instant gratification. The number of people in India who were born after Emergency exceeds those who remember it.  India is changing, and this is not just the rapidly burgeoning cities. Rural and small town India are growing rapidly. Year after year more and more people are being pulled out of absolute poverty. People have begun, for the first time in history, to nurture aspirations that go beyond class, caste, and region. They understand that they are independent citizens, and they have rights. They also understand that if they shout loud enough they will be heard.  They see people around them being freed from patriarchy, discrimination, poverty — and they ask, rightly so, ‘why not me’. They have neither the time nor the inclination to wait. This, dear politician, is your target audience.

The one thing with pervasive media — be it 24 hour news channels or social media — is that one narrative no longer dominates. Social media especially  puts communication power back  in the hands of the individual citizens. Media agencies and journalists on social media are all trying to attract audiences to their version of the  narrative, and that is only possible when they engage with the audience. Politicians, especially in the west, extensively use this medium to reach out to potential voters. Demographic shifts there, as here, have ensured that audiences are more diverse, look to the future rather than past glory, look for affiliations beyond ethnicity or language. In India too politicians are beginning to use the medium but bar a few — the rest are using it to broadcast rather than interact. But, even broadcasting — i.e. one way communication to many — is better than no communication.

It is ridiculous that the Government of India, with all the resources at its disposal, with a full fledged TV network at its command, with every ministry having spokespeople, with the PMO having a specially dedicated communication cell, manages to look like a complete amateur with the reaction time of a snail with a fracture. The Delhi protests against rape began on Saturday morning, and the first reaction is late on Saturday night. When a gunman kills children in a school in the USA, the President takes the lead in addressing the people — telling them he understands their anguish, promising change.  It may just be words — but there are times when words are needed. Compare this to the response time and quality of response by the Government in every situation. How difficult would it be for someone in the Government — not the Party but the Government — to come on air and talk to the people?

The people elected the Government. The Government is accountable to the people. And part of this accountability is telling us what is going on, taking us into confidence,  assuring us about action,  and the steps taken to mitigate the issues.  It is actually as simple as that.