"I know people who belong to the RSS tradition," someone commented on a Facebook discussion I was reading recently, "and they are all good people with tremendous discipline" (emphasis mine).
I think of this today again in the context of the recent Kiss of Love in Delhi, where the protest was pitched against 'sanghi gunday'. The image that appears before you is instantly of a saffron-clad man with a bright red tilak on his forehead aggressively protecting an abstract "Indian culture" that nobody can quite define, but everybody knows.
And it is in this context that I wonder: Is it a mistake to make monsters of those on the extreme right of things?
Because I don't think it is truly the Sanghi Gunday that one is up against.
It is the regular middle-class Mama who wants his daughter to have a PhD from a foreign university and a stunning career, but also wants his to know how to make the perfect keeray molagutal and is afraid of her daughter marrying a Muslim. It is the Aunty who thinks it is perfectly fine to have a drink with her daughter on Saturday evenings, but will bring down the skies if her skirt is a single inch above her knee. Write a thesis on sexuality, sure, as long as it is part of your academics, but the choice of marriage will be made by horoscopes and stars. You have to be financially independent, but you cannot have a say in when you want to come home at night. Have as many friends as you want, but don't eat in the Muslims' houses - their food smells. Those gays, you know, it's okay whatever they do on their own time. You don't have any gay friends no?
There is nothing more political than falling in love. Identity (caste, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation…), ways in which you define your relationships (not defining it, intimacy, love, live-in, open, closed, committed, married, engaged, the list goes on), spaces, institutions you engage with in the context of the relationships - all of these have to be negotiated. So much has been said on love jihad/'jihad against love'; about personal laws regulating marriages, laws against homosexuality. It is naive to argue that any decision is made by the two (or, indeed, more) people in the relationship. People are acid attacked, hacked to pieces, thrown under trains, shot, beaten up brutally, raped, kidnapped, I mean - you've all watched the films and read the news - all for love. But you have also heard of people who give up, compromise, "be pragmatic". It doesn't have to be extreme - even little things like keeping quiet when your partner's mother calls. Love isn't ever only pretty.
But at the heart of this is control over sexuality.
Let's for a moment think about why the media felt entitled to put up footage of a couple kissing at a cafe; and about why (I use the term loosely) 'sanghi gunday' felt entitled enough to beat them up. It didn't happen out of the blue.
I don't know if this is true specifically of Kochi, but I know it is true of any college in Hyderabad, many colleges in Chennai, Bangalore, Madurai, really any city in the South - but for over a decade now, educational institutions have been violently curbing any expression of women's sexuality. Dress codes, separating men and women in classrooms, having rules about girls and boys talking to each other in class, not allowing any physical contact whatsoever, strictly regulating time between classes, also regulating after-college hours - these are all "normal" in most colleges. It is apparently okay to suspend students for laughing loudly.
I read this week that Bangalore College Principals published guidelines on how girls should behave in colleges, and this is endorsed by most people who send their children to these colleges. I wouldn't be surprised if these guidelines regulate women's access to spaces, their friends, how they speak on the phone, which staircase they take, where they sit, how they sit, who they eat with, what they eat; there is nothing about the way a woman conducts herself that the principals couldn't have set a guideline about.
These principals are regular, educated, middle-class men and women of all shapes and sizes; but really, how are they any different from 'sanghi gunday' who protest against men and women sitting together in a cafe? The only difference I can see scares me - The fact that they are organised, have direct power over women's lives and careers, have support (whether explicit or complicit) from the families of the women they seek to control and the fact that they use it intelligently. 'Sanghi gunday' are reactionary, angry and violent; but men and women like these who are 'well-intentioned' and are 'only doing it to protect our girls' are the real threat.
They're good, well-intentioned people. Their only visible fault, of course, is their warped sense of entitlement on women's bodies. Women (because make no mistake, they are adult women) who have no way to own their bodies with some integrity. At the heart of it is the fact that it is a power relationship. I've been in the women's position. I've done it - I wore salwar kameez for five years in a girls' college, where I was sent back home a few times because my kurta was higher than my knees by a few inches, I wore a stole instead of a dupatta, I wore jeans instead of a salwar, my sleeves were too short, even thinking of the list is tiring me. I've justified not fighting it, too - there are bigger battles to fight. I can't win this.
So I wonder. Are we making monsters of the wrong people?