ON A THURSDAY, way past midnight, the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women sprang up on Facebook. We had started the group as a faintly bitter joke. In five minutes two women had signed up laughing. Twenty-four hours later the campaign to send pink chaddis to Pramod Muthalik and to crowd pubs with unlikely occupants was in full swing. The joke was now richly sweet.
While the Mangalore pub attack had created a numbing sense of déjà vu, it was actually the Sri Ram Sene’s promise of violence on Valentine’s Day that stirred my friends and me. It should not have. After all, the social calendar of right-wing groups requires a media circus in February. Asiya Andrabi in Kashmir, for instance, has a widely-followed annual Valentine’s Day scourge. We were caught between fuelling the media-hungry Sene or condoning their violence. Five years of hard work from the Sangh Parivar and its Muslim counterparts has ensured that coastal Karnataka has neighbours turning against each other, young people in colleges and on the streets afraid to even make eye-contact with the opposite sex, parents supporting and defending goons who beat up their children. All spectators understood that the Sene, a new and unwelcome franchise of India’s favourite corporation, the moral police, was announcing a play for greater power. While Karnataka’s BJP Government watched to see whether Muthalik could pull off his boast, we decided to give the Sene some attention.
Did we anticipate the response we got? No. Within a day of starting the campaign we had 500 odd members. In a week we hit 40,000. From Puerto Rico to Singapore, from Chennai to Ahmedabad, from Guwahati to Amritsar, people wrote to us, how do I send my chaddis? But by then the campaign had gone offline. Elderly men and women, schoolchildren, middle-aged housewives, gravelly-voiced big men from Bihar who did not quite want to say the word chaddi aloud called us. The Sene called us on the numbers we had helpfully left online demanding, “Who is your leader?” How satisfying it was to say that we had none. How satisfying that young people offered their homes as collection points, bravely allowing their addresses to be published online. How satisfying that the crazies and conspiracy theorists were outnumbered ten to one by hilarious stories. Were you the one who told us that a famous Bollywood lyricist had written a song for the gulabi chaddi? Or were you the one who sent us the Amul ads featuring the pink chaddi? Or were you one of the Mumbai housewives gravely posing with underwear? Or the biker who created a miniature pink chaddi to tie on your handlebars?
Our embryonic campaign has been compared to Myanmar’s Panties for Peace campaign, with the 1970s mythical bra-burning, with Gandhigiri. The truth is that we were only thinking of a way to render absurd the ever-bigger chaddiwala. The truth is that after a lifetime of worrying about whether this next innocuous action is the one that will allow the country to take away your rights, it was wonderful to own up to who you are. I have witnessed the coming out of many gay friends but never thought I would witness my own. How wonderful it is to accept that you are an urban woman, the privileges you have will shame you everyday, but there are few you will give up. Most importantly, you are that loose and forward woman, the slur you have tried to avoid your entire life. And now you were sending your underwear to an avowed fundamentalist. “Be grateful you are not walking 15 kilometres for water,” used to come as the response from friends anywhere on the political spectrum, each time you complained about something. This week, many of us found ourselves done with gratitude. Our fundamental rights are not to be taken away, like gifts with strings.
Conversations on Facebook reveal that many members are not fans of conspicuous consumption or pubs. What we have in common is that we dislike the ease with which right-wing groups have been infringing on fundamental rights. Isn’t our culture infused with ideas of tolerance and respect for difference? Living in India has now begun to feel like being the only adult in a room full of violent, overweight children. You never know what will offend someone and constantly live in fear. Don’t ask whose blood the morcha yells for. It yells for you. We believe that the Pink Chaddi Campaign broke through this climate of fear for a few moments and reached adults. Reasonable adults who don’t take themselves too seriously, who respect different ways of life, who were looking for company in their miserable reasonableness.
The government, confused by missives of roses, hugs and protests (apart from our pink underwear) ensured some protection on Valentine’s Day. But when the brother and sister in Ujjain were beaten up because the vigilantes mistook them for a couple, did you laugh or cry? It was not enough for us, the laughing hordes who found each other this week, when Muthalik was taken into preventive custody. It is not the dusty obscurity we want for him. Ashwini Mulya was 15 years old when she committed suicide a week ago. Saleem, her lover/friend stands accused of her rape while the men who assaulted her in public go blameless.
This week, I also met a very well-spoken older gentleman. A diplomat, he and his friend, a general, commiserated with me about the ‘lumpen elements’ taking over Karnataka. “Young lady, they are lunatics”. I wish I could make them listen to the calls we have received in the last few days. Men as wellspoken as the diplomat, with laughter lacing their voice, have called us to say they are not fanatics, do not like Valentine’s Day or pubs. For the hundredth time, when we explained that we did not particularly care for either, then the well-spoken callers asked us, “Then why are you all getting worked up about a few girls who got beaten?” The media who loved the ‘crazy girls’ sending underwear to a petty tyrant was hugely supportive. But we also have uneasy memories of deeper, older campaigns which never received any attention.
At the beginning of this hectic sprint we had vowed to be well-mannered. We applauded Muthalik’s sari-for-chaddi riposte because for 15 minutes in his life he was not thinking about beating up someone. Our dignity is not so fragile that when the saris come we won’t wear them. But it is when the reasonable and the pragmatic call us that silence takes over the chaddi shop. Where do you begin these conversations?
We do not think of the right-wing Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups as evil. They are our reptilian hind brains. We may be uncomfortable saying aloud: “X group is taking its rights for granted. They are getting too cocky and we should teach them to behave.” Rightwing groups do that job for us. They coldly draw up five-year plans to destroy the people our subconscious feels threatened by. Do not hate right-wing groups. They are our friends.
With the ossifying of many of those vital, widely inspiring movements that my generation grew up around, we now draw our energy from the everincreasing generosity of the Queer Rights movement. Take this week, for instance. A few hours after we had heard the disorienting news that a morcha had been taken out against us in Belgaum, a few hours after Muthalik had been arrested, some of us found ourselves at the Queer Cafe, a cultural event hosted by Nigah Media in Delhi. I laughed at funny, breakneck prose. A woman gave us goosebumps when she sang ‘Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera’. A beautiful girl recited in the oddest cadences a poem full of everything I have ever worried about. She talked about being brave in hopefulness and I cried. It seemed like the last ever celebration of love.
A week later the Pink Chaddi Campaign has had a good run. We defenders of Indian culture look forward to more bravery and hopefulness.