Tarun Sagar, male gaze and the legislative assembly: Is obscenity limited to men's definitions?

Dress codes and clothing restrictions for women and men are common in religious establishments. In dargahs, mosques and gurudwaras you have to cover your head; the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa does not allow scantily clothed people; several temples in southern India also have rules imposing a change of clothes before entry. Legislative assemblies are also temples of democracy as Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed when he entered the Parliament for the first time. So, does the Parliament and state legislative assemblies also have a dress code?

When invited by the Haryana Education Minister to speak at the assembly, Jain Digambar monk Tarun Sagar arrived wearing his religion on his sleeves – stark naked. Digambar Jain monks are people who denounce worldly wealth and essentials and consider not covering their body with clothes, leather, bark leaves etc as a virtue. Further, they are soft and calm and devoid of wrath, pride, wickedness, greed, sexual thoughts and bad customs. (Monk Tarun Sagar, with his high pitched voice, SRK style hamming and rapid hand movements, was far from being calm and his wrath towards Pakistan was shooting through the roof, not to mention his blatant sexism.

When religious leaders, who have supposedly denounced the world, suddenly enter the temple of democracy and give sermons on worldly affairs like politics, Pakistan and a woman’s place in marriage, they open themselves up for rational public criticism.

This incident raises several questions: First, is this allowed by the Constitution? India is a secular nation which means state and religion are to be kept separate. How can the government officially invite a religious leader to speak at Vidhan Sabha?

Second, from the administrative point of view, how was the matter handled — did the administration know that the monk would appear not as a citizen of the nation but as a religious leader carrying with him his religious practice of nakedness? If yes, did the administration give considerable thought to the appropriateness of nudity in public office? What about the logistics? Did he arrive at the Vidhan Sabha gate in a car, then walk through the corridors up to the dais — naked all way? These questions are pertinent in understanding the reasonableness of nudity in public office even if for legitimate religious purpose.

Third, is this legal as per the obscenity laws of India? Section 294 of Indian Penal Code defines the crime of obscenity:

Whoever, to the annoyance of others—
(a) does any obscene act in any public place, or
(b) sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place…

Of course, the law is highly ambiguous. The main test is that of ‘annoyance’. Courts have held that no act is per se obscene or vulgar unless it causes annoyance (2005 (3) ALD 220). But what constitutes annoyance? Who are others? What is a public place? — these are open to interpretations. Nude art in temples, naked monks in Kumbh Mela or Varanasi ashrams certainly do not cause annoyance and are not obscene. But is it possible that they could cause annoyance when they enter day-to-day public places like government offices, trains, buses, banks, post offices, restaurants and so on? How many people should be annoyed for the act to be considered obscene? I am an atheist devoid of religious sentiments so I was certainly annoyed by the naked monk in legislative assembly, but does one woman’s annoyance matter? These are open questions.

Finally, does the female gaze matter or is obscenity only about the majoritarian male gaze? A deeply conservative patriarchal society which worships the penis and considers bleeding vaginas impure, gathers itself into violent blood thirsty mobs and goes about beating women visiting pubs, harassing young girls and couples on Valentine’s Day and filing court cases against woman for having an opinion — because men are ‘annoyed’. Causing annoyance to male gaze is often fatal for women as we have learned through the life of Jyoti Singh. Scantily clothed women cause rape. Pornography causes rape. The revered monk Tarun Sagar further said that a skewed sex ratio was leaving men to cause rapes.

Enough of the male gaze and male sexuality. What about the female gaze? A naked body is a naked body. A woman may be aroused at the sight of a naked male body and the man’s religious disposition may not be of any significance to her. Same goes with homosexual gaze. Irrespective of the man’s religious intentions, his nudity may arouse all kinds of reactions. But unlike many men who would go ahead and rape, most women would like to look away from the body. At least they should have the choice to do so.

When a formal event is organised in a workplace, where women go as part of their ordinary duties, that choice is kind of taken away. But this is not just about one day in Haryana Assembly or just about a few women. What example is being set? Tomorrow it could be a school or college — a nude body shouldn’t be forced upon a female gaze in anyway. Nudity in the workplace would amount to sexual harassment but why doesn't religious nudity? Is it because it is only about what the religious man intends and not how the non-religious female gaze receives the body?

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2016 10:01:47 IST