Gauhar Khan gets slapped: Why did this become a secular vs communal debate?

There is really no defence for Akil Malik who decided that Gauhar Khan needed to be slapped because he thought her skirts were too short and “unIslamic”.

That’s moral policing at its most despicable. Or perhaps we should not say “most” because our moral policemen can easily outdo themselves when it comes to despicable.

How about dragging women out by their hair from a pub, for example?

But the real tragedy about moral policing in India is that the outrage over it seems to be coloured more by identity politics than by simple principle. It’s the identity of the slapper and the slapped that becomes the focus instead of the slap itself. In this case it’s Muslim vs Muslim and so the Gauhar Khan controversy turns into a “Where have all the secularists gone?” game.

 Gauhar Khan gets slapped: Why did this become a secular vs communal debate?

Gauhar Khan. AFP.

It becomes a #secularslap hashtag.

“@kavita_krishnan will you stand against #secularslap to Gauhar Khan or will ur secular streak take a break?” tweets @A1mit aka Rambling Indian. “Wonder where all the women right activists like @kavita_krishnan now?” asks another.

Never mind the fact that Krishnan had already tweeted “#GauharKhan slapped, ‘for wearing unIslamic clothes’ – disgusting notion that communities can decide what ‘their’ (w)omen wear.”

The Economic Times quotes a “right-wing blogger” as saying:

Why are all the intellectuals who targeted Pramod Muthalik of Sriram Sene now quiet? This is a shocking incident and everyone must come out to protest. But it is one rule for Hindus and another for other communities. Fanatics from all communities must be opposed.”

The blogger is correct. Fanatics from all communities must be opposed. But we are unable to do that because moral policing, like real estate is all about location, location, location.

In Kolkata, the BJP wants to occupy the principal opposition space and is always hunting for an opportunity to corner the Mamata government. When a movie theatre operated by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation refused to let a young woman in a skirt (accompanied by her father) in for a screening of Happy New Year all hell broke loose.

The BJP’s Yuva Morcha demonstrated outside the theater against the Talibanesque attitudes in Bengal under Mamata’s rule. Who was the theater manager to decide about the length of a patron’s skirt especially if her father was okay with it huffed and puffed a BJP leader. Gautam Malakar, president of the BJP’s Yuva Morcha’s north-east Kolkata chapter said the cadres demanded an “unconditional apology” from the hall manager.

Obviously Malakar remained blissfully oblivious to the irony of suddenly standing up for the length of women’s skirts in Kolkata while his brethren in Calicut vandalized a coffee shop because of reports of “immoral activities” like kissing in public places. Meanwhile Goa's PWD minister pointed to a woman in a skirt to argue that "scantily-dressed girls visiting pubs" were ruining the image of Goa's culture.

But Kolkata is under Trinamool rule. And Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections are soon due and any opportunity to embarrass Mamata Banerjee is well worth it. It’s really not about the principle at all. It’s about the principals involved in the fracas and the political dividends of the fallout from it.

Thus a Manohar Lal Khattar will felicitate the two young women from Rohtak who stood up to men who were harassing them on a bus while the other passengers watched mutely. But the same Khattar had once said as Scroll reports “If a girl is dressed decently a boy will not look at her in the wrong way… These short clothes are Western influences. Our country’s tradition ask girls to dress decently.”

Decent is of course in the eyes of the beholder, in this case the “moral police.” Akil Malik could claim he and Khattar are brothers under the skin when it comes to attitudes towards what women should wear. It’s just Malik went one slap too far while Khattar is now felicitating young women for standing up to sexual harassment because it’s politically advantageous for him to do so.

It’s indeed deplorable as Firstpost points out that some of the more vocal Bollywood celebrities have stayed mum about the Gauhar Khan slap. Especially since many of them were vociferous about Times of India’s cleavage-tiff with Deepika Padukone. Then celebs had started the #IStandWithDeepikaPadukone hashtag. Now only a handful like Farhan Akhtar and Madhur Bhandarkar have stood up for Gauhar Khan. Salman Khan who hosted Bigg Boss when Gauhar won it last year has been preoccupied with garbage. Real garbage, that is.

But it’s also worth noting there’s a difference between 24-year-old Akil Malik and Pramod Muthalik. The latter heads a full-fledged organization, he has goons who act in his name, he fancies himself a power broker in local politics. He is courted by politicians and joins the BJP because someone in the party thinks it’s a good idea. (And then is booted out when all hell breaks out on social media).

Akil Malik it seems was acting on his own without the weight of an organization behind him. It does not make his act any less despicable but it makes the equivalence with Pramod Muthalik false. That’s not because one is Muslim and the other is Hindu but because one is apparently a lone operator while the other has built an organization with moral policing embedded in its ethos. This is not to condone Malik or get into the pointless argument about whether Malik’s slap is worse than the Ram Sene’s hair-pulling. It’s a question of power and a nobody like Malik’s fifteen seconds of fame will in the end matter less than the vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University ruling a library out of bounds for women students or a Mumbai law college imposing a dress code including how long sleeves should be because it thinks students in t-shirts and jeans look like taporis.

Actually the more we parse moral policing by the politics of the moment, the religion of the perpetrators, the half-hearted condemnations with a nod towards Bharatiya sanskriti, the more we embolden the Akil Maliks of the world to take their “outrage” into their own hands because one thing is clear - moral policing knows no religion but it certainly understands politics.

A slap should just be a slap. A man slaps a woman for wearing clothes he thinks are too short. What's shocking is that alone is not reason enough for outrage.

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2014 17:42:56 IST

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