Saturday, July 24, 2010

Private space public eye

The horrendous Jalgaon affair tells us how phoney our moral protests against nudity are. A nude in a painting brings every member of the moral police out onto the street. But when news got around that a real live woman was stripped and paraded through a village in Jalgaon district, villagers were able to take the sight with obvious enjoyment and not a single member of the Sree Ram Sene or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena or the Shiv Sena or the Bajrang Dal protested or even mildly condemned the terrible act. The terrible act is part of our morality. This is how we’ve punished our women since the time the Kauravs attempted to disrobe Draupadi.

In this little village, a widow was rumoured to be having an affair with a village official. This was ostensibly unacceptable to the village. A conspiracy was hatched and a large group of villagers barged into her home, found the couple together, dragged them out, stripped them, beat them up and paraded them naked through the village.

The case was discussed on a Marathi news channel. Abrogating the right to decide what is moral and immoral and the right to punish the allegedly immoral has become common practice in the country. A retired member of the judiciary called upon by the channel to comment, pointed out that there were enough cultural-political formations in the country who had demonstrated the impunity with which you could take law into your hands as long as the cause was religion, culture or morality. A mob is never punished, however heinous the offence. Who has been punished for crimes committed during the post Babri Masjid demolition riots and the Gujarat pogrom? Why then would ordinary people not feel tempted to experience the heady sense of power that comes with judging and punishing your fellows?

Ironically one of the panelists on the discussion was a prominent leader of the Shiv Sena, Ms Neelam Gorhe. It was strange to hear her speak in an even voice about how wrong it was for people to take the law into their hands. But she had done her work as a political leader. She had made inquiries in the village and discovered an unsuspected angle of the case that the anchor knew nothing about. She revealed that the men who led the action against the couple were not the usual moral police types. They only wore that garb for the impunity it gave them. They were angry with the woman because she had refused to give them what she was giving her paramour. They wanted a piece of the pie so to say.

At frequent intervals during the discussion, a picture popped up on the screen which showed two people, blurred to hide their identities, sitting on the ground trussed up, surrounded by sniggering villagers enjoying the show. Somebody took that picture while they were being humiliated and mercilessly beaten. The ethical problem that news photographers once faced, is never discussed in this age of 24X7 news channels. Somebody took that picture. He was there. The only difference between him and the laughing, sniggering villagers was that they were looking at the scene with the naked eye while he was looking at it through a lens.

Did the picture add to our understanding of what had happened? No. Did it add to our sense of shame? It did, because it implicated us in the passive watching of this horrifying incident along with the villagers and the photographer.