Sushma Swaraj’s latest target is Fashion Television. India’s Morality Police tightens the screw.
Ironically, the majority of the people who make up the audience of the channel, FTV or Fashion Television belong to the class whose morality Sushma Swaraj is so desperate to protect.

The Great Indian Middle Class.

Swaraj, India’s Information and Broadcasting minister and a self-appointed guardian of our morality, is convinced that watching all those half-nude women romping on the ramp on a channel that is available to barely 20 per cent of the Indian population, is harmful to our 5000-year old culture.

So what does she do? For almost three hours a day, at least once a week, she closely tracks FTV, the 24 hr free-to-air channel where one ramp blurs into another, where models, from all over the world, reveal what they are not wearing, and sometimes what they are wearing.

And when she herself is not watching the channel, she has instructed the officials at the Central Monitoring Cell to keep a close eye.

There is only one problem though. At the cell office, they don’t get FTV. So every day, a “casual monitor” (read reviewer) and art engineer go all the way to a cable operator in Kishangarh, a remote suburb in New Delhi, to watch FTV, to find out if Armani’s winter collection violates “Indian culture and ethos.”

Ask Swaraj about the reason behind monitoring what could be just a harmless fashion channel, and the lady erupts, “Harmless! Have you seen the kind of things they show on FTV? What if a young kid was to watch these women walk around in nothing more than bikinis? That is not our culture.”

Just as it is not our culture to celebrate Valentine’s Day. In the more orthodox cities of Kanpur and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu right wing organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has issued a fatwa (order). “No one will celebrate Valentine Day,” contends Ram Dhin Upadhyaya, covenor of VHP in UP, “Such things are alien to our culture and our way of life. I don’t see any reason why we should import foreign culture into our homes.”

Vulnerable students in the Universities and colleges of UP are running scared. Several Valentine Day shows have been cancelled. As Vidhita Pandey, a student of English Literature at the Kanpur University puts it, “Who will take on the VHP. They are goondas. Last year, they assaulted a girl only just because she was wearing tight jeans.”

The Noose Tightens:

Shocked? Don’t be, because incident like these is pretty common. Of late, India seems to be ruled by a morality police that dictates our lifestyles: who we may marry, who we may go out with, what we may wear, what films and serials we may watch, what clothes we may wear, what paintings we may paint — and admire — and what music we may listen to.

The culture police first struck when the Queen of the Morality Brigade, Sushma Swaraj dictated that all newsreaders on the state controlled television channel, Doordarshan, be “dressed in keeping with the Indian culture.” This was in May 1996, when she was first appointed information and broadcasting minister, in the 13-day BJP government. Interpreted, it meant, no sleeveless blouses. And definitely no other garment other than the staid sari.

Claims newsreader Usha Albuquerque, one of the few who rebelled against the order: “It reached such ridiculous heights that we were told not to put on lipstick!”

Since then, India’s culture police have sworn to bring back Ram Rajya. And if you do not agree with their version of Indian culture and morality, they have ways to make you give in. By resorting to plain old goondagardi (bullying). Like the Shiv Sena did — and still do — in Maharashtra.
· On 1 May 1998, Shiv Sainiks and Bajrang Dal workers ransacked painter Maqbool Fida Husain’s house, and tore down several paintings depicting a nude Sita riding on the tail of Hanuman.
· After Husain, it was the turn of painters Jatin Das and Bhupen Hazarika. Some six month ago, their art exhibitions in New Delhi — which comprised paintings of nude women and men — were ransacked by Bajrang Dal activists.
· In Ahmedabad, a group of Bajrang Dal activists forced Sunderi Products — a herbal cosmetics company — to cancel its Mr Gujarat and Ms Gujarat show on 5 November 2000. The reasoning: “Indian girls do not show off their beauty on stage.”

· Go north, to Punjab. On 7 December, 2000, the Akali Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee — which comprises all religious heads in the state — ordered that no marriages would be held at five star hotels, as it is “against Sikh culture.” And now comes the SGPC’s latest instruction: no Sikh girls will go to a beauty parlour, as it is against the tenets of the Sikh religion.
· In Uttar Pradesh, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad — the BJP’s student wing, which controls a majority of students’ unions — has banned the holding of beauty pageants on college campuses.
· Film director Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Water’ had to be abandoned half way because the pundits of Haridwar claimed that the movie, based on a freedom fighters love for a widow and his fight against the exploitation of widows in the holy city, “tarnished the image of Hindu culture.”

Yet Mehta remains unfazed by these controversies. “I am not surprised by the hungama (the chaos). I was wondering when all this shit is going to begin. A few right wing organisations have decided that the Hindu religion is unidimensional and want to strip it off all its different aspects and its ability to evolve and adapt,” she states.

Yet, the unperturbed Indians aren’t doing too much to get this morality brigade to loosed their pernicious grip and leave them alone. Has fear got something to do with it?

Deepali Nandwani