India Insight

Watch your mouth: indignation at every turn

October 11, 2012

When you’re in a khap, you can say whatever you want, but it has to be pretty outrageous to annoy people beyond the city limits. One idea that has cleared the bar? Lowering the minimum marriage age to prevent girls from being raped.

“Boys and girls should be married by the time they turn 16 years old, so that they do not stray …this will decrease the incidents of rape.”

That’s the kind of thing that you expect a conservative patriarch to mutter through his beard while drinking tea with a friend. Comment done, world moves on.

In this case, a khap – a group of village elders with lots of influence, but no legal power – should have been equally newsworthy. That changed when the media smelled a story: primetime news, debates, news anchors berating the khaps for old-fashioned opinions and lots of young people asking questions.

Unfortunately, the young people were mostly city teenagers; rural teens didn’t show up too much. So what did this accomplish? Did someone change the khap member’s opinion? Did someone stop the khap from changing a law that they can’t change to begin with?

No, mainly what we got was a typical news cycle: some outrage, some ratings and some entertainment for the people. On to the next story. Maybe we should stop investing power in every Tom, Dick and khap who happens to have a controversial view.

Everybody has an opinion. Being human, we find lots of those opinions outrageous. You could argue, of course, that people should know about politicians’ faux pas, as well as their well meaning, but ridiculous statements, and their light-hearted jokes that turn into apologies.

After all, they are public figures; you voted for them, so you should know what you’re getting. Union Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal’s recent attempt at being witty backfired after he was slammed by other politicians and activists for comparing a cricket match victory to a new wife.

He said both lose their charm with time. No doubt, that was in bad taste, but is every remark in bad taste worth an avalanche of calls for his resignation? Think about this now that some time has passed. Jaiswal still runs the ministry; he’s probably just a little quieter on the humour front.

Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh was panned for his attempt at being witty to highlight the lack of sanitation in India. His comments that the country had “more temples than toilets” evoked angry reactions, especially from right-wing groups. Maybe it’s time we learned to laugh at our jokes sometimes, or at least learn to let it slide.

Or maybe it’s time to highlight statements that can cause real damage. Is the rage that likely will come after this statement going to dissipate in a week? Read this excerpt from an India Today story:

“A couple of days after Haryana Congress president Phool Chand Mullana cited “political conspiracy” behind the increase in rape cases, party’s spokesperson in the state, Dharamveer Goyal, sent ripples through the state, saying 90 per cent of such incidents were consensual. Precedent suggests this: outrageous statement, outraged reaction… and then silence as a real outrage continues.”

Precedent suggests this: outrageous statement, outraged reaction… and then silence as a real outrage continues.

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