MUMBAI (Reuters) - An assault on women in a pub, a kidnapping of a Hindu girl for sitting next to a Muslim boy, harassing of canoodling couples by the police and the public.
These are just some recent examples of rising conservatism in a country which has long struggled to balance its deep-rooted traditions with rapid modernisation.
India’s growing numbers of young and independent urban women are an easy target for some religious activists and politicians, self-appointed moral guardians trying to force traditional mores on its increasingly liberal, western outlook.
“We’re seeing a rise in the number of incidents of violence against women and we’re also seeing greater reporting of it by the media, at least in the cities,” said Urvashi Butalia, a well-known feminist and publisher.
“More women are working in the cities and claiming their share of the pie in terms of access to public spaces and other perks, and that has made Indian men uncomfortable,” she said.
A little-known Hindu group, Sri Ram Sena, recently shot into the spotlight after it assaulted women in a pub in Mangalore, saying they were indulging in immoral activities that were against Indian culture.
Branded “India’s Taliban”, the group has also cautioned shops, pubs and restaurants in Karnataka against marking Valentine’s Day, which the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party has always opposed, often violently, in Mumbai.
Several politicians have joined the chorus against “pub culture” and “mall culture”, decrying the decline of values particularly in cities.
Renuka Chowdhury, minister of women and child development, called the actions of Sri Ram Sena a dangerous trend signalling a much deeper rot over freedom for women.
“Have you noticed how every time male politicians jump up and down about threats to our culture, the issue nearly always involves the freedom and choices of women?” columnist Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times paper at the weekend.
Activists and social commentators have long lamented the portrayal of Indian women as meek, helpless and dependent on their fathers and husbands in films, TV soaps and advertisements.
And they have bristled at instances of “eve teasing”, a euphemism for harassment ranging from lewd comments to assaults.
Yet, India boasts of the world’s second woman prime minister, and now has a woman president and several women ministers. Women also head up banks and other big businesses in an otherwise traditional country.
The dichotomy is evident everywhere: young women will often leave home in a traditional salwar-kameez and change into jeans and T-shirt on entering the gates of the college.
They will also lie about dating or going to a bar to keep the peace at home in a country where a vast majority marry partners chosen by their parents, and where drinking is still frowned on.
“Children are taught that women must fit certain roles and any deviation is questioned,” said Kishi Arora, a 27-year-old in Delhi, who goes out a couple of times in the week.
“I even know friends who are cool with other women smoking and drinking, but when it comes to their own sisters, they would become uncool,” said Arora
But a group of women is retaliating: a “consortium of pub-going, loose and forward women”, founded by four Indian women on social networking site Facebook has, in a matter of days, grown to more than 30,000 members with more than 2,000 posts.
Their mission: go pub hopping on Valentine’s Day, and send hundreds of old-fashioned pink knickers to Sri Ram Sena.
Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee in NEW DELHI