Tuesday, January 1, 2013

It's not about the Honey (Singh)!

The first time in my life I heard about 'Indian Rapper' Honey Singh was when a dear friend of mine circulated a petition on Facebook - which called upon the General Manager of some Bristol Hotel, in the city of Gurgaon to cancel a scheduled show by the said rapper, because he allegedly promotes misogyny and violence against women via his lyrics. An example was provided in the petition; the lyrics in Hindi, attributed to Honey Singh, describe rather graphically the kind of violent sexual abuse the male protagonist wants to mete out to some woman.

Note that I deliberately used the weasel word "allegedly" (something I usually avoid doing), because I have no clue about this Honey Singh and his proclivities; according to a report, he has denied writing those words. Truth or falsehood - I don't know.

Be that as it may, with alacrity the Bristol Hotel cancelled Honey Singh's event scheduled for the New Year's eve. In addition, outraged by the lyrics, an Indian Police Service officer lodged a police complaint ('First Information Report' or FIR) against Honey Singh, indicating that "the songs are extremely vulgar, lewd and indecent and acts as an offensive catalyst for crime against women"; the complaint attracts the Indian Penal Code sections 292 (Sale, etc, or obscene books, etc), 293 (Sale, etc, of obscene objects to young person), and 294 (Obscene acts and songs), of the Indian Penal Code.

There is no doubt about this in my mind: the lyrics, as shown, are crass, depraved, disgusting and grossly offensive to me. Good folks, who signed the above-mentioned petition not to allow the alleged lyricist a public venue to display his 'craft', are perfectly within their rights to do so, to lodge their protest and demonstrate their outrage. I applaud the fact that the protests bore fruit in this case. But the news of the police complaint brought a different complexion to this situation. Let me explain.

[As I was trying to marshal my thoughts into a coherent stream this morning, I came across a blogpost by Harini Calamur, a columnist for DNA, with almost the same title that was playing in my mind. She wrote eloquently exactly about what I was going to say, and said it much better than I could. Please give it a read; she is spot-on. I shall retain my original title as a nod to her (Great minds think alike and all that jazz!), and continue with what I wrote as a comment after her post.]

Shutting down Honey Singh for his offensive lyrics is but shutting down one voice; it does nothing to address the larger and more important issue at hand – how to get Indian menfolk to recognize and understand:
  • that these lyrics are indeed vulgar, and acceptable standards of behavior in the society are not to be set based on the kind of acts described therein;
  • that these are acts unbecoming of a human being;
  • that molesting/raping/participating in the sexual abuse and violence against women is not acceptable under any circumstances.
I am a firm believer of the Freedom of Speech and Expression, without which no society can progress. I do understand that this freedom cannot be absolute; when speech of one is used to bring real, imminent harm to another, as a society we have a duty to recognize such speech as 'Hate Speech', and place restrictions on it. But I most certainly would not support the outlawing of something as poorly-defined and inchoate as 'obscenity' or 'vulgarity'. Echoing Ms. Calamur, I'd day that it is well-nigh impossible to legislate away bad taste. Obscenity/vulgarity are concepts that are fluid, that change across time, across cultures, across generations. As Ms. Calamur elegantly puts it [N.B. I have retained the original links in her post]
You find Honey Singh's lyrics offensive; I find swear words that suggest incest with sister, daughter and mother offensive; someone else finds girls showing their legs offensive; yet others find homosexuality offensive; there are those who find casual sex offensive; yet other who find live in relationships offensive. There are people who find paintings offensive, yet others who find depiction of Gods and Prophets offensive; others find books offensive, and there are those who find music videos offensive. Unfortunately you cannot just have the things you find offensive banned. In a democracy, either everyone demands to get things banned are accepted, or there are no bans.

I am very clear on this: Honey Singh ought to be free to shout out his obscene lyrics, just as the rest of us are equally free to protest against those licentious lyrics by shouting at or ridiculing it. Booking Honey Singh on the charge of obscenity and whatnot is not the answer to anything. Rather it is up to the others, us, the sane and rational Indians, not to pay heed to him or follow his example or become him. Honey Singh is not the problem; the mindset that has given rise to his obscene lyrics is.

It is the same mindset that blames the victims for the heinous crimes perpetrated on them, often with tragic results. Take the example of this young woman in the Hathras district in Lucknow, UP. She was being stalked by a married man, and when she objected to the harassment, her family stopped her from going to college. A police complaint was ignored, until the day the man entered her house and set her on fire. It is the same mindset that forced a 17-year-old victim of gang-rape in Patiala, Punjab, to commit suicide after police pressured her to drop the case and marry one of her attackers. The same mindset that is apparent in the continuing, unabated attacks on women in India; the same mindset prevalent and deeply ingrained in the misogynistic, patriarchal Indian society that considers women as sub-human, objects to be toyed with, property to used at will.

I have said this earlier, too, but it bears repeating in the faint hope that someone would listen. All the dialogs around the rape epidemic in India must actually address the simplest and most direct solution: how to prevent women from getting raped? Teach the men not to rape. All the dialogs, all the admonitions, all the education and instructions directed towards the prevention of rape and sexual violence against Indian women must start from, and veer around, this simple precept - to be ingrained into the Indian male psyche proactively.

Strengthening of existing laws and facilitation of fast track courts - all such proposed measures - are all very fine, but sadly, when it comes to violence against women, the laws in India have failed to be a deterrent. The performance of fast track courts has also not been satisfactory, given the languorous and Byzantine nature of the Indian legal system which has often led to the acquittal of the perpetrators of rape. Therefore, relying on external aids such as laws is not perhaps the only answer. Change must be wrought from the inside. To that end, as another friend of mine pointed out, there is a serious and emergent need for Indian men to start India's own version of "Men Can Stop Rape", an organization founded in the US about ten years ago. The founders of this organization recognized an observed fact:
Though the majority of violent acts against women are committed by men, the vast majority of prevention efforts are risk-reduction and self-defense tactics directed at women. The founders wanted to shift the responsibility of deterring harm away from women by promoting healthy, nonviolent masculinity. Their vision offered a plan for prevention that outlines positive, proactive solutions to engaging men as allies, inspiring them to feel motivated and capable to end men’s violence against women.
This can work in India, too, perhaps. But if this country ever hopes to recover from this ugly malaise, these efforts must encompass adults as well as children, the tomorrow's citizens of India.

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