Offending parties

One of the nicest bits of the North Indian weddings I’ve attended is the elaborate ritual of giving offence. The groom is a loser, the mother-in-law is kanjoos, the father-in-law is henpecked, the brothers are louts and so on.

There is something robust and reassuring about this passing the parcel of insults. Many things are played out in this game -- one of them, that people can be connected yet different -- that we can co-exist and engage with each other, even while disagreeing.

This very simple ritual is a facet of the many ways in which people find ways to live with each other’s differences -- and one can find many such cultural examples. The fact that we are moving away from these robust possibilities of disagreement to an absolute disengagement -- whereby disagreement results in violence, is depressing.

Last week anti-superstition activist Narendra Dhabolkar was shot dead in Pune. Followers of Abdul Rashid Momin, an Samajwadi Party MLA had an “emotional outburst” because he was asked to pay up at the Kasheli toll booth though MLAs are exempt. The toll is Rs 30 but the MLA thought it was alright for his emotional followers to cause Rs 15 lakh damage to public property because his shaan had been assaulted.

Soon after this, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) assaulted a group of students from the Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune. Their reason? Following a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s film Jai Bhim Comrade, which tracks Dalit political culture, there was a performance of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM). ABVP members began attacking one of the performers -- Pradeep Dangle -- and ended up beating up five of the students so badly that they landed up in hospital.

The justification they offered -- while denying they’d done it of course -- was that the KKM is a Naxalite organisation. The term Naxalite has become a handy tool -- I doubt most people, whose eyes start popping out with rage at the thought of Naxalites, have any idea of the history and complicated politics attached to the term. Naxalite, like terrorist or anti-national, has become a kind of term that will induce a Pavlovian response in our society which is increasingly become incapable of debate, argument and non-violent disagreement.

The KKM is a group of Dalit youth from bastis who go around singing protest songs by political poets, including Kabir and Vaman Kardak. Let’s assume that they are Naxalites. How does that allow the ABVP members to physically attack them? If illegal activities were being carried out in the musty dark of the National Film Archive auditorium, couldn’t they have called the police?

In short, the attack has nothing to do with the actual event. The ABVP merely sees those liberal-left, secular tending activities as something they are ideologically opposed to. An absolutely simple human expression of the beliefs and ideas of a group of people -- a cultural performance -- becomes an easy target and so, a convenient place for a threatening display of strength. Why are groups like those, who attacked the event, so improverished that they cannot bear someone having this discussion? Why should disagreement find shape only in ‘an emotional outburst’ like that of the toll booth vandalisers?
Even if we were to grant that on the liberal-left end of the discussion there needs to be a resetting of the terms of the debate why is the illiberal-right unable to find a way to do so? For those who would support someone like Narendra Modi as a potential prime minister, these matters of the principles of public existence are worth pondering.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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