Protestors and puritans

Paromita VohraWhen does a movement begin precisely? With a protest? An idea? A law? No one knows the answer, because for each version of history, there is another, intertwining one that makes us think differently about what happened. The thousand branches of truth on the tree of life are what make it beautiful. This has been a central point of discussion, as protests have persisted around us these past weeks.

We’ve seen fantastic things during these protests — so many people on the streets who would have been wary of demonstrations in the past; so many passionate and intelligent voices; discussions about feminism — an idea which always struggles with prejudice and ignorance, presenting themselves as a dislike of labels; talk of sex-education in schools.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

We’ve also seen things which discomfit us — demands for capital punishment and counter-violence; FIRs to ‘ban’ Honey Singh; counter-assertions that support Honey Singh, lock stock and sexist barrel; the prim criticisms of media images that haven’t updated themselves since the ‘70s and don’t distinguish between violent objectification and playful sensuality; a dismissal of young people who are out on the streets as having no political coherence.

But, is there really one right way to create change? It can come only through a million conversations, a continuous assessment, not a puritanical assertion of right and wrong. We may finally be coming out of years of silence, disguised by the noise of non-discussions. The TV news debate, with its polarities has dominated the form of public conversation. It is a form which ruling elites have used effectively to prevent all conversations and questions, filling up that space with false protestations, fake indignation and smooth non-sequiturs.

On a recent news program, when the activist Kavita Krishnan asked Nirmala Sitaram of the BJP whether the BJP was going to take action against sexism in its own ranks, Ms. Sitaram, having no response, talked up a storm of indignant sounding rubbish, whining about how everyone is against the BJP (poor things), hoping to derail discussion till a break. The unusual restraint of the other panelists showed us that we’ve come to the end of this empty road. Like many others, I have found much to admire and be inspired by in the lucidity and openness of someone like Kavita Krishnan these last weeks, because like many, I am hungry for some meaningful public conversation, which will provoke reflection, not postures.

So, we are at a moment when we can ditch this for and against format. Calling for bans and intolerance doesn’t seem to be a suitable method. Denigrating the surge of protests for lack of political purity betrays a self-congratulatory lack of self-reflection and smarmy political superiority.

Isn’t our battle the opposite — to replace this polarisation, these fixities of right and wrong, male and female, inferior and superior, political and non-political, with a more generous creativity and intelligence? For instance, Bollywood producers will say — you have to titillate or flop. But is there really no shade of sensual available between simulated gang-rape dances and politically correct boredom?

We have to insist on, and find ways to bring about the heterogeneity of conversation, not the false options of manufactured debates. Censure does not begin conversations. It denies them. No one should stop speaking, protesting, being angry, passionate and expressive — not ourselves, not those wediffer from.

I wasn’t celebrating when Honey Singh’s concert was stopped. I’ll celebrate the day people like him and people, like myself, who critique them, can find a way to enter into a conversation, without fear of challenging or being challenged, the better to change ourselves, and what’s around us.

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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