India’s short ban on porn reflects a medieval mind-set

The recent ban by the Indian government on 857 pornography sites on the internet further vitiated the atmosphere of thought policing.

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In what seemed to be a lame excuse to play the keeper of the nation’s morals, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now in power at New Delhi, said it had prohibited these sites because they were into child pornography or were being watched by minors.

The party felt that it was imperative to close them down to protect the health of the country.

Although the proscription was lifted partially on Tuesday night after the BJP had instructed internet service providers to filter websites on child pornography — with all of them protesting that it was the government’s job to do this — the entire episode smacked of authoritarian interference in a citizen’s personal life.

In 2001, the BJP administration had ordered the suspension of Fashion TV because topless models were walking the ramp. Here again, the restriction was removed after some days.

As the author of highly popular fiction, Chetan Bhagat, said in the course of a heated television debate — which also had a woman BJP participant — on Monday night that most established porn sites did not have child sex. This was banned all over the world, and the sites knew this was not just illegal, but also amoral and cruel.

“And there is always a button that parents can press to make sure that boys and girls do not stray into adult territories on the internet,” he said.

His remark could not have sliced through the BJP participant’s contention more sarcastically, almost rubbishing her argument that the administration had prohibited the sites with the noble intention of safeguarding the moral health of the nation.

Perhaps expecting a popular backlash after the ban was enforced, the authorities had gone about this whole thing quite clandestinely — even ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling that while child pornography was strictly no no, the government had no business interfering in the private lives of its citizens.

If someone above the age of 18 watches a blue film within the four walls of his/her house, the administration cannot stop him or her.

However, at the end of July, the authorities told several internet service providers to take pornography sites off the net. They were left with no option but to do so, with the result that 857 sites ceased to work. At least a majority of them.

Incidentally, this was not the first time that the government was playing a moral cop. And not just the administration, but even fanatical political, religious and educational organisations have been getting into the act.

In the decade and half since this century clocked in, radical outfits, owing allegiance to staunchly Hindu political parties, have bashed up young girls having a drink in a Mangalore pub — pulling them by their hair and molesting them in other horrid ways — contending that it was against Indian culture and ethos for women to consume alcohol.

Such suffocating attitude has also seen shops selling Valentine’s Day goodies being ransacked or couples being roughed up and sometimes forced to get married. There have been instances of them being dragged into a temple and told to exchange garlands and marital vows.

At one point of time, cameras were placed on Chennai city’s sea-front under the garb of checking crime. But what the police actually did with a fair amount of gusto was to snap young couples stealing a kiss and threatening them with dire consequences, which included a phone call to their parents.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s — and even later — the call to introduce sex education in schools and colleges was opposed by many parents, teachers and institutions. While fathers and mothers felt that sexual knowledge could lead to promiscuity among the young — a view shared by some government ministers — teachers said it would be embarrassing for them to talk about sex in a class of boys and girls.

All these opponents were blissfully ignorant of the fact that children, tickled by their natural curiosity and active hormones, were often gathering information about sex from unreliable sources. And most adults did not bother to understand that sexual knowledge gained in the reputable confines of a classroom might have just helped the young practise safe sex which could have prevented diseases and  unwanted pregnancies.

I remember the 1999 Bollywood film, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (I Have Given My Heart, Beloved), where Aishwarya Rai’s Nandini is terrified after Sameer (Salman Khan) kisses her in a secluded room, and in an angst-ridden voice she asks him whether she would not get pregnant!

This seemed to be the level of information.

Despite such abysmally poor knowledge, the move to stop sex education from entering the classroom was almost vociferous. Once in the late 1980s, the principal of a renowned women’s college in Chennai showed me the door, because I had dared to ask her questions about sex education in her establishment.

What a dichotomy all this appears to be, given that India’s Vatsyayan gave the world — many centuries ago — a brilliant treatise on sex, called Kamasutra. And for those unlettered, kings built magnificent temples on the walls of which artisans carved out of stone figures of copulating couples in varying positions.  Even homosexual love was depicted on stone. These were not just objects of art, but sources of education. And they still exist, and hopefully will not be destroyed by some despot the way Bamiyan Buddhas were in Afghanistan.

It is only with the arrival in India of the British East India Company in the 18th century and, later the Crown that Indian sexual liberalism seems to have suffered — the freedom replaced, as it were, by Victorian prudery.

Well, the UK has got rid of its puritanism, but India appears reluctant to let go this legacy.

The short ban on porn was the latest example of stifling Victorian values — and an indication that the country was stuck in a medieval mind-set.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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