A Tale of Two Martins

The Times of India | January 14, 2013
"I am ashamed of being an Indian male." There, I've said it. And as expected, I am equally ashamed of the statement that I have just made.

In a country that holds the biggest annual carnival of nine nights, Navratri, to celebrate the supremacy of the sacred feminine, I am utterly embarrassed by the chauvinistic and medieval mindset of my ilk. The recent comments by politicians, godmen, bureaucrats and other assorted public figures have been shocking, to say the least. Unfortunately, I am no better than the men who made those foolish and cringe-worthy statements. "Why?" you ask. Because silence is just as abominable as the insensitive and cruel comments that have been made in the aftermath of the tragic gang rape in New Delhi.

Martin Niemöller, an anti-Nazi theologian, spoke of the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of Nazi power. In a famous commentary, Niemöller said, "First they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me." As someone who has passionately hummed his way through A. R. Rahman's 'Maa Tujhe Salaam' singing praises of 'Mother India' I find my own silence deafening.

In contrast, the cacophony of shrill voices mouthing inexplicable statements echoes in my head, shattering my self-imposed vow of silence. Someone describes women as 'dented and painted.' Another public figure says that women should expect to be raped if they cross the 'Lakshman Rekha'. Yet another blames the rape culture on western values, drawing a dubious distinction between India and Bharat. An even more 'enlightened' individual blames the victim, suggesting that she could have avoided the ordeal by calling her attackers 'brothers' and pleading with them to spare her. A southern politician suggests that schoolgirls should wear overcoats so that men do not stare at their bodies. An enactment of the Great Indian Tamasha has consumed all of us during the past few weeks.

As Indians we take great pride in the fact that we are a progressive nation. We are proud of our democracy, our secular values as well as our entrepreneurial spirit. We are appalled by the harsh laws that govern women's lives in Taliban-dominated lands. We sympathize with the plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Yet we turn a blind eye to the injustices that our own society continues to heap upon women. What electrical impulse allows an Indian male to prostrate himself before Maa Durga inside a temple while slyly groping a woman on public transport?

I must admit that I am fascinated by the glories of ancient India. It is probably the one reason that the fiction I write draws inspiration from Indian history and mythology. But when will the purveyors of Indian culture realize that not everything about our past was glorious? India's rich cultural heritage cannot be glossed over to forget that it also includes sufficient evidence of Sati, female infanticide, child marriage, debarment of girls from education, bride burning and widow harassment. How can any Indian who has a basic understanding of our history say that western values are causing an increase in sex crimes against women?

I will possibly receive brickbats for presenting all Indian men in the same light. That is not my intention. To be fair, there are a substantial number of Indian men who are outraged by the horrific incident that happened in Delhi and are equally irked by the senseless comments that have been made in its aftermath. I like to think of myself as being part of that group. But we cannot avoid the fact that the world now sees most Indian males as chauvinistic and primitive and the continued remarks from patriarchal Indian men in public life has only further damaged our collective reputation.

Martin Farquhar Tupper, a nineteenth century English poet and philosopher once wrote, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.” At this critical juncture in India's evolution it would be worthwhile for those who have been incessantly talking to take a page out of Martin Tupper's book. It would also make sense for the silent majority to take the words of Martin Niemöll seriously and break their self-imposed silence. It’s time for us to take both Martins a tad more seriously.