Business Caught in Middle of India's Culture War

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In India, where outsourced call centers have become the most visible beacon of globalization, an uncomfortable realization has dawned upon some of the country's traditionalists: With foreign investment comes foreign culture. Now, even as the global financial crisis takes its toll on the Indian economy, the traditionalists are growing more anxious. This past weekend, as young Indians celebrated the seemingly innocuous Western tradition of Valentine's Day, those fissures turned violent. In a smattering of incidents all around the country, couples holding hands or celebrating in restaurants or bars found themselves dragged out, beaten, and humiliated in front of camera crews by gangs of men affiliated to various Hindu groups.

The organizations go by different names, including the Bajrang Dal (the Army of Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God) and the Shri Ram Sena (Army of God Rama), but all trace their genealogy—and their ideology—back to larger organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Global Hindu Alliance) or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteers Group). These multimillion-member social groups form the backbone of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's largest opposition party. A spokesman for the BJP says the party condemns the violence, adding "these are stray incidents, and not indicative in any way of the larger issue, that many of these practices are against our culture."

An Uneasy Dichotomy

Ironically, the BJP is perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of multinationals in India. The party has long made openness to corporate investment, both local and foreign, a bulwark of its governing strategy at both the federal level (the BJP led coalition governments from 1998 to 1999 and again from 1999 to 2004) and in India's states. In the state of Gujarat, where liquor is banned and vegetarianism is encouraged, a BJP-led government has become the darling of investors. Shortly after automaker Tata Motors (TTM) scrapped a bid to make its new low-cost Nano car in West Bengal last year because of local opposition, the company announced it was moving to Gujarat.

The BJP also is the ruling party in Karnataka, home to India's outsourcing capital of Bangalore and arguably the most globalized state in the country. The party took power last May, rallying support from voters who felt excluded from the economic boom that had transformed Bangalore from a sleepy retirement community to a technology center for multinationals as well as local heavyweights like Infosys (INFY) and Wipro (WIT). The BJP government, acting on support from many in Bangalore who felt their city was changing too fast, quickly enforced an 11:30 p.m. curfew on bars and cracked down unlicensed discos. In Mangalore, a college town a few hours from Bangalore, the beatings of women at a bar was orchestrated by the Shri Ram Sena; its leader, Pramod Muthalik, was until 2005 the convenor of the Bajrang Dal (Hanuman's Army), the militant arm of the VHP. The BJP-led government in Karnataka has denied any ties to the Shri Ram Sena.

This uneasy dichotomy—an enthusiastic embrace of foreign, mostly Western, money and a strident rejection of its culture—is relatively new to India, says Kiranmayi Bhushi, a cultural sociologist at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi. "You want all the materialism that the West has to offer, but at the same time, you want to say that you are very cultured, which is partly a received notion of what it means to be Indian," she says. "When a society is in flux, there are bound to be these sorts of gaps."

One reason the tensions are coming to the fore now, Bhushi says, is the simple fact that only in the last decade has India's engagement with the outside world reached a critical mass. Moreover, until the early 1980s the government either banned or monitored the RSS and other such groups.

Incident Spurs an Influential Blog

Since legalization, the Hindu groups have benefited from a sense among many Indians that the notion of Indian-ness is under constant assault. From Coca-Cola (KO) to MTV, India's youth have choices that did not exist until the 1990s—and not coincidentally, such symbols of American pop culture are often the targets of protests by Hindu groups. The push-back ranges from the violent to the bizarre. Troubled, for instance, by the popularity of foreign beverages, the RSS has developed a drink made from cow urine, which is considered holy and medicinally cleansing, that it hopes will compete with both Pepsi and Coke. The drink, being developed by the Cow Protection Department of the RSS, is likely to be called Gau Jal (Cow Water), and is expected to be launched in 2009.

But it was the incident at Mangalore that grabbed the attention of Nisha Susan, a journalist in New Delhi, who jumped online and did what youth all around the world do when incensed—she blogged and created a Facebook group. That blog, the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, quickly became a cultural force to rival that of Pramod Muthalik's, the leader of the group that carried out the Mangalore beatings. Susan, 29, mobilized a nationwide campaign for women to send pink underwear to the offices of Muthalik on Valentine's Day, a conscious result of her decision to keep the protest civil. (The RSS runs regular training camps where participants wear brown shorts, earning them the nickname Chaddiwallahs, or "Underwear-wearers.") She says she understands the discomfort that Western mores can create. "There is a lot of ambivalence in all of us," she says. "A lot of young people might be happy to work in a global multinational corporation, but may not be O.K. with going to pubs or discos. But the thing is that the state cannot allow people to go around announcing that they are going to beat up people, and then let them do this."

Muthalik, who was not reachable for comment, suspended his campaign to disrupt Valentine's Day in Bangalore, citing the need to help maintain law and order. When confronted with mountains of underwear outside his offices, Muthalik told local reporters that he would send pink sarees, the traditional garb of Indian women, to the girls who had sent the underwear. Later he promised a large bonfire. "That made me laugh," says Susan. "Just the absurdness of the idea: a bonfire of the panties."

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