Some years ago, this columnist suggested — not entirely in jest — a “Denim Index” to judge the extent of fundamentalism in countries in West Asia and North Africa. If less than a tenth of the young women in a shopping mall were going about in denims, the signs were ominous that restrictions on dress favoured by the conservative were on the rise, while if more than a third wore denims, it was clear that their influence was as yet not decisive. Half or more of the young women in shopping malls going about in denims indicated that the country was liberal in such matters, and was not in imminent danger of being overtaken by fundamentalist impulses. Of course, there are countries such as Iran. where the most fashionable of denims is certainly worn in public, but concealed beneath folds of billowing cloth. Such covert wearing of denims would not count, and only an open preference for such a dress would merit attention. Of course, there are other countries where dress codes are enforced by the minions of the law, and in these, it is clear that the “Denim Index” being zero, fundamentalist attitudes have triumphed, at least in public. Of course, each such effort to regulate non-lethal human behaviour through the use of law has failed. In both Saudi Arabia as well as in Iran, alcohol and uninhibited behaviour are at least as common as is the case in less regulated countries, with many citizens abandoning any pretence of conservatism as soon as they leave the shores of their country, sometimes even before they leave its airspace. Certainly there is a strong case for decorum in dress (although the wearing of denims is visibly not indecorous in most cases), while the consumption of alcohol is not something doctors would advise. However, checks on these need to come via the family and friends, and through exposure to those campaigning against such matters, rather than be bludgeoned into place through the force of law.
The spirit of India, as evidenced in its writings across the millennia, is liberal. Whether it be the poems of Vidyapati or the treatises on interplay between the sexes celebrated by Basham and other admirers of the core culture of India, it is clear that art, music, dance and literature were absent a censor board, a moral police such as what we see even among those who claim to protect and preserve ancient traditions. The best way of ensuring that the spirit of India lives on and indeed gets invigorated is to avoid going the way of Saudi Arabia or Iran in using the force of law to determine large tranches of human behaviour. As it is, there is far too much law in India, with the post-1947 regime adding to, rather than subtracting from the immense body of law and administrative practice which make India a democratic country with a colonial system of law and administration. The obsession with retaining the colonial past permeates school and college curricula, it being more possible that ancient Indian writers and poets will be the subject of study in Heidelberg than in Mumbai.
When the mind gets stuffed with writers from far away, almost subconsciously a presentiment of inferiority takes root, thereby robbing the youthful mind of pride in identity and in acquiring the confidence needed to excel. However, when going back to our own roots, care needs to be taken to ensure that the diversity and liberalism, which characterised the overwhelming majority of homegrown geniuses, should be patent. What needs to be avoided is a selection which is narrow in scope, and which ignores the flow of creativity that has persisted despite adverse governance conditions across the millennia, including during the previous five centuries. Just as the history of India did not begin when the British first came to our shores in large numbers, it did not stop five centuries ago, as some would wish to imply. Whether Vedic or Mughal or indeed Western, each is a strand in the mosaic of civilisation and culture which defines this land, and each needs to be celebrated.
Those who seek to deny our young women the use of cellphones or the right to a dress of their choice, are at odds with the spirit of India. Indeed, assaulting a woman in unpardonable, even if the individual concerned were going around thoroughfares in a bikini. There is no excuse for intolerance or bestial behaviour, and those who seek to place the onus on the victim rather than on the perpetrator need to go back to their libraries to see how varied, how free, how unshackled, the most creative minds of India have been, a liberal culture which needs to be encouraged and protected, rather than derided. Only thus will the true beauty of saffron emerge.