Conservative Indian Politicians' Jaw-Dropping Excuse for Watching Porn at Work

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Feb. 13 2012 10:48 AM

Conservative Indian Politicians' Jaw-Dropping Excuse for Watching Porn at Work

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In this picture taken on Jan. 24, 2009, female customers at the Amnesia pub are surrounded by activists of the hardline Hindu organisation the Sri Ram Sena in Mangalore, India. Activists of a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation stormed into a fashionable bar in the city of Mangalore and assaulted its female patrons.

Photograph by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Indian newspapers and television stations are having a field day covering what they have dubbed “Porngate,” the scandalous news that three ministers from the Indian state of Karnataka were caught allegedly watching pornography on the job last week.

Local television crews, which were covering a debate in Karnataka’s state assembly, zoomed up on a smartphone being passed between two of the ministers, who had borrowed it from the third. Allegedly, the phone was playing video of a woman dancing, undressing, and then having sex, but the news channels blurred the image before it was broadcast.

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Porngate has reignited the debate around conservative morality in one of India’s most puritanical states. Karnataka, the capital of which is Bangalore, India’s booming IT hub, has been ground zero of a fierce culture war between so-called “Westernized liberals” on the one side and traditional Hindu groups on the other.

In 2008, dancing was effectively banned in nightclubs in Bangalore (the prohibition was lifted last year). Bars in the city must close down at 11:30 p.m., despite being at the heart of an around-the-clock outsourcing industry. Karnataka has also seen numerous incidents of radical Hindu groups, likened by Indian media to the Taliban for their strict conservatism, assaulting women caught drinking in pubs at night.

Behind these regressive politics is the socially conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party. All three ministers involved are from the BJP and one of them, C.C. Patil, was the minister of women and child development.

Just last month, Patil linked “immodest” dress to rape in a controversial interview. “I do not favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in what they wear,” he told the Times of India.

Liberal commentators, who have been expressing concern over Karnataka’s bigoted political culture for years, have used the scandal to highlight the hypocrisy of the state’s self-proclaimed moral defenders.

“This is the state where harmless things like Valentine’s Day and a drink at a pub are met with violence,” a columnist at the Indian Express wrote, adding “The hypocrisy in Karnataka is almost Victorian in its intense public sanctimony and its private flouting of those norms.”

Even in their defense, the ministers claimed the moral high-ground, to the annoyance of critics. In a contested statement, they claimed to have been watching the clip as part of their homework on an upcoming debate on rave parties in the assembly, which are widely seen as immoral, drug-fuelled orgies. “I was watching a foreign rave party scene sent by one of my colleagues. … I did it to understand what rave party means,” one of the Ministers told reporters.

The BJP was outraged at a recent music festival in Karnataka in which two foreigners were videotaped making out on the beach. The video clip was aired on local TV stations as an example of Western-inspired decadence infiltrating the country.

While for many the Porngate scandal reveals the hypocrisy of the BJP, for others it is a telling image of idle Indian politicians, who are not doing enough to lift its citizens out of poverty. As one India-based Twitter user said: “Just another day in parliament. Ministers sit back & watch as people get screwed. #Porngate

Amana Fontanella-Khan is a Brussels-based writer. She is the author of the forthcoming book Pink Sari Revolution (W.W Norton, August). Follow her on Twitter @AmanaFK.