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Ms. Shilpa Shetty And Her Sisters
Of A Lesser God

By Ramesh Kamble

14 March, 2007

The issue racism in the Celebrity Big Brother show on Channel Four created uproar in media world over. The insulting and racist treatment given to Indian film actress Shilpa Shetty by her co celebrities on the show once again raised the concern over racism in the western world. Some members of British Parliament, even Prime Minister Tony Blair, viewed the events with serious concern. The organisers of the show received thousands of letters by the British people that condemned the growing intolerance in what is essentially multicultural Britain. Back home in India Ms. Shetty’s experiences of harassment--fellow celebrities calling her as “the Paki”, raising questions about her language competence, and suggesting that she should “go back to the slums”—were seen very seriously. Both the vocal Indians and important people in the government felt angry and insulted. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and the Commerce Minister took serious note of the incidence and promised to take appropriate measures. This was perhaps understandable. When India is emerging as a growing world power in knowledge economy, when India is shining with ever-rising growth rates, how can Indians be treated in this manner? Thus, with massive publicity through electronic and print media, Ms. Shetty became a symbol of wounded Indian pride.

Of course, at the end of the day everything came to be alright. Ms. Shetty turned out to be the winner of the much-hyped show. With million pounds, and many more to come in terms of future contracts, she occupied prominent position among the rich and famous in the world. And so was the recognition in otherwise serious business of politics too. Members of the British parliament, including the Prime Minister Tony Blair, received her with honour in the corridors of power. Back home the BJP, the right wing nationalist party, was quick to invite the celebrity to its band of stars. On her part, Ms. Shetty had forgiven her colleagues for racist remarks, rather had declared that, no, she was not subjected any racist discrimination. And so, everything was alright at the end of day, much like the fairy tale of the wronged Cinderella turning out to be the winning princess.

Indeed with Shetty’s harassed face, her appealing, pleading gestures to be treated respectfully, and eventual smile after winning of the show title with the usual—Oh, I cannot believe this—expression of frenzied emotions, made us Indians feel both disturbed and proud. And yet amidst this ‘reality show’ drama, and the frenzied celebrations that followed, we the fellow humans blissfully ignored the real reality of the oppression and discrimination millions of Ms. Shetty’s sisters (one does not know whether she considers them as her sisters, or is even bothered about them) who are discriminated, harassed, insulted, cheated, being robbed of dignity by being stripped and paraded naked through the village streets, gang raped and many a times killed as matter of everyday life reality in India.

Indeed we are the nation of contradictions. Some might like to call it ‘diversity’. Yes we celebrate success of Indian women or women of Indian origin abroad both in the world of glamour and in the hard world of business and science. And yet we are the society that kills its women even before they are born. The Nobel Prize winner in economics Professor Amartya Sen (of whom we are so proud too) has brought to fore the disturbing issue of what he referred to as ‘missing’ women in India. The practice of female infanticide has become a common reality, more so in the developed regions of India. Thus India’s image as growing world power co-exists, conveniently, with its ever-growing record of murder of girl children before they are even born. Not to mention the female child mortality and subsequent neglect of girl child, which kill them if they ‘miss’ the killers nets.

A large number of women in India are toiling for bare minimum survival. They do not have ‘luxury’ to be subjugated, subordinated only by the patriarchal home. They experience discrimination and oppression both inside the private domain of home and in the outside world dominated by ideologies of patriarchy, caste and class. They are discriminated, wounded and harassed when they work as rag pickers in ever expanding cities, as maid servants in households of “respectable” men, as migrant construction workers who contribute to making of evermore glittering happening cities, and as agricultural labourers in farms of dominant landowning masters. These locations are structures of crude exploitation and of multiple violence—insult, physical and sexual abuse and harassment. Yet they do not become ‘global’ face of our wounded nationhood. Nor do they become centre of discussions on discrimination and harassment at work places, which being discussed and debated in many seminars and workshops frequently organized by the concerned activists, academics and policy formulators.

It is the lower caste women in India, the Dalit women, who have been and are victims of worst forms of insults and discrimination, have been subjected to most inhuman forms of torture and oppression and exploitation. Their lives are marred by multiple structures of oppression emanating from caste, class and gender. Just to site the government’s sources, in the year 2005 Dalit women suffered 1172 cases of rape at the hands of dominant castes. There were 3847 cases of hurt and 669 cases of murder (National Crime Record Bureau, Ministry of Home, Page-297). Of course, despite the most stringent laws very few cases of atrocities get registered. The structures of power and dominance work in many ways. Either police do not register the cases or under the influence of the dominant groups reduce the severity of the crimes, leading to easy acquittal of the culprits. Hence, many cases do not actually come to fore. Or even if they get registered and were to see the courts, the acquittal rates, because of the lack of ‘adequate evidence’, are very high. What is more, these women live are under the perennial fear of violence and torture, and they are always at risk if they try to assert their humanity and dignity. The insults, discrimination, harassment they suffer are matters of everyday life. This harassment is not only overlooked but also taken for granted by respected Indians who get agitated over Shetty’s pained face or feel elated when she bags riches and fame. Thus, the uproar about Shetty’s case does not help in making these women’s lives, violence and discrimination they suffer in their lives, visible to both vocal Indians and those in the government. Let me illustrate this with a recent case of gruesome murders of a Dalit woman and her three children by mob of caste Hindus.

On 29th September 2006, in village Khairlanji, district Bhandara of the Maharashtra State of India, Surekha Bhotmange, along with her teenage daughter Priyanka and sons, Sudhir and Roshan were brutally murdered by the caste Hindus in the village. Surekha and her daughter were parading naked throughout the village and gang raped before being killed in broad daylight. This incidence came to light only after a month, when Dalit (lower castes) organizations protested about the apathy and serious intentional neglect of the local administration. Even the media, which has proliferated in India with globalisation and market, took note of the incident only after Dalit protested against the state administration. But despite Dalit protests, both the state and civil society actors viewed this brutal atrocity as Dalits’ problem. Though both the electronic and print media subsequently repeatedly discussed the case (and now it has disappeared from media), it was growing Dalit dissent and not the gross violation of right to live and life with dignity suffered by the most vulnerable sections of Indian women, that was the central moving cause behind this visibility. What is more, the evermore concerned opinion makers, and through them more vocal Indian ‘people’, have accorded more visibility to Shetty’s experiences of discrimination rather than the brutal atrocity suffered by the lower caste woman and her children at the hands of the caste Hindus. Often repeated familiar ‘reality’ is orchestrated here too: the State machinery showed usual callous attitude, attempted to destroy the evidence, and the culprits were not booked until pressure exerted by people’s movement.

Hence the question is, when we Indians feel our pride is trampled upon, feel wounded, whose pride and harassment are we concerned with? Of Shetty’s who, after that pained face, has been successful in bagging both quick publicity and huge financial booty? Or are we concerned with, and wish to show to the world that yes, we are pained at millions of Dalit and marginalized women’s subjugation and oppression, denial of their right to exist with dignity? The pride of India rests on making these million women lives, who toil day and night to somehow make life possible, free from subjugation and harassment. It is only when these common toiling women share fruits of empowerment, have a share in ever growing India, that we can rightfully assume our claim to feel concerned about treatment meted out to Indians by the world community.

Thus the entire episode, of pain and forgiveness and eventual smiles of winning, has been, as suggested earlier, hugely beneficial to both Ms. Shetty and organizers of the Celebrity Big Brother show. Ms. Shetty achieved both quick publicity and huge money. But, the marginalized women India, for that matter in the world, neither seek publicity nor they seek money. They just seek recognition and action, from both Indian and world community, against violence, harassment and discrimination they suffer in their every day really ‘real’ lives. It is only when we recognize and feel concerned about this violence encountered by these sisters of a lesser God, that one can legitimately feel concerned about harassment Indians encounter globally. What is more, India’s global face is not only reflected in women of Indian origin achieving heights in the fields of science and technology or for that matter in the world of glamour, it is also reflected in Surekha Bhotmange and many of her sisters who are humiliated, tortured, raped and brutally killed for asserting their rights to live with dignity. Thus, the process of globalisation should not be seen merely as harbinger of growth and prosperity but also concern for justice, dignity and respect to the other.

Ramesh Kamble
Senior Lecturer
Department of Sociology
University of Mumbai
Mumbai-4000098. INDIA


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