Honey Singh: why he must face the music

I had not intended to get involved in the controversy over the Honey Singh concert at Gurgaon’s Bristol Hotel on New Year’s eve. Truth be told, I was only dimly aware that Honey Singh existed. But when I saw the online petition asking the Bristol to call off the show and read the tweets from Nilanjana Roy, Raheel Khursheed and others, I was sufficiently intrigued to check out the lyrics of Honey Singh’s songs.

What I found was truly shocking. I am not one of those who minds sexual references in popular culture so I was not offended by the sexual content of the lyrics. What outraged me was that one of the songs was written from the perspective of a rapist and glorified the manner in which he intended to humiliate women, to urinate in their mouths and to assault them.

I was angry enough to join the campaign, sign the petition and to tweet about it, encouraging others to sign too. I also tweeted that if the Bristol did not cancel the show then all decent people should boycott the hotel. (Which is not such a huge sacrifice, if we are to be honest…)

I know much has been said about the power of on-line protest but my conclusion, at least in this case, is that while on-line activity can force the mainstream media to take note of our views, it lacks the weight to force intransigent organisations to review their positions.

In this case, even as the campaign gathered storm and became the subject of stories in mainstream media, the Bristol refused to cancel the show. It was only late in the evening, after an IPS officer filed an FIR against Honey Singh, that the hotel finally caved in.

Since then, there has been a lot of muddled and ill-informed debate in the media about the incident. Those of us who signed the petition have been accused of moral policing, of demanding censorship and of picking on soft targets. Some of the confusion comes from the inability of the commentators to distinguish between three kinds of objections to sexual content in popular culture.

The first objection relates to ‘vulgarity’. Most people who are normally accused of moral policing take the line that overt sexual content or even sexual innuendo falls outside the boundaries of what is considered as acceptable in our society.

This objection is subjective in nature. The boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable change by the year. There was a time when it was considered almost pornographic to show couples kissing on the screen in Hindi movies. Or, to take an example from abroad, the Rolling Stones song, Let’s Spend The Night Together, was banned by many radio and TV stations in the US.

The history of freedom of expression in our society is a story of people striving to go beyond these boundaries and of others trying to prevent them. Most times, however, artists have succeeded in breaching the barricades. Nobody minds that there is kissing in Hindi movies these days. And it is hard to understand why Let’s Spend The Night Together was ever banned.

Generally, I am on the side of those who would breach the barricades. I do not see myself as a moral policeman or as the sort of person who demands censorship.

The second objection is a feminist one. It is interesting that most people who complain about vulgarity in media focus on women. The complaint is never framed in terms of why Salman Khan takes his shirt off in every movie. Instead, the focus is usually on the skimpiness of the heroine’s costume or the item girl’s pelvic thrusts.

Feminists object to the same sorts of things but they have a different perspective. They say that the emphasis on scantily-clad gyrating women amounts to a commodification of women. They argue that because popular culture treats women as mere sex objects, it promotes a society where men cease to see women as complete human beings but treat them only as receptacles for the sexual urges.

I do not necessarily dispute all of this. But I tend not to take a feminist view of life so these are not my objections to sexual content in media.

But there is a third category of objection. And it is one that I subscribe to. Popular culture must never be used to incite anger, hatred or violence. To see how offensive Honey Singh’s lyrics are just imagine that he was singing not about a woman but about assaulting a Dalit or a tribal. All of us would be appalled and would immediately demand action against him. No civilised society can approve of popular culture in which performers urge their audiences to go out and commit rape, assault or other kinds of sick violence. The problem with Honey Singh’s lyrics is not that they are lewd. It is that they are a celebration of sexual violence and rape.

The controversy over the Honey Singh song has been muddied by those who fail to appreciate these distinctions. To disapprove of a man who issues calls for rape and genital mutilation is not to function as a moral policeman or to take a feminist view of the world. It is only to ask for a society in which popular culture does not turn into an incitement to violence.

One more issue needs to be clarified. Critics have alleged that all of us who signed the on-line petition were asking for a ban on the show. We were not. If that had been our intention the petition would have been sent to the Haryana Government or the Haryana Police. Instead, we were simply asking the Bristol Hotel to desist from hosting the show on the grounds that it was promoting a man who glorified rape.

It is a sad commentary on the standards of our public life that the Bristol ignored this peaceful and civilised request but promptly buckled under once the police filed an FIR.

I could go on. I could tell you that one reason why women are routinely molested in our cities is because popular culture sometimes suggests that this is a macho and entirely acceptable sort of thing to do. But then, I imagine you know that already.

So finally, here’s my message. We are not moral policemen. We don’t want bans on all sexual content. But as citizens of India, we have the right to protest against those who glorify rape and violence against women.

And, in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, we would be failing in our duties as citizens, if we did not protest.

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