Pramod Muthalik of the infamous Sri Ram Sene and Sudin Dhavalikar of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Goa’s public works department minister, are not the first to be worried about skirt lengths in Goa. Goa’s parish priests have also had anxious moments, not just over skirts but also revealing wedding dresses.

A friend describes a wedding where the priest met the couple-to-be at the door of the church and led them down the aisle, the groom in shirt and tie because his jacket was firmly wrapped around the bride’s daringly cut dress. It was not that long ago that a girl in a sleeveless dress could find herself passed over in the queue for communion.

But even anxious parish priests would be startled to hear Dhavalikar argue that skirts were against Goan culture, given that for even the most demure and devout Catholic ladies, ranging in age anywhere between eight and 85, skirts that stop one inch above the knee or five inches below it are de rigueur.

Skirt-wearing is no longer the prerogative of Catholics or Goans, but its ubiquity among the state’s Catholic population, coupled with recent attempts to edge Catholics towards the position of a cultural and political minority, suggests this is another attempt to create a cultural divide.

The temporary high court ban on cattle slaughter in April 2013 hit a staple in the diet of Catholics and Muslims for a week. Then, while campaigning in the state during the Lok Sabha elections, chief minister Manohar Parrikar of the Bharatiya Janata Party equated the activities of Gujarat-based human rights activist Father Cedric Prakash with Pramod Muthalik’s actions in Mangalore, when Sri Ram Sene men attacked women for drinking in pubs.

Yet Goan culture – as every culture – is too slippery a beast to be pinned down in this way. The episode has descended into the usual political buffoonery, with Parrikar saying bikinis can’t be worn to temples, and Dhavalikar saying they may be worn in private.

The tourism department, unwilling to jeopardise a major source of revenue by allowing bikinis and drinking to become the targets of the Sri Ram Sene’s free-range chauvinism, has hurriedly announced that it is impossible for it to execute a ban on bikini wearing. Alcoholism is a prevalent social problem in the state, but stigmatising drinking is in fact culturally alien to both dominant communities.

While it might seem like political suicide to fight to remove the skirt, beef and alcohol from Goa, these recent gestures indicate that there are those only too eager to work towards the gradual de-legitimisation of non-Hindu cultures.

Not-just-cultural Organisations
It is time to pay attention to the composition and activities of organisations like the Govansh Raksha Abhiyan, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha. The impetus for the ban on cattle slaughter, and Muthalik’s statements, was provided by these cultural organisations.

The Sanatan Sanstha invited Muthalik to Goa as part of the all-India Hindu Convention, held from June 20 to June 26 this year. Sudin Dhavalikar’s wife is reportedly a volunteer for the Sanatan Sanstha. Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene acquired notoriety for unleashing violence not only in pubs in Mangalore, but also for its involvement in the spate of violence against Christians and Muslims on the Mangalore coast in 2008.

While the Karnataka coast has seen violence against Muslims from the 1980s, from 2008 on, the state saw attacks on churches, the desecration of statues and nuns beaten. The incidents of violence were compiled in a report by Justice MF Saldanha and submitted in 2010 to the minister of minority affairs at the time, Salman Khurshid. The report unequivocally suggests the involvement of the Bajrang Dal, another affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and describes the collusion of the police in covering up the violence. Muthalik used to be the Karnataka coordinator of the Bajrang Dal.*

Reports from the time reveal that when government-aided Christian institutions in Karnataka declared a shut-down on August 29, 2008, to protest against the attacks on Christians in Kandhamal, Orissa, the Public Education Department issued a show-cause notice against them for not seeking prior permission.

One of these notices said that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal sent letters to the government requesting action against the Christian institutions, and it was on this basis that the government acted. Hindu nationalist groups seem to have a clear methodology: the agenda for action is prepared by cultural organisations, which then hand the political initiative to supportive governments. This has led many to fear that Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene is in Goa to provide the fly-by-night violence that can polarise communities, and which – crucially – can be disavowed by those in elected positions.

Know your police
Perhaps a ‘know-your-police’ campaign is also a useful exercise in Goa. Take the case of Devu Chodankar, whose Facebook opinions on the induction of Pramod Muthalik into the BJP – a move that the party later rescinded – annoyed an industrialist so much that he filed a complaint against him. Goa police’s cyber crime cell arrested Chodanker, then opposed his plea for anticipatory bail, which ensured that the court rejected it.

If this were a sign of the incredible pro-activeness of the Goa police, we would all be impressed. But there seems to be a double standard at play here. Muthalik had also given a speech, uploaded by Goa’s Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, urging Hindus to carry swords to instill fear in minorities.

Durgadas Kamat of the Congress filed a complaint with the police, but when they took no action, he had to approach the Judicial Magistrate first class, seeking orders directing the police to act on his complaint. The video was eventually taken down, but these contrasting episodes reveal the unsurprising slant of the police and the relationship between them, the government, and the increasingly strident cultural organisations that have welcomed Muthalik to Goa.

Full circle
The matter seems to have come full circle. It is worthwhile recalling that Parrikar was one of the more vocal opponents of Muthalik’s entry into the BJP, and that Muthalik entered Goa as a challenge to him. Further, when Parrikar was in the opposition, he made allegations of corruption against Sudin Dhavalikar, but has seen fit to hand him the same portfolios when he became chief minister.

Has Parrikar been delivered a cultural agenda by these two very recent allies that surpasses his own for Goa, or has the Lok Sabha electoral outcome helped invigorate a cultural politics of intimidation in which he is beginning to participate? Meanwhile, appropriating the vivid pink chaddi campaign of 2009, which embarrassed the Sri Ram Sene after its assault on women, Congress spokesperson Durgadas Kamat has sent a mini-skirt to Dhavalikar.

Dhavalikar’s anxiety about public behaviour has a context that is particular to Goa. There are many Goans angered at the explicit marketing of their home as the good-time capital of the country, not least because of the disastrous fallout on the young, with the easy availability of drugs and the dangers of child and other prostitution.

The idea of Goa
Some – but by no means all – of these views are routed through a social and religious conservatism that cuts across Goa’s two dominant religious communities, Hindus and Catholics. Expectedly, this complicated opposition to the image of Goa as a place of sexual excess and libation is being appropriated by the BJP alliance, which is now arguing that controlling women’s mobility is the way to ensure their physical safety.

Hence, Dhavalikar’s carefully worded defence of Muthalik, where he said that ‘Goa was a city of temples and churches’. By tapping into the idea of a devout quiet coastal community of the past, Dhavalikar conceals the implicit violence that Muthalik’s politics promises.

Bhaile is a mildly pejorative term to denote the outsider or migrant in Goa. These days it tends to take on harsher exclusionist overtones and often carries class biases, but it can in some cases be very useful as a kind of political shorthand. One could say for instance, that Muthalik’s attitude to women drinking is typically that of a bhaile, while Dhavalikar should really stop talking like one. As for the Pink Chaddi campaigners of 2009, we hope you haven't left the building.

*After publication, contacted Pramod Muthalik to clarify if he remains a member of the RSS. He is no longer with the organisation. The error is regretted.