A spot of moral panic

The perception of threat to our social fabric relies on upholding an ideal with clipped wings


Indian advocates shout anti-JNU, and pro-India slogans, outside the Patiala House court in New Delhi. AFP
Indian advocates shout anti-JNU, and pro-India slogans, outside the Patiala House court in New Delhi. AFP

“A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as “the process of arousing social concern over an issue—usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.”

— The first thing that Google throws out as definition of “Moral Panic”

Moral panic does not seek facts, but takes succour from perceptions. In the early 1990s, the object of much moral panic was the gay man, seen as the carrier of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, who could corrupt the fabric of society by his mere presence. His body had to be quarantined. That’s what happened to Dominic D’Souza, who was kept isolated in a sanitarium by the Goa state government for two months till his mother led a protest and he won a legal case against the government’s forcible actions. Even today, the female sex worker continues to generate moral panic, as evidenced by the continued closure of dance bars in Maharashtra, despite a court order that found the government ban on them unconstitutional. The fact that most of the dancers do not identify as sex workers is of no concern to the government; they are perceived as such, and that is enough to further fan the existing moral panic around sex work itself.

Today, it’s the ‘anti-national’ student who raises slogans and questions authority who seems to be the cause of tremendous moral panic.

Let’s unpack the nationalism that’s been on display over the past week, in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and in the Patiala House Court complex, both in New Delhi. There are those who think that to question the government and the country’s decision-makers is anti-national because it betrays doubt and foments discontent against the nation. According to this line of thought, to be a nationalist is to love one’s country no matter what decisions its government, legislature and judiciary take.

Then there are those who think that to question and challenge that which seems palpably wrong—caste, the death penalty, lynching a Muslim on suspicion that he had beef at his home, marital rape, Section 377 which penalises some sexual acts between consenting adults —is to do a great service to the nation: to ask for change is to ask for a better nation, and what could be more nationalistic than that?

The unease that the past few weeks have generated seems to derive wholly from the ramifications of ad hominem accusations of anti-nationalism directed towards the students and faculty of JNU, and increasingly towards anyone who supports them. A tweet by a fake account purporting to be that of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed was taken as evidence of “seditious and anti-national rhetoric” by the Delhi Police. The Telegraph today reported that in a status report sent to the Home Ministry on Monday, the Delhi Police also said that many students groups in JNU—whom they have been monitoring since October—were asking for beef in the hostel mess, and worshipping Mahishasura instead of Goddess Durga. These then are the grounds for moral panic—the fear that our country is under threat from anti-national sentiment—and a PhD scholar from JNU who made a rousing speech praising the Constitution of India among other things, was charged with sedition.

Already, it has been reported that landlords in Munirka area of New Delhi have asked some JNU students to vacate their rented accommodations. Television news channel anchors have labelled the students anti-national too, and started social media campaigns to garner public support for their stand. Delhi lawyers in a courthouse beat up students and journalists who had gathered there to attend the hearing of Kanhaiya Kumar, the PhD scholar from JNU who has been charged with sedition. On Tuesday, Kumar too wasn’t spared. He was attacked by a mob of lawyers present at Patiala House court when he appeared for a hearing.

Moral panic, as I had stated above, is based on perception, not fact. And perception in turn, relies on an ideal with limited scope. The ideal woman, for instance, is one who doesn’t have sex outside of marriage, let alone consider it as a source of income. The ideal kind of sex is one that doesn’t involve anything more than penile-vaginal intercourse, preferably to procreate. The ideal student goes to college to learn unquestioning obedience and receive good marks.

Stray from these limits and panic is unleashed.

The only solution to counter moral panic is to keep space for opposing points of view. To be able to articulate different kinds of nationalism is a sign of a robust democracy. Opposing viewpoints only make for stronger debates. Each side may well call the other extremist, but only that side which countermands fundamental human rights—such as the right to freedom of expression—can be called fascist. In fact, the day the issues that besiege us stop being talked about, now that’s the day to really panic.

The Sex Talk is a fortnightly blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots.

READ MORE