Demonizing Govindas and Dahi Handi as unsafe for women

Dahi handi has this reputation of being unsafe for women. DNA even went ahead and published an article over it. “Is Dahi Handi day safe for women?” it asks and proceeds to answer it as “No” using canned concerns women express about safety. It is a template, right? Women are not safe at the hands of rowdy thugs? The article would have made far more sense if it had included statistics of complaints and reports of harassment filed from previous years, or at least reminded of a molestation that got reported. Women being concerned is hardly news.

But to build apprehensions about a category of people with no real actual reports of harassment of women is little more than slander. Yes, they are excited. Yes they shout. Where are the reports of harassment, molestation, rape or whatever that would make women unsafe? The news from today’s dahi handi celebrations includes one child in critical condition and over 300 Govindas hospitalized. There is nothing on misbehaviour so far. Twitter has a lot of comments about hooliganism by Govindas, but nothing on any actual incident of harassment.

So I tried to find out the history of Govindas on molestation. Here are some results from the news archives on Google for “Dahi handi molestation“. One result, clicking on it shows some generic news on Dahi Handi, with a link to news on the Guwahati molestation (completely unrelated to Dahi Handi) in the sidebar. Not about a molestation during Dahi Handi celebrations. On Twitter, the only molestation in Mumbai making news happened on a local train last night.

This is hardly surprising. Our snobbish upper middle class that determines what constitutes a threat to women sees the worker class as inherently criminal if they are acting loud. Govindas wear cheap nylon clothes, travel in trucks, are wet and loud all day, flaunt physical prowess, are dark and skinny worker class looking, never speak refined language (English), etc. That means they must be a threat to women, right? Wrong.

Govindas practice for months to achieve a human pyramid that goes as high as 50-60 feet. They make such pyramids to reach and break pots strung way high above the ground for a cash reward. Over a hundred Govindas work together as a team and split the reward, which is not insignificant, as most of these people come from working class families. It is a feat of great strength, endurance, skill, balance and unbelievable teamwork where one man’s mistake can mean life or death for others.

govindas standing on each other to form human tower

They travel between dahi handi locations by truck and are expected to wait as a competing group on location, where their movements are extremely controlled by the organizers. They are supposed to wait where space is allocated, remain alert for their turn and in general remain alert to management whims as any competitor waiting for their turn in any competition. Their identity is their pride all day, racking winnings to the name of their group. This group is usually born of vyayamshalas or akhadas, which are basically Indian sports schools, and these people have usually turned sport into their life’s love. There is tremendous respect for teachers and relationships are longterm and forged in the fires of trusting each other with their lives.

They start the day early and travel all over the city all day breaking various handis and accumulating rewards for the group, repeating that life threatening feat over and over, in spite of exhaustion. Drinking alcohol is out of the question with lives at stake. Few sportsmen are alcoholics that bad to be drunk on the performance of the year. and you may want to try standing on someone’s shoulder for a bit without drinking to imagine that they do that death defying stunt when drunk and others risk their lives to a drunk.

What is more, most of these vyayamshalas have women students too and are run on fairly high ethical and moral standards in terms of holistic development of the person with dedicated and highly respected caring teachers I wish our Westernized education system bothered to learn from. You do not train generation after generation of high class performers who compete on National and International levels and on shoestring budgets without giving your soul into it. It is extremely unlikely for womanizing behavior to find peer approval in such groups. There is no scope for breaking off from group. You see them as a group of people breaking handis on whim. They are in reality extremely dedicated performers out on their highly coordinated performance of the year. Which they will have to deliver flawlessly over and over, not letting physical exhaustion impact their performance. All day. One that could also end their life or worse.

Would you, when giving the most important and difficult professional performance of the year that demands incredible focus and commitment engage in criminal behavior or anything that would reflect badly on your team? Why would they? Just because they don’t have a West approved look? Which star performer doesn’t hype up crowds, make loud noise, ramp the excitement? And you clearly aren’t paying enough attention if you don’t realize these are star performances. Every single one speaking of tremendous effort gone into that half hour in front of you.

Mumbai has 35 all-women dahi handi teams who made news asking for security this year. Not because Govindas molest them, but because the Mumbai Gang rape terrified them and they worried for safety while returning from practice sessions  which often happen in slum areas and run late.

Is it impossible that no one is drunk or that no one harasses a woman? With humans, such guarantees are impossible, but the kind of reputation built around the Govindas reminds me of how the Dalits “invading” Mumbai in Ambedkar’s memory are seen as a nuisance rather than a living memorial to a man who draws lakhs annually half a century after his death without any publicity stunts or freebies. Similarly, we see Govindas climb in one another in human pyramids and all we understand from this extraordinary physical ability is the threat it could be. Wait. We declare it a threat anyway.

Police make security arrangements, media hypes up the lack of safety for women, and everyone is in business. The Govindas are highly unlikely to notice these articles on the side and if they do, they are rarely into analyzing news enough to question reports of the entire scene. So all is well. Women are unsafe. Get it?

Dahi handi crowds are mostly stationary people in a high state of excitement and community feeling and an abundance of exceedingly physically fit people. It would take a remarkably stupid person to harass women in the middle of such a crowd. Women spectators are very common on dahi handis, as are kids. Traditionally. It is sad that in the great GDP chase, “India” has lost touch so much with traditions, that we don’t know who these people are. Worse, since our ideals no longer look like Indian commoners, we aren’t even curious.

They deserve more respect. They do not deserve to be treated as criminals just because they look what we consider inferior (which is how most Indians look). If there are no reports of harassment, they do not deserve to have media labeling them as drunk womanizers.

We as a society are snobs. We attach illegitimacy to those we consider inferior and deny them any respect. Perhaps if we could get the Govindas to wear international sports brands and deos, gave them air conditioned luxury cars to travel in, dahi handi would become safer for women.

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