By Nithin Sridhar
Australian citizens Matthew Gordon and his girlfriend Emily Kassianou were allegedly mobbed, harassed, and illegally detailed for 3 hours by the Bengaluru police on Saturday afternoon after a group of people found Gordon sporting a tattoo of Hindu goddess Yellama on his shin. It has been further reported that they were let go by the police only after he wrote an apology letter.
Gordon, in his Facebook post says that he was forced to write the apology letter. He writes: “I should not have to apologize for what is on my skin and be put in a traumatizing situation where it is apparently acceptable to be harassed, threatened and mobbed.”
He further adds that: “She (his girlfriend) does not deserve sexual abuse both physical and verbal.” He asks for people’s support “to bring awareness to crimes of injustice.”
In answer to his calls for support, Social Media has come out in full support to him and has vehemently expressed opposition to the regressive mentality of these attackers who have turned India into a fundamentalist country.
But before jumping on the wagon in calling out the regressive mentality of certain sections of Indians (read Hindus), let us first look at the other side of the issue.
Physical harassment or Simple attempts of convincing?
Gorden says in his Facebook post that he had to physically defend himself and his girlfriend was sexually abused physically and verbally.
But, a one-minute video of the incident posted in Youtube shows no physical manhandling. In fact the person in the video, a local BJP leader, Ramesh Yadav is repeatedly asking Gorden only to wear pants and not expose the Goddess tattoo in public.
Further, Ramesh Yadav stated in his interview to India Today that there was no harassment from their side. He said that, they only asked Gorden to either remove the tattoo, or cover them with pants. Yadav further alleges that, the Australian couple used abusive language against the people when they tried to convince them. Hence, Yadav had called the police.
Yadav has re-iterated the same in his interview to The Hindu, where he clearly says: “When we came to know that it was a permanent tattoo, we only asked him to wear a pair of trousers and cover it, for his own safety. We noticed it fine…..if some mob notices and takes objection to it. It is for his own good that we told him and convinced him about this.”
Further, the account given by Yadav has been supported by other eyewitnesses as well. One eyewitness told TV9: “When a few people noticed the Australian national Mathew sporting a tattoo of Yellamma on his shin, they requested him to wear a trouser and cover it. They explained……it might hurt the religious sentiments of the locals especially during Dasara….Suddenly, a local person wearing shorts appeared and created a scene.
“He (the friend) told the Australian couple to make it an issue….the friend instigated Mathew and his girlfriend to make it an issue and told them to post comments on their Facebook page.”
Though the exact details of the incident will come to light only after a detailed investigation, prima facie, it appears that there was no harassment or sexual abuse against the couple as alleged by them.
Further, the couple themselves may have been involved in using abusive language and a friend of the couple may have been involved in instigating the couple to make an issue and post it on Facebook. The fact that Gordon has mentioned in his apology letter that he had used inappropriate language only strengthens the account given by the protesters.
Respect or Insensitivity?
Gordon on his Facebook post says that he “respects India and Hinduism completely.” But, one is left wondering what kind of respect is Gordon talking about that made him call his apology letter as being forced? In the apology letter he had stated: “I am sorry for hurting Hindu religious beliefs by my tattoo….I will make sure to cover it up while I am in India.”
Now, by saying that the letter was forced and that he has nothing to apologize, he is effectively saying that he does not care for the sentiments of Hindus or about the symbolism of Hindu icons. Is this the way to show respect?
But, the question is how does getting a tattoo translate into showing respect towards Hinduism, when one is not even apologetic about misusing symbols from a culture that is alien to them? People get tattoos simply because they like those symbols, or because they consider it as decorative icons.
Let this be clarified that, there is neither any disrespect nor anything wrong in getting any tattoos. But, it is definitely wrong, in appropriating the symbol of another culture and then dictating back to the people of that culture about how they should perceive their symbols. That exactly is what Gordon is trying to do.
It is true that many westerners are indeed ignorant about Hindu religion and symbols. Hence, they find Hindu deities and symbols as exotic and wish to own them by getting those symbols tattooed on their body. But, this ignorance cannot be an excuse for insensitivity and cultural appropriation. And in this case, Gordon himself has said that he is not ignorant about Hinduism.
He has told The Hindu, that he had studied in India for three years. He further states that he is well aware of the values and mythology of the gods that he got tattooed on his body.
The question that now arises is, how come he was unaware of the fact that Hindus in general consider keeping feet on paper (considered as Goddess Saraswati) as disrespectful? Similarly, tattooing Hindu Goddess on feet or wearing slippers with Goddess drawn on it, or undergarments with Hindu symbols on it are all perceived as offensive. Hindus have repeatedly expressed opposition to such portrayals in the past.
Was Gordon really unaware of the Hindu perceptions about the issue? Or did he simply not care about how Hindus felt? From his Facebook posts at least, it clearly appears to be the latter. The couple is now trying to hide this insensitivity and cultural appropriateness by playing victim.
Many foreigners have accepted India as their home. They have not only blended well with the Indian culture, but have also become an inseparable part of it. But, what Gordon has done does not fit the category.
If, he really had genuine love, respect, and devotion to the deity and the culture, he would have never got it tattooed on his legs as a mark of respect for Hindu sentiments. Secondly, even if his argument is accepted that no other space was left on his body and hence he was forced to get the tattoo on his shin, he would have covered his leg while staying in India. Thirdly, He would have at least felt genuinely sorry when his error was pointed out by others. But, his actions have been one of contempt for the sentiments of Hindus and Hindu culture.
Claims of Racism and Sexual harassment
Gorden further posts in Facebook the views of his girlfriend Emily. She says: “there has been a wave of blatant racism and intolerance that has been a constant struggle. You hear horror stories about India, this is one.”
She further says: “Two weeks ago, I was groped and sexually assaulted at a concert. After being aggressively fondled, I thought to myself ‘surely this is my Indian horror story.’…Every day, I defend myself from people who are intolerant of western women…but what is more concerning is the cacophony of insults that is thrown at me, on a daily basis.”
If, one were to take this post at face value, it appears as if Emily is facing harassment, physical and verbal almost every day of her stay in India. If this were true, why did the couple not file a police complaint before? Why was Emily silent even after being groped by someone?
And most importantly, how is it even related to the incident that happened on Saturday? What is the couple trying to achieve by making claims of alleged racism and groping in an issue related to them being detained over their tattoo?
Is this an attempt to smear “India” as a racist, rapist country? There is no denial that many cases of sexual harassment of foreigners as well as discrimination against them have been recorded in the past. But, that does not make India itself into a rapist, racist country. The so called “India horror story,” she refers to is a clear case of branding India in a negative light.
Thousands of Indians have been victims of racial violence in Australia, so should the country be branded as racist then?
Giving a political color
Emily’s statement on Facebook further tries to twist the issue by giving it a political color. Her post says: “vicious assault by members of the BJP right wing political party….with police bending backwards to please them.”
Firstly, to suggest that police bend backwards to BJP when the state government is being headed by the Congress is funny to say the least. But, more importantly, the issue is nowhere related to politics or any political party. It is a pure case of couple hurting religious sentiments of Hindus.
Emily’s attempts at whitewashing genuine Hindu concerns by giving it political colors and making it an issue of so called Hindu-fundamentalism, clearly points towards ulterior motive behind the whole issue. Even if the couple themselves are innocent, they are at least being influenced by people and narratives that are biased and inimical to Hinduism.
Their efforts appear to have already started bearing fruits. A search in Google reveals, how newspapers have grabbed the issue with both hands. In a Facebook page- Indian Quotes, one can see people calling India as most racist country, or equating India with countries having Sharia laws.
The issue is not about whether Gordon was right or wrong about tattooing the image of the Hindu Goddess on his shin. It may not have appeared wrong to him. He may even cherish the icons placed his body.
The issue is that despite of him knowing that rightly or wrongly, such a depiction is disrespectful and offensive to Hindu sentiments, he neither made attempts to cover his legs, nor made attempts to genuinely feel sorry and offer apologies. Instead, he has not only retracted on his apology letter by calling it “forced”, the couple is also branding Hindus as being racists and sexual assaulters.
The issue is also that, the incident which is otherwise a small issue, is being used to portray India as racist and Hinduism as regressive.
Is this another attempt to portray India and Hinduism in bad light? Is there any ulterior motive behind the couple’s actions? It is not clear at this moment. But, what is clear is that, there is more to the issue than what meets the eye.