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Switzerland tells us what living one’s culture is all about. In India, we talk about “tradition” but behave despicably says Rasheeda Bhagat in this article which appeared in The Hindu Business Line

We Indians love to talk about our culture, the great respect for women and elders, how God-fearing we are, how religiously inclined, and the rest of it. But even as we mouth these homilies, often with great earnestness to westerners whom many of us sanctimoniously regard as “decadent and with loose morals”, it was a rewarding experience last week to actually see how seriously the Swiss take their traditions and do much more than mouthing sermons about their history and culture.

At one level it was a jamboree that flew in 144 journalists from 33 countries into Zurich and transported us to the stupendously beautiful Alpine region — the Appenzell Canton. During these tough economic times every country needs tourism revenue, and Switzerland is no exception.

But the Swiss government is very clear that it is not going to woo tourists at the cost of its culture and traditions. So this year’s theme for the mega-media event was the appropriately titled “Living Traditions”.

At the inaugural press conference, CEO of Switzerland Tourism Jurg Schmid made it clear that his team’s endeavour is always to market an “authentic Switzerland full of fascinating traditions” to the tourists.
This includes yodelling and flag throwing, alphorn playing (which he called “the first mobile phone”), wood carving and a host of other Swiss traditional practices that have survived for hundreds of years and remain a part of Switzerland’s day-to-day life.

He was at pains to explain that the key elements that “differentiate Switzerland as a brand at the international level, are a combination of authentic experiences and our beautiful landscapes. In Switzerland history is not only written but lived”. Globalisation, he added, had ensured that “all the shopping streets of the world look alike, so for a country to counter that with a traditional, genuine and authentic experience is necessary. This year we’ve brought you to Appenzell where the Swiss are even more Swiss, the costumes more colourful and the culture and traditions fiercely preserved.”

One such tradition, prominently displayed on the promotional material, was the descent of the herdsmen from the mountains, colourfully dressed in their traditional costumes, along with their livestock which had been taken up for grazing. Now, with the onset of winter, they were being brought down ceremonially.

During my two-day stay in this Canton, I was treated to quite a few of these magnificent, colourful ceremonies, with the farmers dressed in bright red coats and yellow trousers. But to ensure that such traditional customs and practices do not degenerate into cheap gimmicks to entertain tourists, the Swiss government has a cultural department in place that keenly monitors how Swiss customs and traditions are sold to foreign visitors. The culture specialist from the government explained to us that Swiss traditions, culture and crafts were sacrosanct... “a part of people’s daily lives,” and allowing tourist interests to meddle with such customs “can be dangerous. We are aware of this”.

Schmid explained how some villages had given up certain customs, like the ceremonial descent of livestock by colourfully dressed herdsman, but tourist interest in this activity, attracting thousands of visitors to those villages, aiding their economy, had persuaded them to revert to the custom as the entire village benefited from it. “But we are constantly on guard to ensure that these activities are marketed with taste and sensitivity,” he added.

Our tour guide explained that the farmer decides when it is time to bring down his cattle as the mountains have little or no grass in autumn. “They don’t take the tourist office’s permission for the descent; it isn’t something that is cheap and fake.”

In the backdrop of such fierce guarding of culture and tradition, several women journalists — from the UK, the US, Singapore, Canada, the Netherlands, Israel, and even Argentina — barraged me with questions on what had gone wrong with the Indian culture.

What’s wrong with Indian men, they all asked in unison. Why are so many brutal gang rapes being reported out of India?

“I have been dreaming of coming to India for a holiday, but my parents will just not allow it,” said a distressed May from Singapore. A business journalist in her mid-20s, she would love to visit India, for “its delicious food, colourful clothes, jewellery, and of course Rajasthan.” Even though more distressed than her, I couldn’t look her in the eye and say that I blamed her parents for vetoing her trip.

The December 16 Delhi gang rape and the Mumbai gang rape were recalled, and eager queries were thrown at me on whether India was always like this... Indian men always “so desperate and brutal”, or had anything changed in recent times.

Lutske from the Netherlands, who was on a three-week tour to India around 2000, along with her boyfriend, when they took off a whole seven months to travel around the world, recalled her experience. “In Calcutta, I was walking along with my boyfriend, when I felt hands all over me... he was actually walking a little ahead of me and was totally surprised when I told him this later.” But this was nothing, she added, in comparison with her experience in Dhaka, “and that too during the month of Ramadan when people are supposed to fast and pray and not do sinful things. On the very first day, a man grabbed my breast. I shouted at him, gripped and threw away his hand, but was afraid to slap him. Luckily his friend, who saw me so angry, slapped him hard.”

Fortunately for me, this group of women had not heard of the grievous charge against the popular godman Asaram Bapu, made by a 15-year-old girl that he had raped her. After much humming and hawing he was arrested, even while his supporters were up in arms. BJP leaders rushed to his defence, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, an old follower, said Asaram was the victim of “a particular political party”. Uma Bharti tweeted: “Saint Asaram Bapu is innocent. He is being punished for opposing Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. False cases have been lodged against him in Congress (ruled) States. Saints are with Bapu.”

There isn’t yet sufficient interest in India for foreign journalists to know that the accused man has been giving us homilies on our culture... how Valentine’s day is sinful, sex should be avoided, and the like. Of course, his biggest gem is that the Delhi victim could have escaped being gang-raped had she fallen at the feet of her rapists and called them “brothers.”

Even the most seasoned imagination cannot explain the rationale of this bit of “Indian culture”.

(This article was published on September 2, 2013)


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