Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma’s recourse to the “guest is god” prosaism hasn’t done much to stem the controversy sparked by his earlier comments. On Sunday, the minister said that foreign tourists, women in particular, should not wear “short dresses and skirts” or go out at night while they are visiting India because “Indian culture is different from Western culture”. He advised them to stay indoors at night. The backlash to his statement has made Sharma “clarify” his remarks: There is no question of enforcing a ban or forcing “guests” to do anything in a country which prides itself on its ethos of “atithi devo bhava”, he now says.
Sharma is no stranger to controversy. He had described the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri as “an accident”, and said that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a nationalist “despite being a Muslim”. But the alleged perniciousness of “Western influence” has been a favoured theme. Since he took charge of the culture ministry, Sharma has said that in India “three generations of women cook food together” in contrast, presumably, to the Evil West where girls “leave home at 16”. He advised the female college student not to ask for “night out” because it is against “Indian culture”. Sharma is, of course, entitled to a personal opinion — howsoever narrow-minded it may be. As minister for culture, however, the West vs India dichotomy is not just a statement of prejudice. It could have a direct impact on tourism.
The number of foreign women travelling to India has been declining since the 2012 Delhi gangrape — about three per cent annually from 2013 to 2015 — and rising concerns about safety are unlikely to help matters. The safety of travellers to the country is the responsibility of the government of which Sharma is a part, and any concrete steps in that direction would be welcome. Telling women how they must dress, casting the onus of their own safety on them, and shrugging off the lack of women’s safety in India as a “cultural” artefact, is not something that will encourage visitors to the country.