NEW DELHI — There was a bit of a street brawl outside a pub, nothing too unusual on the face of it, except for what happened next. After pushing a few men out of the way, the 40 or so attackers revealed what they were really after: young women at the bar, whom they slapped, pummeled and yanked by the hair, in what they later justified as a bid to safeguard traditional Indian culture.
Video of the smashed-up pub, Amnesia: The Lounge, and of several women being assaulted, with at least two being pushed to the ground, has topped news broadcasts for days. One Indian minister described the incident Saturday in the southwest city of Mangalore as a bid by Hindu fundamentalists to "Talibanize" India; others suspect a political ploy.
The Mangalore attack, captured by a TV crew, has been condemned by police, civic groups and the central government, but it follows several other actions by conservative Hindus who believe that women should not wear Western clothes, drink alcohol or have an independent lifestyle.
It also underscores the growing gap, social observers say, between an India that has rushed headlong into the 21st century -- as seen in the shiny world of call centers and slick urban skylines -- and a more traditional world that, while also changing, still has a good deal in common with the 19th century world of ox carts, closeted village women and deep-rooted patriarchal values.
"You have Muslim Taliban and this Hindu Taliban," said Kuldip Nayar, a New Delhi-based journalist and political analyst. "Tradition has not been jettisoned as quickly as people in the West think. This class of people going to pubs, dancing, is still very small."
The group that took responsibility for the attack on the young women, Shri Ram Sena, is a radical wing of the Hindu nationalist movement whose most mainstream element is the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.
We "are not a group of mad men, we are a patriotic group," said Pramod Muthalik, Shri Ram's head, in an interview in the local media. "We are the citizens of this nation, and I feel it is our duty to discipline indecent behavior. It is out of this sense of duty that we feel the need to safeguard our culture."
The Mangalore attack is the latest high-profile attempt by various Hindu fundamentalist groups to "safeguard Indian morality" and fight "polluting" Western influence.
About two dozen members of Shri Ram, including Muthalik, have been arrested, though the Karnataka state government has been accused of dragging its feet and one of the suspects was released on bail within hours.
Targets of various hard-line Hindu and nationalist groups have included Valentine's Day, kissing in Bollywood films, open displays of affection, cheerleaders and Hindu-Muslim relationships.
"Moral policing is completely deplorable," said Niraja Gopal Jayal, a professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "I'm afraid that given all the attention, fringe groups might be emboldened to repeat this sort of thing."
The opposition BJP, which hopes to return to power in national elections expected to take place from April 8th to May 15th denounced the attack as an "unacceptable act of hooliganism."
But some analysts and media said it could have happened only in a state like Karnataka, a BJP stronghold that espouses Hindu nationalist values and elected the party to power in May. On Wednesday, the chief minister of another conservative state, Rajasthan, said he would work to ensure "the culture of boys and girls going hand-in-hand to pubs and malls for drinking is stopped."
Some have criticized the news media's role, questioning how the TV crew happened to be there, whether it had advance knowledge and why it didn't intercede. Some also see more political calculation than cultural backlash in Saturday's attack. The hard-line BJP needs to bolster core supporters for the elections, said Dipankar Gupta, a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"They attack soft targets to keep their base active and alive," he said. "And on the other side, when they say it's against Hindu culture, we get into a debate. It's a trap. Then they have you exactly where they want you. We should just put them in jail."
Nirmala Venkatesh, a member of the central government's National Commission for Women, breezed into her office wearing a long coat and fur collar over an off-white striped sari. Since she was put in charge of a three-member panel to investigate the incident, her phone has been ringing nonstop with queries from politicians and journalists.
The way she sees it, Venkatesh said, women have the right to enjoy themselves but should also recognize societal limits. As part of her inquiry, she said, she plans to meet with the attackers, the bar owner and the families of the young women to see whether their parents allowed them to go out to pubs every night at midnight.
"My personal advice: Women should be very careful," she said. "I can't just roam after midnight."
The attack took place about 4 p.m.
Venkatesh disputes any comparison with Muslim extremists in Afghanistan. "We can't treat all men as Taliban," she said. "Men are lovable. Without men, what are we?"
Rather, economic difficulties, unemployment and frustration motivate a small group to act badly, she said.
At the upscale Khan Market in south Delhi, four college girls out for a lunch of shish kebab and pita bread discussed the incident. They frequently head out to bars and restaurants for fun in the evenings, they said, though never alone. They also never tell their parents what they're doing, saying they're staying with a girlfriend or celebrating a friend's birthday.
"I feel caught between two worlds," said Tina Chopra, 21, a college student. "At home, it's the old traditional India. When I go out, it's the new India. . . . I'm like two separate people."
Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.