Moral policing

Space for love

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Hindutva activists argue with participants in the "Kiss of Love" campaign against moral policing outside the RSS office in New Delhi on November 8. Photo: PTI

Members of the "Kiss of Love" movement protest against moral policing in Kochi on November 2. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

In a counter to right-wing onslaught on the freedom of expression, youngsters retake public spaces through organised resistance.

ON November 10, when a group of about 300 youngsters assembled near the office of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) at Jhandewalan in New Delhi, the symbolism of the event was hard to miss. They had come for a campaign evocatively titled “Kiss of Love”, a unique way of protesting against increasing incidents of violent moral policing by the RSS and other Hindu nationalist outfits. In an unabashed public display of affection, these youngsters decided to kiss one another right in front of the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture. It was a re-appropriation of public spaces in the face an increasing onslaught of right-wing vigilantism. What started off as a form of protest against an attack on a coffee shop by Sangh Parivar activists in Kozhikode has spread across the length and breadth of the country.

In October, the Kiss Day event in Kochi drew hundreds of enthusiastic supporters who wanted to stage an act of resistance to the violence perpetrated by the moral police. Following this, solidarities were forged through social media between like-minded youngsters, many of them students and activists, to organise similar events. On November 5, two such events were hosted by students of Jadavpur University and Presidency University in Kolkata. The immediate trigger for the events was the alleged murder of a Dalit boy—and his family members—for having an affair with an upper-caste girl. On November 10, a large assembly of students and activists participated in a similar event near the RSS office in Delhi. The following day, a similar event was organised at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, which saw poetry reading sessions and performance of protest songs in addition to kissing.

The media, especially the electronic media, have sensationalised the events to some degree. Gourab Ghosh, a student and queer activist at JNU, who helped organise the event in November, said: “I have often been asked by reporters, ‘So how many people did you kiss?’ This kind of representation of the movement in the media has blurred the far more significant function that it serves as a counter to increasing right-wing vigilantism both over women’s bodies and varied forms of sexual expression.” A defining feature of Hindutva politics in India, right from its heyday in the 1980s, has been an attempt to mark out women’s bodies as the site of honour and assert community control on the same. There is a subsequent denial of agency to women unless they serve the larger role envisaged for them in the Hindutva project. Martha Nussbaum in her insightful book The Clash Within traces this process of denying agency to women through detailed interviews with RSS members. The renewed attempts at moral policing in recent times need to be read as a revival of the larger Hindutva project of assigning gender roles that contain any potentially subversive elements that are perceived as challenges to an idealised notion of Indian culture. Karen Gabriel, associate professor and director of the Centre for Gender, Culture and Social Processes at St Stephen’s College, highlighted the liberatory potential of the movement: “The movement is interrogating a politics of violence perpetrated by a patriarchal supervisory gaze on forms of sexual expression.”

This movement needs to be seen not just as mere adventurism but as a form of organised resistance to an organised right-wing onslaught on the freedom of expression. Ghosh pointed out, “The RSS and other right-wing fringe groups have for several years now organised campaigns around Valentine’s Day and other such events where they beat up lovers in public places. Also, a number of transgender persons, hijras and people who do not conform to binary gender roles are routinely harassed by right-wing religious groups. The Kiss of Love event in Delhi also saw participation from a number of queer activists and students across college campuses.”

Speaking about the larger aims of the movement, Ghosh said, “This movement is expected to question middle-class notions of morality. It is expected to bring home the point to parents that there is nothing wrong with expressing affection in public and it does not violate any perceived notions of ‘culture’. At a time when the hold of the right-wing on the middle class is increasing, this movement will serve as a significant counter.”

Ghosh also pointed out how the events across the country had helped forge solidarity among like-minded individuals. “The mobilisation of people happened mostly through social media. People who did not know one another before came together on a common platform as a resistance to moral policing in public spaces. As of now, we have a closed Facebook group of about 100 like-minded people across the country who support the idea. But this forum is not just a platform for promoting public kissing. It is a forum for addressing male domination, moral policing and restricting women’s agency in society,” he said.

Karen Gabriel felt that this form of protest could be a fitting counter to the perceived threats of “love jehad” propagated by fringe elements. She said, “The idea of love jehad propagated by right-wing fringe elements conflates the notions of love and war and communalises expressions of love across the religious divide. Love is unproblematically seen as a form of conquest in this framework. The Kiss of Love campaign has picked up on this and successfully dismantled the linking of love and war through its celebration of a public display of love. The movement counters violent occupation of public spaces by the Hindu right wing. The fact that in Delhi the protesters went close to the RSS office is significant. Moral policing is an attempt to reinforce heterosexual, patriarchal control over women’s bodies and preserve the patriarchal order within caste, community and religious boundaries. It also has to do with the communalisation of the social body. If you look at the love jehad campaign, the concern is not about violation of the personhood of women but rather of community boundaries being violated. This is why inter-religious marriage is seen as problematic, while marital rape is not. In the backdrop of all this, Kiss of Love is a welcome initiative as an assertion of agency, of women’s right to their bodies as well as diverse forms of sexuality.”

Women’s organisations have also extended their support to the movement. Sudha Sundararaman, national vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), told Frontline: “One of the most defining slogans of this campaign in Kerala was ‘Kiss don’t kill’. The campaign is the answer of the youth against the onslaught of conservative forces. Women’s organisations are alarmed at the rise of communal forces and heinous crimes against women in the name of honour. The vicious campaign of love jehad is only meant to stigmatise and communalise choices made by young persons of their own accord. The Kiss of Love campaign has shown that the youth will refuse to accept moral policing. It is a question of safeguarding hard-won constitutional rights.” Sudha Sundararaman said women’s organisations across the country were getting together to organise a week-long campaign from December 10 against moral policing. She said, “About 13 organisations have got together to take part in a series of activities, meetings, seminars and campaigns. A range of choices made by women and men are under threat and the women’s movement needs to respond to this.”