Kiss and chaos

A show of affection in public is a battle yet to be won in Kerala.

Published : Nov 12, 2014 12:30 IST

Members of the "Kiss of Love" movement protest against moral policing, in Kochi on November 2.

Members of the "Kiss of Love" movement protest against moral policing, in Kochi on November 2.

OF all the unexpected turn of events in Kerala in recent times, the one at Marine Drive in Kochi on November 2, after a group of youngsters gave a call for a novel form of protest against “moral policing” and “cultural fascism” and for “individual freedom”, was the least surprising, though, perhaps, a bit disturbing.

“Kiss of Love”, or KOL, a “kiss and embrace” show of protest organised by a nascent Facebook community of youngsters and freethinkers against the increasing instances of moral policing in Kerala, turned out to be the target of a vicious attack by right-wing Hindu and Muslim activists and a carnival for about 10,000 gleeful voyeuristic spectators.

Supporters of the event were attacked with canes and rods in the full glare of the media by a saffron army drawn from the Yuva Morcha, the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal, with the police looking the other way. The roads leading to Marine Drive also witnessed an equally intimidating rally of young men and women volunteers of several Muslim outfits, including the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the Campus Front, and the Samastha Kerala Sunni Yuvajana Sanghom, against the event.

Among those who opposed the KOL campaign were men wearing lipstick, brassieres and skimpy skirts and others leading decked-up cattle, a mocking reference to the KOL community’s demand for the freedom for public display of affection. Other groups, one under the banner of the ruling Congress’ Kerala Students Union (KSU), for example, added spice by simultaneously rallying against both moral vigilantism and the (kiss-and-embrace) mode of protest against it.

The KOL demonstrators included not just the young but also the middle-aged and the aged, but fewer women than men—altogether around 70 people who gathered in small clusters here and there, some exchanging swift kisses and embraces and shouting slogans tentatively amidst abuses, physical intimidation and cat calls of the other groups of protesters and onlookers.

With the Kerala High Court refusing to ban the KOL show, the State police perhaps chose the most practical way out to ensure law and order by taking the largest section of over 30 KOL demonstrators into preventive custody “for their own safety” even as they started moving towards the Marine Drive venue. Naturally, given the hostility and the sort of mischievous amusement all round, the KOL slogans grew louder and the kisses and embraces grew bolder only when the volunteers were ushered into police vans and, later, into the police stations.

The goons who attacked the demonstrators were mostly left to merge with the crowd or run away scot-free. The police later used lathis and pepper spray against the restive onlookers who continued to remain in the Marine Drive area, eager for those elusive visual crumbs of young men and women hugging or kissing each other.

Eventually, only a very small group of KOL volunteers managed to get under the spotlight at the Marine Drive Grounds, to shout their protests and sit there for a while in front of television cameras under the watchful eyes of a cordon of policemen and, for most of the time, too distracted to kiss or embrace.

The KOL demonstration was triggered by a brazen incident of moral vigilantism by some Yuva Morcha activists in the conservative north Kerala city of Kozhikode nearly a fortnight earlier. The attack followed a news report in a Congress-backed Malayalam television channel, which showed (mostly masked) images of young men and women embracing and kissing each other or spending time under an umbrella at a makeshift enclosure within a parking lot adjoining a popular café in Kozhikode. The report had claimed that the cafe and its precincts were being used to encourage “immoral activities”. The place was soon ransacked, its glass panes and furniture were damaged and the enclosure was torn down by Yuva Morcha demonstrators.

The allegations, stoutly denied by the proprietors of the cafe, are now the subject of a police inquiry. The day after the attack, the cafe was up and running and there was an outpouring of support from regular clients who came to express solidarity with the owners. Even days after the attack, only a few Yuva Morcha volunteers involved in the attack were arrested and State leaders of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits refrained from justifying the attack.

Three days after the Marine Drive event, in the wake of criticism, the police registered cases against the KOL organisers, as well as the protesters and several onlookers.

The silence of almost all the mainstream political parties in Kerala about the important issues raised by the KOL campaigners was significant.

There is no doubt that the new mode of protest achieved its purpose—of shaking Kerala out of its complacency. But the event left both the small Facebook community that made the call for it and the organisations that tried to upset the programme equally smug about their respective roles in it. The groups that invited themselves to the Kochi event also represented popular (though conflicting) strands of public opinion in Kerala in the important debate on individual freedom, moral vigilantism and cultural fascism that the KOL protest set off.

The symbolic protest and its aftermath cannot be seen in isolation from the churning that is taking place within what is still a largely patriarchal society. On the one hand, Kerala continues to impose strict limitations on public behaviour, especially of women, a large number of them now well educated, employed and more independent than before. The traditional social norms on personal, especially sexual, behaviour in public have remained largely unchallenged thus far (despite the widespread sense that the time has come for women’s self-assertion). At the same time, Kerala society stands helpless, appalled and worried at the increasing instances of sexual abuse and violence being reported against women and children every day, the reasons for which it neither fully understands nor sympathises with.

The unsavoury result is that, given the puritanical tendencies inherent in a patriarchal system, even the instances of sexual abuse or violence often get interpreted as the outcome of a free and easy morality spreading in society. Innocent displays of friendship, love or affection, best left to the individuals themselves, therefore become everybody’s business, especially when they involve young men and women. It is the kind of environment that subdues established political parties, encourages moral and cultural vigilantes and leads to startling apolitical outbursts from the most unexpected quarters.

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