Crisp wintry air and blue skies seemed the ideal setting for Delhi’s version of the ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign against moral policing.
For Pankhuri Zaheer, an M.Phil scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), events like these are routine. After all, JNU students are known for being active participants in peaceful demonstrations. In the past, they have taken to the streets to protest Israeli strikes on Gaza, raise their voices against the arrest of DelhiUniversity professor GN Saibaba for alleged Naxal links, and, most notably, over ABVP’s ‘Hinduvadi’ agenda.
Now, their aim to rally against the saffron wave that threatens to deluge the country under its ‘righteous’ might took a slightly different form. Taking a cue from Kochi, Kolkata and Hyderabad, students of JNU and DU called for a rally outside the office of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Delhi on Saturday.
The event saw as many as 600 people in attendance at Jhandewalan metro station. The RSS office was heavily fortified by police, who didn’t permit the participants to go up till Keshav Puram (where the office is located). But the protestors were resilient and marched on for 2 km around the area until they were stopped by 40-50 slogan-carrying RSS workers near Desh Bandhu Gupta Road.
Organisers Pakhuri Zaheer, Abaar Sumitran of JNU and Pratik of DU, steeled themselves for the evening, ever since the event was announced on Facebook. “We knew this sort of extremist backlash would happen, but we didn’t expect the attacks to get personal,” Zaheer told dna, referring to the some of the comments on the event’s page.
The sea of support on the page was peppered with derogatory comments from various Sangh Parivaar groups, some of them more disturbing than others. “We need a special‘chumma‘ from you tomorrow. Kal Pankhuri sabko akele chumma degi“; “Why only kiss of love, why not f*ck of love?”; “I will attend only if you give me 20 girls to have sex with”; and many more along similar lines.
The organisers were flooded with calls and messages from RSS affiliates, with the Bajrang Dal giving an open call on Facebook to attack the protestors. Asked whether these calls and web trolls had deterred members from attending, Zaheer says it’s quite the contrary. “The flak we received in fact strengthened people’s resolve. It is exactly this kind of behaviour that we are protesting about!”
Speaking to dna, Vishnu Gupta, national president of the Hindu Sena, a Hindutva youth outfit which led the attack against the ‘Kiss of Love’ protestors, said, “We are not against love – I am a young man too. But we oppose any expression of love that goes against our traditions, against Hindu society. The country also has a law against indecent behaviour in public. These are a few misguided youths who are affiliated with NGOs and want to attract media attention.”
Gupta claimed two members of his outfit had also been detained by the police. “In the next day or two, we will organise a march in JNU through our affiliate body, Hindu Vidyarthi Sena,” he added.
While the protest in Kerala was an outcome of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha volunteers vandalising Downtown Cafe in Kozhikode, the rally at Kolkata was triggered because of a 17-year-old girl being refused entry into the Star Theatre because she was wearing a skirt.
Delhi is known for its high crime statistics, especially when it comes to women. It is no secret that the parts Delhi’s neighbouring state Haryana is a hotbed of khap panchayats exercising their power in norms pertaining to marriages by defying Supreme Court rulings of anybody being able to get married anywhere, as well as making bizarre statements about preventing rape.
It is the large number of murders and suicides (not to mention threats to life) that have occurred as an outcome of the khap panchayats that have become the reason behind the Delhi chapter of the Kiss of Love. Zaheer stresses that the form of protest isn’t important as long as their message is clear.
However, as is the case with every such demonstration, the Kiss of Love event is not devoid of its sceptics. London-born Ansh Mittal is against ‘Western culture’. Prod him about what he means, and he does a slight backpedal, saying: “I’m really not against kissing, or even people having sex, but what’s the point? This is against our culture, plus change can’t happen overnight. Those people say kissing is better than raping… toh kisskar ke kaun sa rape ko rok rakhe hai?”
The UK resident goes on to say that the organisers are a resentful lot. “They’re frustrated with the government, the Indian system and are organising it to vent their anger somewhere and satisfy their ego.” Sceptical of the importance of the initiative, he said: “Are these things really important in a country like India where more than 30 crore people sleep without food each day?”
To those like Mittal who believe that India ‘isn’t ready for this form of protest’, Nayan Jyoti, general secretary of the Krantikari Naujawan Sabha, a left-wing organisation in Delhi, gives an example of an incident that happened at Haryana on November 7. He said: “At Asti factory, 400 women workers staged an overnight protest against illegal terminations. For merely expressing their constitutionally-sanctioned right, they were attacked, harassed and molested by management goons and BJP’s Haryana police.”
Jyoti also lauds the valiance of the people who have stepped up to protest, saying: “Just because India isn’t ready, does that mean we should remain on the back foot? If we don’t raise our voices, our silence may fuel the extremists’ agendas further.”
Urvashi Joshi, a Ramjas College student and an All India Students Association member, attended the event despite coming from a family of right-wingers. She said: “I told my family I would be attending the event, and they told me to do as I wished, but cautioned me against supporting Muslims.”
About the hypocrisy that played out, both online and at the event, the first year History student said: “Online, people trolled around saying things like ‘If you carry out this protest, we’ll rape you, we’ll kiss your sisters’ etc, which is simply unacceptable. How can the RSS form their own notion of morality?”
The event broke a lot of barriers like patriarchy and moral policing, said Urvashi, adding: “The event challenged the notion of girls not being ‘allowed’ to do indulge in PDA.”
Present at the event, research scholar Ritwik Agrawal echoed Joshi’s sentiments. “This isn’t Delhi-specific, but challenging the attempt at mobilising people’s choices nationwide. The people here are trying to assert their rights over their own bodies, that’s all.”
Speaking to dna from Chicago, Jayesh Nair expressed his happiness at such sort ofprotests taking place, saying: “I am so excited that these conversations are happening back home and kind of miss being there to see things changing.”
As for what exactly can be construed as moral policing, Nair said: “When we tell someone else what is an appropriate way (or inappropriate way) to protest, that forms the basis ofmoral policing in a democracy. Nonetheless, all these discussions are needed as long as they are peaceful and civil.”
Nair also said the inference that two consenting adults expressive love in public would lead to sex in public, is absurd. “That’s like trying to say women need to be blamed for rape because they chose to step out of the kitchen or that because they wear jeans.”
For the people who scream hoarse about ‘Western’ culture seeping into and corrupting the Indian masses, Nair indignantly asks: “What culture are they talking about? A culture where men can force themselves on a woman without their permission? A culture which blames women for getting raped? A culture where paedophiles get away with crime? A culture where a wife-beating man finds sympathy if his wife leaves him?”
It is interesting that extremists countrywide seem unified in their opposition to expressions of affection. Syed Rizvi, a 44-year-old graphic designer based in Mumbai said: “The idea of a ‘single civilisation’ is a dangerous one. When democracy is throttled and people’s physical space is invaded, they will react in ways that will make these extremists uncomfortable. And they should.” Rizvi added that whether it’s religious fundamentalism or cultural jingoism, they all have a single face.
Though there were no major injuries or physical acts of violence reported, three people were detained for breaching security at Keshav Puram. All three were freed after the event ended.
Hopefully this symbolic event will help in breaking down the walls of some social taboos, and start a much needed conversation in contemporary urban society.