TA Ameerudheen
Grist Media
Kiss of Love campaign

Rahul Pasupala and Reshmi Nair, on bail after being arrested in connection with a sex racket, insist the case has been fabricated against them by vested interests.(Facebook Photo/ Rahul Pasupalan)

These days, no one seems to be bothered about Rahul Pasupalan and Reshmi R Nair, once the poster children for the Kiss of Love (KoL) campaign, which took off in Kerala in November 2014.

For those unfamiliar with it, KoL was a social media movement initiated by Free Thinkers, a group led by short filmmaker Rahul Pasupalan. The group invited people to come to Marine Drive in Kochi on November 2 to hug and pucker up against moral policing. Predictably, it outraged right-wing parties of all shades, as well as some women and student outfits who turned up to protest against KoL. Hundreds of KoL campaign supporters showed up, holding hands, hugging and kissing in public, braving threats of physical violence by vigilante groups, who also turned up in hundreds.

The police took over 100 KoL activists into custody for what they described as a preventive measure to maintain law and order. Unmindful of the ensuing melee, Pasupalan and his wife, Nair, continued to kiss each other in full glare of live television, even as they were carted away in the police van. And what started as a local event to make a point, briefly spread to other cities in Kerala and became a sensation across the country.

Kiss of love protest against moral policing 2014 in Kerala at Ernakulam. (Wikimedia Commons)

KoL also got a boost when actor Mohanlal weighed in for it, castigating Malayalis for being stuck in a time warp when the world moved on. KoL split conservative Kerala (it didn’t help that Nair was a mother as well as a bikini model) and politicised what was meant to be a reaction against moral policing. Kerala is still seeing several instances of moral policing by goons that have even seen a pregnant woman and married couples being assaulted.

After its 15 minutes of fame, nothing was heard about KoL, for a year, till both Pasupalan, (29) and Nair (27) were suddenly arrested in Kochi on 18th November, 2015, following a chain of raids (codenamed Operation Big Daddy by the police), under the supervision of Inspector General of Police (Crime Branch), S Sreejith.

Police claimed the two were picked up from a hotel near Nedumbassery Airport in Kochi along with Lineesh Mathew, a Bengaluru-based broker and some others. Sreejith said two underage girls were with them at the hotel (at that time), while two women fled. The couple’s six-year-old son, who was with them, was later shifted to the children’s home run by the Child Welfare Committee.

Sex, Lies and Rackets

The police levelled the sensational charge that the couple was involved in a sex racket, and were accomplices of the main accused, Abdul Khader alias Ali Akbar, a notorious gangster, and his wife Rubina. One of the two underage girls was just six, flown in from Bangalore for alleged clients. The children were also handed over to the Child Welfare Committee.

Sreejith said, police, who were apparently tipped off about the couple’s involvement in the racket, got decoys to masquerade as clients to be in touch with Khader. Subsequently, they were sent Nair’s photographs and details. “Discussions were held and lot of bargaining went on,” he says.

The police attributed the couple’s alleged double life to indebtedness after a film project flopped. (However, in an interview, the film’s producer rubbished the claim saying it was Pasupalan and Nair who had taken them for a ride.) The prosecution case is that Pasupalan and Nair had created a Facebook page called ‘Kochu Sundarikal’ (Little Beauties). The page had come under the police scanner following complaints that it carried sexually-charged posts and images of children, and investigation apparently revealed that it catered to paedophiles.

Reshmi’s photos as a bikini model were used to claim that the couple were into flesh trade. (Facebook Photo/ Rahul Pasupalan)

Sreejith described Khader as the kingpin of the online operation and that he worked closely with child trafficking rackets in Bangalore. Pasupalan and Nair were named abettors and charged with offences under Sections 366A (procuring minor girl), 370(1) (exploitation of a trafficked person), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, and sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, as well as various provisions of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.

Victims of a Witch-Hunt?

The couple’s arrests sent shockwaves throughout Kerala and raised serious questions about the credibility of the KoL campaign. Some believed that the two were framed for leading the campaign, while others accused them of stabbing KoL in the back. The result was that fellow KoL activists distanced themselves from the two saying “no one had anointed them” as their campaign’s spokespersons.

Pasupalan and Nair remained in custody for 14 and 10 months respectively before they could go home to Pathanapuram in Kollam district after securing bail (with the help of their relatives) order from both the Kerala and Karnataka High Courts — the Kerala police had informed their Karnataka counterparts about the crime as the two girls were from Karnataka. So a case was registered there against the accused.

Though the Kerala High Court granted them bail in February 2016 — observing that the police had not filed the final report within the statutory period of 90 days even though the allegations against them were serious — Nair remained in jail till August and Pasupalan till December, until the duo got bail from the Karnataka High Court in the child trafficking case.

Meanwhile, the media had a field day digging up stories about the former techie couple’s lifestyle. Pasupalan’s father, estranged from the family and working as a labourer, also trashed the couple, saying that the lakhs he spent on his son’s education had not brought him any returns or benefits. He went so far as to paint his son as a wayward and unbalanced person and his daughter-in-law as an embarrassment who walks about in skimpy clothes.

Today, the heat generated by the high-profile case seems to have settled, with the media showing little interest in pursuing the sensational case. Now, the couple in question is trying to regain, through social media, all that lost space and friendship. The two claim to be victims of a witch-hunt by the Kerala police and right-wing political organisations and vigilante groups.

Read more | Kissing up a storm

Creating Impact, Creating Doubt

In their first-ever interview to the media after emerging from their incarceration, Pasupalan and Nair looked unperturbed while fielding hard questions, vowing to fight the case till their name was cleared.

Accusing the Kerala police of denying them justice by delaying the charge sheet, Nair says, “The police couldn’t find enough evidence against us so far. That is the reason for not filing the charge sheet even 15 months after our arrest. I think they will drag the case for another two years.”

She was more hopeful of a favourable verdict from Karnataka. “While granting bail, the Karnataka High Court had observed that we were not involved in child trafficking.”

She never imagined she would spend time in jail for a crime she “never committed”. “The arrest and the subsequent media trial shattered me. The media celebrated our arrest by providing titillating stories without considering our rights.”

She is upset that friends have abandoned them since their arrest. “Those who were part of the campaign deserted us during the hour of crisis. They could have waited for the judgment before writing us off. Our conscience is clear and we haven’t done anything wrong.”

KoL is still close to Nair’s heart as she was the one who suggested the name for the event and the Facebook page. “The event was scheduled for 2nd November at my insistence. Though others had suggested postponing, I said we should do it when incidents of moral policing were on the rise and the attack on Downtown Cafe in Kozhikode made huge headlines.”

Pasupalan believes that the campaign has brought about changes in Kerala’s conservative society which, he says, has begun now to publicly discuss issues like sexuality and menstruation. “I feel that the politics put forward by Kiss of Love is still relevant. But many denounced us, keen to prove that their moral side (sic) was strong.” While a majority couldn’t agree with the issues raised as part of the KoL campaign, “we proclaimed that we have the right to our bodies,” he says. “Those who found fault with us used Reshmi’s photos as a bikini model to claim that we were into flesh trade.”

Nair alleged that IGP Sreejith had offered to let her off the case if she deposed against her husband. “I didn’t budge. He spread another concocted story that Rahul pressured me to enter prostitution. But I never made such a statement. Media carried those stories without verifying them. These stories were generated to create rift between us.”

The IGP, however, denied the allegations. “I didn’t know her prior to the arrest. Then why should I make such offers?” he tells this correspondent.


Bail, A Second Birth

Pasupalan said the delay in filing the charge sheets proved that Sreejith’s claims were hollow. “The IGP had claimed that the police has evidence to prove our complicity in the crime. But I believe that lack of evidence is the reason for the delay in filing the charge sheet.”

Sreejith refuted this saying the charge sheets would be filed soon. “It is not be possible to file chargesheets in 90 days in cases that require digital evidence. The police have to analyse around 60 electronic devices, including mobile phones and SIM cards, which were confiscated during Operation Big Daddy. It is a huge task.”

He said Karnataka police were able to file the charge sheet (but the trial hasn’t begun) as they have to look into only two charges — Rahul and Reshmi were charged for rape and under Pocso.

Pasupalan accused the IGP of using media to push his publicity agenda. “Seventy-two days after my arrest, someone accessed my Facebook and posted my photo. How could I access my FB page when my mobile device was confiscated by the police? Two days after that, IG Sreejith told the media that the police would inquire into the incident.”

Sreejith responded to Pasupalan’s questions saying that it will be answered during the court trial. “We have enough evidence. He can avail [himself of] legal remedies if he has grievances. He is questioning the police through social media; we are not game for that. We are professionals and will do our job.”

Meanwhile, the case drags on. The investigation didn’t make much headway after Sreejith was transferred as IG of Ernakulam Range on 9th June, 2016. He took over as the Crime Branch IG again after the recent shakeup in the state police top brass in January this year.

Meanwhile, activists who maintain contact with the couple are fuming. “It is a travesty. I don’t understand why the police have been taking so much time to file the charge sheet. I am not ready to believe that it was because of Sreejith’s absence from the Crime Branch,” says one person who took part in KoL, on condition of anonymity.

Ajith Sasidharan, a final year B Com student in Kozhikode, says he’s thankful for the KoL campaign. “Isolated protests like KoL at least help people understand the gravity of the issue [of moral policing] and the need to raise a voice against it.” He alleges that Kerala police are siding with right-wing forces. “That is why they are constantly targeting activists Pasupalan and Nair. It is the duty of the Kerala society to ensure them justice.”

However, there remain people who believe that Pasupalan and Nair brought disrepute to KoL. “I found it difficult to convince people on the need to organise protests against moral policing after the [couple’s] arrest. People view us with suspicion. Their deeds have weakened protest movements in Kerala,” says Jojo Sebastian, an activist in Kochi.

Meanwhile, Pasupalan and Nair are resigned to a long legal battle. “We’re facing a lot of financial problems, but we will sell our last piece of land to fight our case. We have to find a job now to make a living,” Nair says, adding she would persuade her husband to pursue his passion for cinema. “He holds a diploma in filmmaking from the Adyar Film Institute. We underwent a lot of mental agony in the last 15 months. The bail has given us a kind of second birth.”