However, it is something else that I have chosen as the theme for my own year-ender piece. The BJP victory may or may not signify an irreversible right-wing turn in Indian politics, but an event organised by young Indians in Kerala has certainly indicated the blurring of borders between the Congress and BJP in matters of cultural (and hence, of long-term political) significance. Fortunately, the event and its spread also indicate the force of the citizenry’s resolve to make significant points in a peaceful and thought-provoking manner.
No prizes for guessing that I am talking of ‘Kiss of Love’. To appreciate its significance, it is important to recall its genesis. In the last couple of years, incidences of moral policing have been on the rise in the supposedly enlightened state of Kerala. One incident even involved a gang of ‘morally’ charged men beating up a woman in the late stage of pregnancy for the crime of sitting alone at a bus shelter, while her husband had just gone nearby to withdraw money from an ATM. In another incident, the equally ‘morally’ charged police arrested a couple from a beach in Alappuzha for ‘immoral activity’ as the woman was not wearing any symbols to indicate her married status!
As we know, ‘moral’ or official police are hardly seen demonstrating such outrage on public displays of violence, cruelty, apathy and other digressions genuinely harmful to social sensitivity. Why a woman sitting alone or a couple kissing is seen as such a dire threat? The answer is astoundingly simple. A woman sitting alone is underlining her agency, and a couple kissing is underlining the power of love. A culture morality uncomfortable with such statements has a long distance to traverse.
In October, a news channel, which is run by well-known Congressmen and was launched in 2007 by Sonia Gandhi, telecast a video of a young couple kissing and hugging as part of its ‘investigative’ report on ‘immoral activities’ in the parking space of a cafe in Kozhikode. Soon after the telecast, Bharatiya Janta Yuva Morcha workers vandalised the café. It was after this ‘moral’ alliance of the political adversaries, that Rahul Pasupalan, a short-film maker from Kerala, and his friends decided to protest and chose ‘kiss of love’ as the mode of communicating their protest and resistance.
The first ‘Kiss of love’ event was organised on November 2 in Kochi. Then there were similar events throughout the country including one in the national capital in front of the RSS Delhi headquarters. None of these were centrally planned or controlled by the organisers of the original event. This countrywide spontaneity speaks a lot about the indignation which many people feel towards so-called moral policing. The Facebook page of the ‘Kiss of Love’ has been liked by more than 1,50,000 people so far and has a large number of posts mainly in Malayalam, giving lie to the jaundiced view of any such initiative being a fad of a deracinated, metro-based, English speaking elite.
While these events were taking place all over India, another event dubbed ‘Kiss in the Streets’ in Kozhikode on December 7 was attacked by right-wingers who had previously issued a warning of stripping naked anybody (including women) found ‘violating’ Indian culture by kissing in public.
The Kerala police under the control of the supposedly liberal and secular Congress-led government competed with the right-wing extremists of RSS affiliates in teaching a lesson to the protestors. In fact, the police have been accused of being more brutal than the political workers in this particular case.
It was in the midst of all this that one got to know that the non-violent Kiss of Love movement has been chosen for the second Dr. Narendra Dabholkar memorial award.
‘Kiss of Love’ is uniquely significant because it underlines love as an act of protest. We are so given to anger and aggression as a means of registering our opposition that we keep on ignoring the historical truth succinctly captured by Hannah Arendt: “Violence indeed changes the world, but often into a more violent one.” Apart from underlining that love is a mode of resistance, this movement also brings out in the open the substance of ‘moral policing’, which primarily consists of a morbid desire of controlling, and, in fact, owning, female sexuality and thus denying full human agency to half of humanity. This comes out clearly in the questions posed, ‘Would you allow your mother, sister, wife...’
For a truly democratic and modern consciousness, any physical or verbal expression of love or affection is premised on the willing consent of both the partners; on inherent respect for the individual agency and choice. In case of any strain in the relationship, it is the family, friends and the peer group who are expected to play a counseling role. This role is based on long association and mutual faith. As opposed to this, the moral policeman is a self-serving and misguided intruder in the private sphere of citizens.
In any society, the norms of social behaviour are more potent than formal laws. Kiss of Love is accused of disturbing the norms of expressing love – sexual or otherwise. But the point is, no set of social norms is eternal and beyond interrogation. Had this been the case, we would still be clinging to the branches of trees. One can imagine the threat our distant forefathers and mothers must have felt when some of them experimented with walking on two feet. It is not necessary to go that long back. Not so long ago, child marriage was the ‘social norm’. In some parts of the country, it unfortunately still is.
Similar is the case with the heinous practice of untouchability. In Europe, homosexuality was seen not only as a digression from the norm, but also a punishable offence under law. It continues to be so in our country, courtesy Lord Macaulay as well as those who are supposedly his enemies.
The significance of the Kiss of Love campaign lies in underlining the choices our society has to make. Do we want an inclusive society or an intrusive one? Do we want a state which facilitates the fullest growth of the individual potential of every citizen or a state which wants to police each and every act of people without any regard for the fundamental values of personal liberty and individual expression? In other words, do we want to take democratic principles to non-political spheres of life also or do we want to live under a police state and say good-bye to democratic values and principles of governance?
More than 100 years ago, (Rabindranath) Tagore, who knew the Hindu faith and Indian culture better than present-day claimants, in his classic novel ‘Gora’ portrayed the dilemmas and agonies of challenging social norms of the day, and arrived at a valid prognosis. His advice to society is worth heeding: “A society must constantly endeavour to make itself evermore prashata (accommodative) so that it is able to help every individual to realise his/ her potential instead of stifling it.”