This Beatles’ song could well resonate with India’s young as they battle moral guardians. Kochi’s novel protest spawned similar ones elsewhere. is this the beginning of a new renaissance in conservative kerala?
By TK Devasia
On November 2, conservative Kerala saw a protest it had never seen before. Manoj and Fathima, a married couple, were part of it. The Kiss of Love campaign in scenic Marine Drive in Kochi that day was going to see couples kissing and defying the moral police. But it didn’t take place as fundamentalists of all hues came together to foil the event. It took a violent turn as the police arrested some 50 participants; they were later released on bail.
Manoj and Fathima had a sense of déjà vu, as eight years ago too they were harassed by the police at the Marine Drive and asked to pay a bribe for spending time together and chased away by the police. That didn’t, however, stop them from getting hitched. This time, they were here to support the event, as they did not want their two children to be fettered by moral policing in a liberalized world. “They should get space to love and show their affection,” says Manoj, 32, a businessman.
However, loving in India is not easy. And in Kerala, home to Muslims, Hindus and Christians coexisting peacefully, the self-proclaimed guardians of morality spanned the entire religious spectrum—from mutually acrimonious outfits like the Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Pari-shad and Shiv Sena to the pro-Muslim Sunni Yuvajana Sangham, Campus Front, Social Democratic Front of India and the Kerala Students Union (of the ruling Congress Party). These outfits differ in ideology and programs, but were united in their stand against public display of affection and viewed hugging and kissing in public as an obscene act. Sangh Parivar members even called it a violation of Indian culture. Though Left parties and the BJP kept off, it was obvious they were partners in the moral policing.
The campaign was spearheaded by “Free Thinkers”, a group of Facebook users comprising mostly of IT professionals and artists, to protest against rising moral policing in the state. They were spurred by an October 23 attack on an eatery in Kozhikode by Bharatiya Janata Yuv Morcha (BJYM) activists, who alleged that immoral activities were taking place there. The BJYM men saw a report in a local TV channel showing a boy and girl hugging and kissing there.
The attack became a hot topic of debate in social networking sites, and the Facebook group thought it was time to resist this moral policing. As conventional agitations were not having any effect on these moral “guardians”, they thought of this shock protest.
Though the call for the protest evoked massive response on social networking sites, only a few hundred turned up at the Marine Drive to lock lips in public. However, religious and fundamental groups turned up in large numbers. Some came armed with canes and pepper powder and the police gave them a free hand.
Coming from a state where its most popular spiritual leader—Mata Amritanandamayi—hugs and kisses everybody who seeks her benediction, this was strange. But Shobha Surendran, national council member, the BJP, ridicules the attempt to compare this act with Mata’s, as she says this protest was a movement for free sex which her organization would not allow at any cost.
Rahul Pasupalan, one of the organizers of the protest, says their struggle was not for the right to kiss. “Ours was a symbolic protest against moral policing by men of all hues. We will carry forward our struggle in a peaceful and legal manner,” he says, adding that they had conveyed their protest to the anti-kissers by sending roses to them. Pasupalan is happy the protest has gone and fueled similar campaigns in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Senior journalist and human rights activist BRP Bhaskar says this protest was the beginning of a Renaissance in Kerala. “Kiss of Love activists have succeeded in putting the state back on the track of Renaissance by overcoming Hindu-Muslim right-wing groups,” he adds.
He says the social advancements that Kerala had achieved, which were at par with developed nations happened because the Renaissance was spearheaded by social reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Chattampi Swamikal a century ago. The retrograde forces they resisted returned half-a-century ago when political parties started compromising with religious and communal forces for the sake of power. This had taken Kerala backwards.
Bhaskar says the movement started by the Kiss of Love activists had given Kerala fresh hope and the massive support it had garnered from youth would force political parties and their feeder organizations to change their stand about moral policing. He says some parties had already started the process.
Writer and social activist Prof MN Karaserry says the debate generated was an indication of a strong yearning for change in the society’s concept of morality. He says hugging and kissing in public could not be considered immoral at a time when Keralites were going all over the world in search of jobs. The concept of morality had undergone changes throughout history and all over the world.
More than a century-and-a-half ago, he says, upper caste men in Kerala did not even allow women from lower castes to cover their breasts. They got the right to cover them only after a prolonged struggle. Similarly, family planning measures introduced four decades ago were termed anti-religious and immoral. But members of all religions have now accepted it, he says, despite objections from religious leaders. Karaserry believes society will be forced to accept public expressions of affection too in the coming days.
Moral policing, however, is not new in Kerala. Though vigilante groups were active in the past, they were mostly harmless and guided by paternal concerns. However, they assumed a violent form when various religious groups joined in.
The main focus of the moral police is women. Curiously, this concern is not visible when a woman falls prey to sexual abuse. None of these “protectors” came forward when PE Usha, an employee of Calicut University, waged a lonely battle against a man who tried to molest her in a bus.
Many believe that moral policing is the result of frustration and sexual jealousy. Civic Chandran, political analyst and writer, says in one case of moral policing, a group of men even complained against a widow who was in a relationship with a man from another geographical area. They harassed her and had the gall to ask her why she chose him when they were around!
And though Kerala is India’s most literate state, the average Malayalee’s hypocrisy is evident by the fact that the Kiss of Love protest had thousands of people, young and old, thronging Marine Drive to see the spectacle. Many even climbed trees to get a better view.
For the police, this is nothing new as they have been booking couples in public places and some have even demanded bribes from them. Recently, a Malayalam channel showed a policeman demanding a bribe of `5,000 from a boy and girl on a bike in Kochi. The cop snatched the girl’s mobile and looked for stuff he could use to blackmail them. When he found none, he threatened to inform their parents.
Well-known writer Paul Zacharia considers the media a major culprit in promoting moral policing in the state. He says newspapers raise their circulation by constantly showcasing man-woman relationships as prostitution. The police follow it up by slapping cases under the Immoral Trafficking Act even if couples are engaged in consensual sex. Zacharia was attacked by youth activists of the CPM in 2009 for criticizing their moral policing against Congress leader Rajmohan Unnithan.
Sulfath M Sulu, a school teacher in Kannur, says that such warped ideas about relationships were due to segregation and boys and girls in classes. It prevents natural friendships from developing and leads to sexual abuses.
Perhaps, it is time that these upholders of morality also helped women who are abused.