The ‘L-word’ is apparently the new ‘F-word’ but regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the notion of an exclusive day dedicated to love, it is unlikely Valentine’s day is something you’re going to be able to forget this year. Probably not for the reasons you'd prefer either.
Akhila Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha’s national president Chandra Prakash Kaushik’s words sent waves that gained momentum a whole ten days before February 14 even arrived, and countless headlines have splashed their way through print and online publications alike about lovebirds ‘caught’ canoodling in malls, parks and restaurants being forced to get hitched, with even the virtual space not to be spared by the right-wing outfit. To be treated like criminals for expressing a human emotion is bound to have an impact on the psyche of the youth, and to be brutally suppressed without there even being room for conversation, is synonymous with laying down a foundation of resentment for what could go on to manifest itself as gender-based violence later. In 'Break the Silence: Real-life Stories Showcase the Roots of Gender-Based Violence In India', we explored how, in the subtlest of manifestations, gender stereotypes carve their biased niche into the fabric of society, and consequently, our lives. It makes you wonder whether the perpetrators of the violence realise that it's not just physical damage they're doing but a far more deep-seated long-lasted effect they're having on the collective psyche of the youth.
Some have decided to take things into their own hands, such as the Delhi youth who plan to hold a tongue-in-cheek protest involving a ‘mass marriage ceremony’ today right in front of Hindu Mahasabha’s office clad in full-fledged wedding attire down to the mehendi and garlands to put on the members of the right-wing outfit.
"Why trouble the Hindu Mahasabha volunteers so much that they have to look for us who are in love, those of us who have been battling so many hardships of family, money and society in our dream to dutifully marry the one we love?" organiser Laxmi Bai told YouthKiAwaaz. “Now that the Mahasabha is on our side, we are in a better position to battle all caste, class, religion, gotra type barriers that romance in this country generally comes up against. And mass weddings are also lighter on the pocket!”
Kaushik’s theory about celebrating love all year round should perhaps come with a footnote next time, replete with terms and conditions which we can then painstakingly follow in the name of Indian culture - when just one day has drawn such ire consistently over the years, the whole conversation feels like it’s been rendered quite redundant.
The more we thought about it - the more the phrase ‘over the years’ resonated with an ominous ring. Has it really been for years that the war on Valentine’s day has been being waged? In an age where social evils like poverty, communal tension and assaults on women are commonplace, we know we're not alone in wishing that this notion of 'cultural pollution' wasn't hogging our headlines.
As it turns out, we’re not talking about a debate on the consumerist way of life the chocolate and flower holiday espouses for a large number of people, nor are we talking about the harmless banter about couples on your timeline that make you groan and scroll down faster; we’re talking assault, arrests, threat by marriage (with the option of a shuddhikaran or a ‘purification’ ritual for partners belonging to different religions for good measure) with couples chased away off the streets as though belonging to a lawless tribe that needs to be eradicated, Valentine’s day cards burnt and rotten tomatoes flung in their wake. While there are several in various parts of the world who join Hindu nationalists in opposing the holiday, India's small but vocal minority’s distaste for the Western import has given Valentine’s day a tinge of violence that disrespects any sort of personal agency in the interest of a greater good that remains largely intangible.
It’s come to a point where attempts to quantify the moral policing are being made by arranging cities in order of how safe it is to celebrate the holiday, with each city having witnessed its fair share of violence in the past. Is this what we've been reduced to? Each of the cities has exhibited horrifying and disturbingly inventive methods of terrorising lovestruck youngsters with instances of their faces being blackened, brutal assault and some even having their hair chopped off by activists of right-wing groups.
Tally marks pile up dishearteningly as we dig deeper into the past, with the Pink Chaddi Campaign by the spunky Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women in response to Pramod Muthalik, leader of Sri Ram Sene in Karnataka, who on Jan 24, 2009, rose a war cry ordering a group of 40 activists to forcibly enter a pub, ambush and assault young men and women who were drinking and dancing together in Mangalore, for violating Indian traditions, resulting in two women being hospitalised.
Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express in the same year, "These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore. Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m."
28 Sri Ram Sene activists were arrested, but leader Pramod Muthalik was soon let off on conditional bail, with a warning not to repeat such activities. His response at a press conference outside the court: "What we have done in Mangalore is a big success story in our fight against indecency. We are thankful to our Mangalore cadre for everything that they have done."
Well, that certainly leaves us on the same page. Post his release, Muthalik’s resolve to protest Valentine’s day remained strong, calling it an ‘international conspiracy’ that was being propagated by Christians.
"We are going to protest it,” he stated point-blankly. “We will send memorandums to Home Minister and Chief Minister (of Karnataka) and we will also alert the police officials for all the hotels and colleges where the day will be celebrated with pomp and show."
This notion of ‘cultural pollution’ is shared by many Hindu hardliner outfits in various parts of the country, with moral policing by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal rearing its ugly head on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad. Members of the outfits sought to ‘educate’ the hundreds of couples celebrating Valentine’s Day there about the negative impact of adapting Western traditions in the best way they knew how - by throwing rotten tomatoes at them and burning Valentine’s day cards.
“Many students supported our endeavour. But, many had thronged the riverfront today. We threw rotten tomatoes at them and they ran away from there,” Jwalit Mehta, city president of Bajrang Dal, said. “There is nothing wrong in imbibing positive aspects of western culture, but VHP and Bajrang Dal are against obscenity in the name of westernisation. Valentine’s Day is one such obscene celebration.”
The sentiments are also echoed in several other pockets of the country, with saffron outfits keeping a close eye on the celebrations, fiercely protective of their take on ‘Indian culture,’ a term that is used freely but still remains highly ambiguous by definition.
“We will not allow such days to harm Indian culture. If anyone wants to celebrate, they should keep that in mind and see that their programmes don’t highlight vulgarity,” said Vinayak Raut, secretary of Shiv Sena at the time, in 2011.The Shiv Sena has seldom hesitated in using muscle power against lovebirds, with several activists having been arrested in various parts of the country for shocking incidents such as cutting off the hair of amorous couples in Agra, threatening lovebirds in Delhi and forcing couples to tie the knot by exchanging flower garlands in Pune. It's disturbing to be able to quantify these attacks and to be able to tack pins on the locations of these which span the geography of the country and seem to have left no stones unturned in their misguided seemingly righteous quest. In 2013, the procession, 'Bhartiya Sanskriti Parichaya Yatra' was led by Shiv Sena divisional unit chief Gulshan Kapoor, which moved from Sarnath till Godowlia indulging in vehement anti-Valentine's Day sloganeering and threatening all malls, restaurants, hotels, clubs and other organizations that were celebrating the occasion, in their route without a permit although false claims of having sought permission were made.
As recent as last year, the Indo Asian News Service reported that right-wing group Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) had the gall to claim to attribute incident of rape and sexual assault to 'Western traditions' such as Valentine's day. To take sexual violence, an issue stemming from deep-seated gender stereotypes and years of social conditioning, and flippantly blaming it on a foreign power is not only escapist; it's delusional and just plain appalling.
Take your clamped hand off your forehead as we come back to present reality; now, of course, we have more threats of marriage and other absurd phenomena such as February 14 being observed as 'Matru-Pitru Diwas' or the 'Parents' worship Day' every year in the state of Chhatisgarh, as instructed by the Raman Singh government. For suggesting this ritual, started in Chhattisgarh Government School two years ago, we can thank controversial godman Asaram Bapu, who is behind bars facing rape charges.
Even as the country's youth grapples with the unprecedented wave of animosity against what seems like the very idea of non-platonic love and relationships - that are viewed by these outfits primarily as a taboo for encouraging pre-marital sex and physical displays of affection, we have sections of society that are protesting against this clampdown of freedom of expression. The 'Kiss of Love' Protest is one of the most recent and most important examples of this, where youngsters came together to celebrate the idea of love, rising in mutiny against ruthless moral policing. Started by a group called 'Free Thinkers' in Kochi, Kerala, after an incident of egregious violence and vandalism in a cafe by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth wing of BJP), the movement went on to snowball and spread - with protests being held all over the country in the University of Hyderabad, JNU Delhi, IISER Kolkata and IIT Bombay.
“Come embrace, hold, shake hands, give high fives… and kiss. They take away our cafes, our pubs, our parks, our gallis and mohallas and tell us this is no place to kiss. Let’s go to Jhandewala where the grand office of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is located and register our protest,” the Facebook group of Delhi chapter had posted.
“I’ve never seen anything like this happen in Calcutta before," Kolkata-based independent photographer Ronny Sen, who documented city's chapter of the protests, told Homegrown. "The Kiss of Love protests have attracted a massive number of people from all over, and this is a fascinating evolution of the ‘Hokkolorob’ protests. Over the course of this protest, I’ve heard many people come forward and speak openly about their sexual orientation, emphasizing that they aren’t afraid to discuss this in public anymore. Compared to the rest of the country, the right wing forces haven’t been trying to curb the protests as much, because they would far have been outnumbered. In line with its revolutionary history, Calcutta has stood up, again, for something which really needed to be spoken about.”
Through 'In Light Of ‘The Kiss Of Love’ Protests, Can The Origins Of Kissing Be Traced Back To India?' we at Homegrown explored the sequestering of personal touch, how ancient texts such as Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra is considered to be a standard work for sexual behaviour and the emotional power of touch and intimacy, known to trigger the release of oxytocin, hormone that decreases stress-related responses in mammalian species.
When psychology, scientific data and common sense form the backbone of our argument against these attacks, you'd think the conversation would be over by now. But where we're still at, however, is the initiation of this conversation. Set against the backdrop of the serious sexual violence that India’s grappling with today, this dialogue assumes an importance like never before. As we discovered through our research while working on 'Love In The Time Of The Spaceless: Where Do Young Mumbaikars Go To Hook Up?' it became clear that intimacy is hardly something that can be discussed in black and white. Not without awakening passions of one sort or another and getting just a little too worked up; it's inherently sensitive. But by creating this fear culture around it, in addition to the existing sparing scope of privacy, the emotion is being stripped of any emotional content reducing it to a cheapened commodity to squabble over. The chasm in understanding is going to keep widening until we change the way we talk about sex, so we can change the way we think about it. Our retort to the burning cards and rotten tomatoes should be a steady stream of undeniable logic - as millenials, we're the kids of the 90's weaned and raised on social media - in some cases, regardless of whether or not it's a voluntary decision - and if anyone knows how to infiltrate the system with the right sort of information, it's us.
Perhaps the best way to truly celebrate Valentine's day this year would be to by initiating damage control for the years of social conditioning and attempts at suppression so we can take the first few steps in a bid to close the existing chasm; and most importantly, to understand your power, and start wielding it.
Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari