They were outnumbered, subjected to vituperative attacks online and offline and their leaders put under preventive arrest, but the small group of youngsters who took upon themselves the daunting task of interrogating the deeply entrenched intolerance towards any public display of affection, pulled off an unlikely victory on November 2.
Amid heckling by ultraconservative sections of the Hindu and Muslim right and harassment by the police, nearly 100 youngsters hugged and kissed in public at the Marine Drive in Kochi to declare to the whole world that they are here to challenge moral fascism and moral policing.
At a factual level, theirs was a protest against Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) activists’ act of vandalism against a restaurant in Kozhikode on the argument that young boys and girls are frequenting it to hug and kiss. The resistance group organised themselves into a Facebook group called “Kiss of Love Community” and urged everyone who believed in the freedom for public display of affection to join them in the protest. The call evoked an overwhelming response on the Facebook page and, on the day of the demonstration, nearly 100 of them turned up at the Marine Drive.
Waiting for them were thousands of activists of Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and conservative Muslim political outfits such the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Sunni Yuvajana Sanghom (SYS), besides district-level workers of the Kerala Students’ Union (KSU), the student wing of the Congress. They shared a common slogan: to save Kerala from “western influence,” and were menacing in their slogans and demeanour, ready to pounce on anyone who dared to indulge in public display of affection. They did beat up some youth, but it turned out that this bunch, dressed in western clothing, were out there to protect “Indian culture”! Then came the arrests. As the events at the Marine Drive unfolded, a post on the “Kiss of Love” campaign Facebook page read: “Love is put behind bars while hatred roams freely.”
For a moment, it seemed the protest would end without so much as a public hug but, even as they were being carted away by the police, a few scores of the “Kiss of Love” campaigners surprised everyone with a brave display of affection, hugging and kissing each other, leaving behind some iconic images of a new daring. The event had its resonance in the University of Hyderabad the same day and in Kolkata and Mumbai a few days later, suggesting that moral fascism transcends regional boundaries in India today. For Kerala, however, the protest had a special relevance and meaning, given the State’s reputation of being a modern, educated and progressive society. What the youngsters did was to rip open the façade of modernity and progressivism that hide behind its deeply regressive attitude towards human relationships in public and private spaces.
Wrote J. Devika, leading feminist scholar: “While the Hindutva groups and the conservative constituencies of other religions in Kerala may advance different arguments to justify their loathing of public physical expressions of warmth, the unity they have achieved in their irrational fear of public touch needs to be considered further … I think this event also rubbishes a whole lot of hogwash that plagues one’s ears in contemporary Kerala about how the youth are incapable of doing anything significant, how they keep consuming and turning into crap … ”
The State has been witnessing a rising tide of moral policing in recent times with vigilante groups of both the Left and Right and the majority and minority communities taking upon themselves the job of policing neighbourhoods, harassing men and women and running campaigns of calumny against chosen targets. This is nothing short of an anomalous situation given the State’s long history of progressive social interventions, astounding material progress post-1970s and Malayalis’ exposure to life and culture in other shores.
Creature comforts and gadgetry available to Malayalis are the envy of many elsewhere and the tapestry of visual and aural experiences that have washed ashore with the changing times have added rich hues to the aspirations and life possibilities of every Malayali. But, some 150 years after women of the subaltern communities of former Travancore fought and won the right to cover their breasts after brutal repressions, the State is witnessing attempts at re-tethering to the patriarchal positions that Kerala society has been trying to shake free from. The attack on the restaurant in Kozhikode and the violent response to the “Kiss of Love” campaign were a testimony to this.
What the youngsters achieved, braving heavy odds, was to lay bare all that and trigger a debate in Kerala on the patriarchal attitudes and decadent orthodoxy that have been the hallmark of public — and also private — life in Kerala. One refreshing development was the support extended to their protest by Left parties, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the ambivalent stand taken by the rest of the political mainstream.
“More than moral policing, at issue here is the conflict between patriarchy and the desire to bring down all that goes with it. I think those who organised this struggle have a weighty responsibility to keep up the spirit and use the energies they have unleashed to take Kerala society forward on a healthy path,” says veteran journalist and rights activist B.R.P. Bhaskar. For a State that has lived under a coalitional gridlock that has largely benefited mostly patriarchal and commercial vested interests and which seems at the cusp of further political churning, the “Kiss of Love” campaign could just be the opening up of new possibilities of forward movement as well as resistance.