Beauty and obscenity lie in the eyes and mind of the beholder. Neeti Vijaykumar asks if celebrating love is really so obscene and immoral
As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day this month with gifts, cakes, fancy dinners and walks under a moonlit sky, most of us in India will have an eye open for cops or mobs armed with sticks. While corporations eke out whatever they can out of the occasion, our moral brigade is preparing themselves to look for the tiniest hint of ‘moral degradation’. About 10 days before the dreaded Valentine’s Day, cops, politicians, college and school authorities, and sundry others warn us about ‘not indulging in overt celebrations’ on that day. We’re all familiar with the sudden increase in the number of cops out on the streets — not for our security or safety but to stop and penalise us in case we indulge in what they consider indecent behaviour. This indecent behaviour could include anything from a peck on the cheek to walking hand in hand with your loved one. In student-dominated towns like Pune, there are even prohibitory orders that prevent more than five people from assembling together, aimed at anti-Valentine’s Day protestors, and warnings that couples engaging in ‘indecent behaviour’ will invite strong action. In Chennai, couples (regardless of how they’re related to each other) are questioned and driven away from beaches and public spaces by cops.
When you make a list of all the reasons and threats that our self-appointed guardians of moral values come up with, it comes off as though they’re daft and have absolutely no connection with reality. From threatening to ‘marry off couples seen on the street’ to burning effigies and Valentine’s Day cards, shutting down stores selling Valentine’s merchandise and blackening couples’ faces, their campaigns to ‘protect Indian culture’ have become ridiculous.
THREAT TO CULTURE
When it comes to our personal lives, there seems to be a whole brigade of authorities who know what exactly is right for us. From the police to politicians, college authorities to housing society members, there are so many elders who take it upon themselves to keep our ever-degrading morals in check. But are they right? Maybe, but mostly not. Why is there such a divide between what we consider to be normal and what they consider to be morally right? The often repeated argument is that we are losing our morals by ‘aping the west’. Perhaps it’s true, we are aping the West; after all, Valentine’s Day is an imported festival, purely globalised and commercialised today. But the festival is about celebrating love, not just with your boyfriend or girlfriend, but with family, friends, and even strangers. Is that a Western concept?
According to the moral police, our ‘immoral acts’ are a threat to public decency. Because, as we all very well know, eve-teasing, hooting and passing comments at women is an honourable act of public decency, while consensually holding hands with a girl or a boy is too vulgar to even look at. Violence is normal, but anything to do with love and affection is evil. It’s etched into our mindsets; it’ll be a while before we, as a society, can let ourselves go. There’s a law out there that allows authorities to penalise us for engaging in anything that is against public decency. But of course, decency means different things to different kinds of people and is ever evolving; this is what causes so much trouble.
But it’s not like we’re asking for freedom to go all out on the streets; what we’re expecting is the freedom for us to choose what to do with our time in our personal lives and to be ourselves. Why is there so much restriction on what we should and shouldn’t do, and why is it dictated to us by people who have no business doing so? Whether it’s about how we should dress, who we should hang out with, where we go, how late it is in the day and what festival to celebrate – we don’t need to be herded around like cattle, lectured on what’s acceptable.
Usually, the moral police aren’t pleasant people who will sit you down to explain things nicely, at least in India.
A 15-year-old girl recently jumped to her death in Bengaluru because she was suspended from school for ‘being friends with a boy’. In Kerala, a pregnant woman was beaten up by some men for waiting alone at a bus stop and talking on the phone (with her husband; but they refused to believe that), while a man and woman were put into lock-up for a day because they were travelling together on a bike at night. A young girl is interrogated by a group of strangers and accused of being involved in immoral acts. In 2009, women were dragged out of pubs and beaten up for drinking in the infamous Mangalore pub incident that prompted the Pink Chaddi campaign. Such incidents happen almost every day in every part of the country today, and it’s not just reserved for Valentine’s Day.
The end of the year 2014 was marked by protests against moral policing down south, mainly in Kerala. The protests came to be called ‘Kiss of Love’. After a number of uncalled for attacks on young men and women by the moral brigade, the enraged youth in major cities of Kerala organised a mass rally of people coming out on the streets to do that sinful thing with their lips. And of course, there were anti-Kiss of Love protests too, by staunch traditionalists who thought that preventing the peaceful protest by rioting would drive home their point of public decency.
Those who had opposed the women in Mangalore drinking at the pub had come up with the brilliant explanation that Valentine’s Day wasn’t about love, but about lust. And lust is against Indian values. The fact that debate about morality in our country primarily revolves around sexuality goes to show how much we’re mentally developed as a society. Does it occur to our moral police that the moral character of a person is made up of more — ethics, manners and attitude towards other people? In that sense, they fail the morality test. Right from using violence to break up peaceful protests to resorting to damaging public property, from attacking innocent unarmed people to blaming and mentally, emotionally harassing victims.
Being one of the largest democracies in the world, to develop as a nation and be on par with the others, we have to change our social mindsets accordingly. It’s not that there aren’t moral brigades in the US, Australia or the UK, but they’re still more liberalised and believe in letting the youth practise decision-making and face its consequences on their own. The sexuality of a person (whichever way it swings), the choice to celebrate love, the right to enjoy life like our counterparts in more liberalised parts of the world are individual choices. We’re okay with opinions on morals; but to use violence and forcibly stop people from engaging in their private lives is surely not okay.
The right to celebrate Valentine’s Day is certainly not something to pin as the hallmark of a liberal society. But the freedom to make that choice — whether it is to buy a card, gift roses, ask someone out on a date that day or to sit at home and watch movies — would be a more sensible indicator of a free-thinking, reasonable and mature society.
HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED MORAL POLICING?
“We are morally policed almost on a daily basis by people simply because we may have guy friends. It seems as though the only time this is permissible is when you’re in a big group or when the man in question is your husband, brother or in more liberal circles, committed boyfriend.” – Amrita Dasgupta, 23, Delhi
WILL YOU PLAY IT SAFE THIS YEAR AND AVOID CELEBRATING VALENTI NE’ S DAY?
“No, I will be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year; but I will keep in mind to maintain decency as an individual.” – Deipshikha Dhankar, 24, media professional, Mumbai
“I’d play it safe to avoid unwanted trouble; especially in the Southern part of India, where people pretend to uphold their heritage by condemning activities that may bring harm to their beliefs and values. So if you’re seen with a girl on V’day, take it for granted that people will try and get you married to her. It’s the moral police who need a makeover, not the public.” – Vinnie, 23, Bengaluru
“I will definitely celebrate it because no law can prohibit me from holding a girl’s hand or kissing her on the cheek. It’s love and the police has no business interfering in it.” – Sanil Gosavi, 20, Mumbai
IS THE YOUTH TODAY REALLY OUT OF THEIR LIMITS MORALLY?
“I don’t think the term ‘moral decency’ can be applied in life as a strict rule obviously because it’s so subjective. The only time I think the youth is out of its limits in terms of moral decency is when young men sit around, whistling or singing at and molesting young women.” – Disha Ramanan, 23, student, Delhi
AS A PARENT, DO YOU THINK THE YOUTH NEEDS TO BE MORALLY POLICED AND RESTRICTED FROM GOING OUT ON VALENTINE’S DAY?
“I don’t think we should tell the youth how to dress or whom to be friends with, or even not to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We should rather advise or discuss these things with them. It’s all about proper communication and not just laying down rules and expecting them to follow it. It’s wrong to tell the youth not to do something without discussing why.” – Shilpi Gode, fine artist and mother of twin boys, Pune
Volume 4 Issue 8