Can a kiss possibly carry political overtones? Multiple protests by youngsters across cities and universities in India in the past week seem to indicate that perhaps, yes — a kiss is a political act. Students across universities in India are organising the Kiss of Love (KOL) protest, opposing the rising opinion that public display of affection is against Indian culture.
Protests started in Kerala after activists of the Bharathiya Janatha Yuva Morcha (BJYM), youth wing of the BJP, vandalised a popular eatery in the northern district of Calicut earlier in October. This was in reaction to an alleged sting aired by a local Congress-owned news channel, which had shown visuals of youngsters hugging each other inside the eatery premises.
While there was an outcry against the BJYM’s reaction, activists across Kerala saw this as an opportunity to protest against increasing instances of moral policing in the state. The movement began when a Facebook page titled Kiss of Love urged younsters across Kerala to participate in a protest against moral warriors in Kochi on 2 November. A peaceful march was organised from a local college to the venue, during which over 50 protestors were taken into police custody. Opposing the protests, religious and political groups also gathered around the venue. Ironically, right-wing Hindu and Muslim organisations found themselves on the same page as they physically prevented protestors from hugging and kissing for denigrating the Indian culture.
While, protestors were manhandled and abused, strangely, the police registered cases against them, even as the aggressors from right-wing organisations went scot free.
The episode generated similar protests in other parts of the country. Protests were also organised in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), IIT-Bombay, Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Pondicherry University and Jadavpur University. In HCU, BJYM and ABVP activists forcefully tried to prevent the protestors and cases were slapped against protestors for public display of affection.
In the capital, protestors marched to the RSS office on 8 November. Even though the police prevented them from reaching the venue, activists of the RSS and its affiliates assaulted many protestors.
Protestors claim that using the idiom of Indian culture, right-wing organisations are unleashing newer forms of sexual violence and extending patriarchy. “The KOL movement should be contextualised in the current political and social climate where extreme right wing groups are unleashing crude and subtle forms of patriarchal oppression targeting youngsters, especially girls. By fabricating myths of love jihad, fundamentalist forces are intruding into the private lives of women. They are dictating who they should marry or who they should have an affair with,” says Jagmathi Sangwan, general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).
A major contention of anti-KOL groups is that public display of affection is against Indian culture. They allege that people under the influence of western ideologies are desecrating Indian motherhood. This, in fact, when the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, in various judgments, have repeatedly ruled that kissing in public is not an obscene act and that no criminal proceedings can be initiated for kissing in public.
“The KOL activists are misguided youth. They are diverting attention from real issues facing our motherland. They should understand that one cannot replicate western ideas of morality and sexual freedom in India. Our culture treats women differently. In India, societal and family values are stronger. There is no room for hyper individualism. Public display of affection can embarrass elderly and children,” says Saketh Bahuguna, Delhi state secretary of ABVP.
Jisha Elizabeth, a Malayali journalist, who has been charged by the Kerala police for posting pro-KOL material on Facebook says, “Right-wing forces are giving a distorted picture of Indian culture in order to control and manipulate women according to the laws of Manusmriti. The brilliant literary work Gita Govinda by Jayadev depicts the sexual love between lord Krishna and Radha. Will BJYM and ABVP activists say that this work is not part of Indian culture?”
In fact, the tone of culture warriors online is replete with threats of rape against KOL supporters, accusing them of aping western culture. A cursory look at posts made by anti-KOL protestors makes the concerns of KOL organisers clearly evident. “There is a common trait of the online abuses I had to face. The aggressors start with proclaiming about the great traditions of Indian culture that respect women. Then they go on to abuse me using filthy language. Threats of sexual violence are common. Some of them even morphed and posted nude pictures of me online. According to their definition of Indian culture, a girl who supports public display of affection should be raped in public, so that she learns her lesson,” says Jisha.
With more cities and towns planning to host KOL in the coming days, is it correct to narrow it down to just public display of affection? KOL activists are very clear. They reiterate that it’s beyond kissing and it’s about “ownership and agency of body”. They are clear that their lips “won’t scar” despite attempts to trivialise and commodify their struggle.