Indians said ‘I love you’ to Alexa — the Amazon device — more than 19,000 times last year. It’s only a symptom of a larger disease — loneliness, and that too in a society where love is increasingly ceding space in public.
Love — cloying, mushy, gooey, sticky, platonic — is becoming more and more elusive today. It wouldn’t be right to blame it entirely on the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party — although it is making sure love has legal prohibitions and is covered in concertina wire — but also on the fact that India has never been okay with the free will that is emboldened by love.
You see, love in India is clearly no ‘internal matter’.
Everyone from your neighbours, parents, school teachers, office colleagues, random bystanders on the road, and your government seem to have a stake in it. Then there are the three witches deciding your romantic future in the bubbling pot of society — caste, class, and religion. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’
And that’s why, this Valentine’s Day, if you can, reclaim love again. In this India, where laughing is getting hard, and romance even more so, let lovers be.
Get a room
We all had that phase when we detested the capitalism-wrapped occasion, said ‘yuck’ to couples holding hands or canoodling on that corner park bench, and remarked that love doesn’t need Hallmark greeting cards. We even declared from our pedestal that ‘every day should be Valentine’s Day, you don’t need one day in particular’. In our attempts to be irreverent and cool, we didn’t realise how that same love and celebration on 14 February has been constantly denied to many in India.
Every Valentine’s Day, you hear of the Bajrang Dal or moral police vahini harassing couples. Some slap and lecture couples, and yet others, often policemen, take a bribe and look the other way. Vigilante groups especially gear up for February — as if it’s their month to shine. An article on ‘How not to get beaten up by Bajrang Dal this Valentine’s Day’ suggests a simple solution — “End your relationship”.
The truth is, India doesn’t have the infrastructure for love. If you are rich, urban, heteronormative and upper caste (or ‘casteless’ as many like to call themselves), you’ll be able to pay for a room, or have a room of your own. For everyone else, an umbrella under a tree in a park or the dingy backseat in a cinema hall is all the world offers. In Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial grounds, almost every large tree comes with a pair of lovers free.
Once you enter the deep underbelly of Quora, a true reflection of the Indian psyche, you’ll discover questions like, “In which public places can an Indian couple make out in Mumbai?” Cabs, a garden in Matunga, and staircases seem to be the popular answer. Another detailed question goes: “Which are the safest hotels/websites in Mumbai which provide rooms for unmarried couples with no questions and ID proofs asked on hourly basis with reasonable rates? What are the approximate rates per hour for a couple?” Another realist gets straight to the point: “Suppose I am in a hotel in any part of India with my girlfriend (both adults, woman is 20 and I am 24 years old) and the police came to arrest us, then how can we legally deal with the police?”
For queer Indians, however, there are no such easy answers on the internet. How many men do we see holding hands anymore? How many women do we spot together under the umbrella? How many of our non-binary friends can be seen freely engaging in PDA? For many, love may have been decriminalised, but on paper only. It’s not something you get away with by only paying a bribe or pleading with a cop. The cost is much higher.
Law of the land
Most often, couples in public are threatened with Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which punishes “whoever, to the annoyance of others: does any obscene act in any public place”.
Of course, there is no hard-and-fast rule as to what exactly ‘obscene’ is. Some say it’s an act that lingers long — more than a small kiss, holding hands, or hugging. But then isn’t freedom of expression (Article 19) and personal liberty (Article 21) a fundamental right?
Many couples, when “caught” by officers and vigilantes, will say they are “about to get married.” But that is now a whole other problem in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India.
States are rushing to enact ‘anti-conversion’ laws. Popularly known as ‘love jihad’ laws, they have become a tool to ensure Hindu-Muslim couples are harassed, forced apart, and live in fear. A detailed investigation by ThePrint showed how lawyers and court informers would tip-off vigilantes after an interfaith couple registered under the Special Marriage Act at a registrar or sub-divisional magistrate’s office. As if Uttar Pradesh’s Anti-Romeo squads weren’t enough, who forced young men to do sit-ups or shaved a man’s head.
For women caught in these situations, another problem lurks — videos and photos to blackmail them.
The Eagles were clearly wrong when they sang, “When we’re hungry/Love will keep us alive.”
Love me do
So, here we are. India sells the Taj Mahal to the world, but has difficulty digesting an unabashed day of love. You might say Valentine’s Day is a Western concept, but love certainly isn’t. How do we navigate this to create a little space for love and nurture that spot under the sun?
The ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign in 2009 brought a glimmer of hope and humour. That year, several women were dragged out of a Mangalore pub and attacked by the Sri Ram Sene for being too obscene and “loose”. Women responded by mailing hordes of pink underwear to the group. Another moment was the ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign organised in Kerala in 2014 — or what the BBC called “a mass public kissing event”.
For concerned parents, Valentine’s Day is not dangerous, our lack of sex education is. Even though one Hindu group wants Valentine’s Day to be renamed as “Parent’s Worship Day”. Its Facebook page says, “Fatal disadvantages of Valentine’s Day are suicides, rapes, murders, drugs, accidents.” No, those are the fatal disadvantages of a society that ignores mental health, consent, and toxic patriarchy.
Strange that many of those who have no problems sending vile rape threats, and unsolicited dick pics on Facebook and Twitter, shudder at the sight of consent playing out in public — a couple lost in their own world on a bench or sharing ice cream on a beach.
So, this Valentine’s Day, make love great again. It’s not a revolution that will happen overnight. But for starters, don’t snigger at lovers, snitch on friends, and snap at PDA. All India needs is love, and love is all it needs. After all, the personal is the political.
Views are personal.