When Laboni Chatterjee, a 21-year-old undergraduate student of Jadavpur University (JU), locked lips with her girlfriend in front of the Jadavpur police station, she felt a gratifying complex of emotions. While her “public expression of love" was a bracing moment for her, the entire exercise of walking with placards, shouting slogans and finally sharing a smooch with her girlfriend, says Laboni, was an open act of defiance.

“If we don’t express ourselves, these people will take it as our weakness," she adds.

The “people" in question are the moral police.

The immediate trigger were incidents like the one in Kozhikode in Kerala last month, where a young couple at a café were found kissing in a television sting operation. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha—the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party—reportedly ransacked the café. A subsequent Kiss of Love protest in Kochi on 2 November was disrupted by Hindu and Muslim groups and many were detained by the police.

Kochi was not alone in this protest. Hyderabad and Mumbai joined in on the same day. At the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, an estimated 100-odd students and faculty members reportedly protested, though the media was not allowed to cover the event. In Hyderabad, police reportedly registered cases against the organizers of a Kiss of Love protest held at the campus of the University of Hyderabad.

In Kolkata, on 5 November, around 300 people, including students, marched down the road from the university campus, congregated in front of the Jadavpur police station and kissed, hugged and held each other, protesting the rising trend of intolerance and the “extremely disturbing phenomenon of moral policing", says Rimi B. Chatterjee, an author and assistant professor of English at JU.

Expressing solidarity with the protest in Kochi, the JU-pivoted Kolkata chapter of the Kiss of Love campaign was also protesting recent events—the murder of a Dalit boy and his parents in Maharashtra, triggered by the boy’s relationship with an upper-caste girl; the campaign by the BJP’s student body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, against live-in relationships at Delhi University; and Kolkata’s Star Theatre bar on the entry of a 17-year-old girl wearing a knee-length skirt on 28 October.

“The Kolkata event was also about a large minority talking back at the overwhelming majority, where political and religious groups are coming together to attack every individual freedom," says Rimi. “Our aim was simply to challenge moral policing and generate a debate."

The acts of “consensual affection" displayed at the Kiss of Love event in Kolkata have, expectedly, ruffled some feathers in the city. Multiple reports in a Bengali daily, widely believed to be aligned with the politics of Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), reacted negatively to the kiss-and-shout protest. In its pages, a state minister, Subrata Mukherjee, has denounced the protest for its non-Indian character, as well as for demeaning student politics.

On social media, commentators have wondered whether a seemingly elitist protest can change the situation in suburban and rural India.

“It is true that the JU crowd comes from a more economically stable background where they are free to form opinions. But once a protest like this snowballs, it is likely to arm the youth in mofussil towns," argues Rimi.

There has been an outpouring of support for the Kiss of Love campaigns in Kochi and Kolkata. In an article published in Kractivist.org, writer Urvashi Butalia has wondered why it is kissing in public that is objectionable, rather than the typical Indian male habit of pissing in public. Dibyokamal Mitra, a JU student and one of the organizers, thinks it is a “tremendous victory" that the police did not take action against the kissers even though they received a complaint from an onlooker.

While section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with obscenity issues, is ambiguous about kissing in public, Indian courts have previously dismissed cases filed against people who were kissing publicly. In 2008, the Supreme Court dismissed a case against Hollywood actor Richard Gere, who had kissed actor Shilpa Shetty on the cheek at an event, as “frivolous".

In the recent past, kissing has also been used as a non-violent tool of protest in Chile, the UK, Russia, Turkey and Italy, where the issues have ranged from education rights, homophobia and religious repression to state-sponsored violence.

On her part, Laboni felt that she found her “freedom of expression" when she kissed her girlfriend in public. It asserted her right as a bisexual. “And I’m no longer afraid," she adds.

A Kiss of Love protest is slated for today in front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) office near the Jhandewalan Metro station, New Delhi.

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