On 2 November, a group of youngsters in Kochi, Kerala, tried to protest against what has come to be known as moral policing. It’s a different matter that the very term is an oxymoron—policing and morality are mutually exclusive categories.

But the way it has come to be used in this country, moral policing refers to the phenomenon of self-righteous goons who enjoy political patronage, and therefore feel entitled and emboldened to bully individuals and couples on how they comport themselves in public.

As the name suggests, the Kiss of Love protest entailed a kind of direct action against moral policing by kissing in a public place. It attracted about 50-odd men and women, more than 1,000 onlookers, and the gleeful ire of right-wing elements cutting across religious barriers. Before the protesters could osculate, however, they were carted off to the police station and charged with “unlawful assembly" and “disturbing peace" in a public place.

Moral policing is hardly a new phenomenon in India. Its rise and virulent growth enjoys a rough parallel with the advent of economic liberalization and the spread of satellite television. There were no instances of moral policing in the 1970s—not because students did not indulge in public display of affection back then, but because the socio-economic and political climate was different, and there were no news channels to amplify the lunacy of fringe elements. (The whole Kiss of Love saga in Kochi was sparked by a Congress-run channel broadcasting clips of allegedly immoral behaviour such as kissing).

But the last two decades or so have been very productive for the moral police. From love jihad to Valentine’s Day vandalisms, to disruptions of film shows and art exhibitions, they have, in this relatively short span, built up an illustrious record of hooliganism and criminal intimidation aimed at stamping out from public view any and all displays of romantic or sexual love between free, private individuals as well as any display of individualism that might challenge the self-appointed guardians of national culture and religious pride.

In this morally policed universe, it is alright to make a public spectacle of your love for actors, sportsmen, demagogues, and abstractions such as the nation state, religion, etc—even if it involves killing other people, self-immolation, or engaging in criminal hate speech from whatever platform you may have access to.

But the moment you make a public display of your love for another human being, all the authority figures join hands to punish you. The Kochi protest witnessed the unique spectacle of Hindu communal elements joining hands with Muslim communal elements joining hands with the repressive arm of the state to unleash their collective oppressive might on a bunch of youth who only wanted to kiss in public. This united front against love is but another version of the same drama where rival communities are united by hate—a communal riot. Both follow the same logic to the same outcome: deploy hate as a driver for mobilization, and perpetrate violence in the name of religion.

But why is it that we never, ever, see the police—who are mandated to uphold the Constitution—stand up for the rights of the individual citizen against the depredations of the moral police?

The provision of the law that the moral police feed on is Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which states that “whoever, to the annoyance of others, a) does any obscene act in any public place, or b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or word, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both."

What is interesting is that the most critical element of this provision, obscenity, is not defined. Which means that whether or not a couple kissing in a public place is an “obscene act" is entirely a matter of interpretation.

So, for instance, in the case of A and B versus State Thr. NCT of Delhi and Anr. on 25 May 2009, a couple, A and B, was sitting at a Metro station taking pictures of each other when some cops showed up and arrested them for allegedly kissing in public.

It is worth reading the case history in full to get an idea of how and why moral policing flourishes in this country. But this is what the Delhi high court said in its judgment on this case: “It is inconceivable how, even if one were to take what is stated in the FIR to be true (namely, that the couple kissed in public), the expression of love by a young married couple…would attract the offence of ‘obscenity’ and trigger the coercive process of the law."

Eventually, the counsel for the state had to assure the court that disciplinary action would be taken against the cops who arrested the couple under Section 294. And Delhi Police was forced to write a letter of apology to the couple.

Clearly, our nation, and its criminal justice system, is fully capable of acting in a sane manner when confronted with attempted abuse of the law. It is a different matter, though, that our secular police frequently sides with the (im)moral police.

Close