On 15 February I looked in my newspapers for reports about Valentine’s Day. Were any lovers beaten up, or forcibly married off? There were none, and I quickly gave up.
This is unusual at first look. Until about two years ago, Valentine’s Day was a fiercely controversial topic in India. Far-right Hindu groups saw it as a Western celebration of love that they said went against the grain of Indian culture and values. It was, no doubt, also a convenient way to hit the headlines.
Also, to be sure, these protesters are a minority, belonging to the extreme fringe of a loosely knit group called the Sangh Parivar—the unofficial name for right-wing Hindu groups who may or may not be formally associated with each other but do espouse cultural practices that they claim to belong to the Hindu tradition.
The Sanskrit and Hindi word Sangh means association, and is closely identified with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological wellspring of the party that rules India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Groups, not necessarily formally aligned to the RSS, that have previously protested against Valentine’s Day lovers include the Hindu Mahasabha, the Sri Ram Sena and the Bajrang Dal, which this year threatened to marry off anyone declaring their love on Facebook in the state of Odisha.
These are risible threats and are apparently being laughed off by a growing number of Indians. And that is something that has always marked out this controversy—a pushback from ordinary people. The dangers of confronting such vigilantes may have receded for determined Indian lovers but this wasn’t always the case.
Not surprisingly, the early fightback was led by women. In the run-up to Valentine’s Day in 2009, the Sri Ram Sena physically attacked women in a pub in Mangaluru, dragging them out for assault, after a warning by the Sena (it means army) chief Pramod Muthalik. The sickening attack spawned a movement called the “Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women", which in turn unleashed a Pink Chaddi (pink panty) campaign against the Sena. Outraged by the violence against them, women from all over India sent off hundreds of pink panties to Muthalik, a non-violent protest coordinated on Facebook that drew international media attention.
Although the RSS and the BJP dissociated themselves from the Sri Ram Sena, Muthalik did join the Karnataka unit of the BJP just before general elections in 2014, but was forced out within hours of doing so, after the Goa unit of the party objected—Goa has a substantial Catholic minority—and the central unit intervened.
In post-Independence India, fights, even rioting, have broken out during minority festivals. The riots have been violent and led by men.
The fightback over Valentine’s Day, by contrast, was led by women and non-violent—unprecedented in Indian history. It highlighted their right—and men’s too, obviously—to romance and to drink (or not to drink) in a pub. As one academic put it at the time, the Pink Chaddi campaign “is so cool because it refuses to take the fascists seriously. It laughs at them, it insults them and tells them that they are not being taken seriously."
Today, Valentine’s Day is a reasonably big affair in the big cities. Indians have reclaimed it as a secular festival—no one looks at it as “Western", no one thinks of it as Christian, no one considers it anti-Indian. The few who continue to peddle their religious and cultural objections are laughed off on social media.
“Sales are good, more or less the same as last year. There’s been no impact of demonetisation," said Rahul, who runs Ferns N Petals, a flower shop in Hauz Khas, south Delhi, at the start of what looked like a pretty busy day at the shop. While staff put finishing touches to massive bouquets of red roses, costing thousands of rupees each, one customer walked in asking for a single stem of rose. He walked out smiling—motorcycle helmet in one hand, rose in the other.
“The trend is changing," said Rahul. “Earlier, we would get a lot of walk-in customers. Now we do a lot of sales online, and on phone." The roses sold at Rs60 apiece at the shop.
Flower shops have proliferated across Delhi—every street corner has a seller and most markets have several. In addition, the Association of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) estimated online Valentine’s Day sales in 2015 to have hit Rs22,000 crore, compared to Rs16,000 crore in 2014. Online buyers spend on flowers, chocolates, electronic gadgets and diamond jewellery—tokens of love.
The IANS wire service said sales are high on “V-Day" because celebrations last a week: it starts with Rose Day (7 Februrary), followed by Proposal Day, Chocolate Day, Teddy Day, Promise Day, Kiss Day, Hug Day and Valentine’s Day.
But there are other related battles. Kiss of Love is a protest that has spread from the southern state of Kerala after vigilantes harassed couples sitting in a restaurant.
G. Arunima, chairperson of the Centre for Women’s Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a leading voice in this debate, said the Pink Chaddi movement highlighted “the various dimensions of the debate on violence against women in public spaces as a way of regulating women. Moral policing cuts across parties and religions, and is always enacted on the bodies of women. It’s also about people who dare to love across caste and religion."
“It was a good thing to happen," she added.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1