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Moral policing in Kerala: Activists take over Kochi's Marine Drive, raising questions about state's conservatism

Members of a Facebook group, who stormed the Marine Drive in Kerala’s commercial capital of Kochi with a strong message against the moral police nearly two-and-a-half years ago, returned to the same venue on Thursday. The group called Free Thinkers revived the unique campaign called 'Kiss of Love' after Shiv Sena activists unleashed an attack on a few couples sitting at the Marine Drive walkway on Wednesday evening.

The Sena men, who were protesting against rising sexual assault cases against women in the state, lathi-charged and chased away young couples in the presence of police officials and media persons. The protestors, who came in a procession carrying banners that said "stop love under umbrella", also showered abuse on some couples, who refused to heed their order to vacate the place.  After the incident triggered huge outrage across the state, six Sena activists were arrested under non-bailable sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC). The state government suspended a sub-inspector and transferred eight police constables, who remained mute spectators to the incident.

The 'Kiss of Love' campaign at Marine Drive on 2 November, 2014 was spurred by an attack on an eatery in Kozhikode by the youth activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party on 23 October, 2014. The attack by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) followed a report on a local TV channel showing a boy and girl hugging and kissing on its premises.

 Moral policing in Kerala: Activists take over Kochis Marine Drive, raising questions about states conservatism

Representational image. Getty Images

The plan of the 'Kiss of Love' organisers to register a symbolic protest by hugging and kissing in the open then was foiled by communal and fundamentalist groups. Large numbers of young men and women, who thronged Marine Drive to participate in the event, was chased away by activists of these groups, using canes and pepper. The police also aided the fundamentalists by arresting the 'Kiss of Love' activists.

Most of these groups kept away from Marine Drive on Thursday. The police also did not stop the activists, who took over the place by staging not only protests but also cultural programmes, including street plays. Many activists hugged and locked lips, saying that they will not allow anybody to deny them public spaces. Writer Lazar Shine, one of the organisers of the 'Kiss of Love' protests, said people from all walks of life, including transgenders and physically challenged, joined the protests. He saw an overwhelming response as a strong indication that the new generation will not tolerate any attempt to curb their individual rights.

"Love is not a sin. Young men and women have every right to love those they like. Mine is a love marriage. We are living happily as a couple. The lovers come to parks and such public spaces to get to know each other. Nobody will be allowed to stop them." Lazar said. He said that the guardians of morality were opposing all types of male-female relationship. They don’t like men and women to walk together in public spaces, travel together in a car, sit in a room or eat together at a restaurant.

"The people who see sex in these activities have a sick mentality. They are trying to take Kerala back to the Victorian era. We will not allow this. We will keep all public spaces like the Marine Drive as cultural spaces. The protests against those chasing men and women from such places will continue," he added. Apart from 'Kiss of Love', members of various other organisations also marched to Marine Drive to register their protest against moral policing. The student and youth wings of the CPM staged a "sit-in strike", the activists of the Youth Congress organised sales of canes in front of Ernakulam Central Police station as a symbolic protest against the Shiv Sena.

The All India Youth Federation, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI) also made Marine Drive the venue of their protest. The BJYM, however, used the venue to protest against not only moral policing but also the 'Kiss of Love' campaign. The Congress-led Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) took their protests to the Assembly resulting in acrimonious scenes. The ruling LDF and Opposition MLAs nearly came to blows when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan termed the Shiva Sena attack at Kochi as an Opposition-sponsored event.

Earlier, Vijayan made it clear that the state government would deal sternly with people indulging in moral policing and warned that they would be charged under provisions of the stringent Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 2007. He said that the state government had also viewed the police lapse in Kochi incident "very seriously". The chief minister had given strict directions to the police to take stern action against acts of moral policing following the suicide of a 23-year-old youth after he was subjected to moral policing by a group of men on Valentine's Day. Aneesh, the son of a daily wage worker at Attapady in Palakkad district, ended his life after he and his female friend were shamed in a video by the moral police.

A few days earlier, members of the chief minister’s own party assaulted a youth, who was sitting with three female college mates on the University College campus in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram. The police under Vijayan has also not been avoiding moral policing. Members of a new contingent formed mainly for the protection of women rounded up a couple from a public park in Thiruvananthapuram accusing them of indulging in public vulgarity. The man, who had only placed his hand on the shoulder of his woman companion, exposed the police by live-streaming the exchange on Facebook.

The rise in moral policing incidents has come as a shock to cultural leaders. They wonder how this could happen in a state like Kerala, which is considered one of the more forward-thinking and its people have better exposure to the outside world compared to other states. Moral policing in Kerala is distinct from what is seen elsewhere in the country. It is not dominated by Hindu extremists alone. Those who are trying to impose their own code of morality also include extremists from the Muslim community, youth and student bodies of Left parties, police and even the media.

Writer and social activist Professor MN Karaserry said that the concept of morality had undergone changes throughout history and all over the world. He pointed out that the upper castes in Kerala had not allowed women from the lower rungs of society to cover their breasts more than a century-and-a-half ago. The women got the right to cover their breasts only after a prolonged struggle for several years.

"The family planning measures introduced in the country four decades ago were termed anti-religious and immoral. But members of all religions accepted them in spite of the objections from the religious leaders. I am sure society will accept public expression of affection too in the coming days," Karaserry told Firstpost.

Noted writer Paul Zacharia traces the root of moral policing in Kerala to Christian missionary education that teaches sex as a sin.

In an interview to Rediff, the writer had said that the Hindu society in the state never had such a conservative attitude to sex and man-woman relationship. The Christian concept prevailed as they controlled almost 100 percent of modern education in the state, he said.

The writer considers the media as a major culprit in promoting moral policing in the state. He told this correspondent that the effort by media to raise their circulation and viewership by blowing sex stories out of proportion was being exploited by the conservatives. The media constantly showcased man-woman relationships as prostitution. The police followed it up by slapping cases under the Immoral Trafficking Act against men and women even if they were engaged in consensual sex.

Zacharia, who was attacked by youth activists of the CPM in 2009 for criticising their moral policing action against Congress leader Rajmohan Unnithan, believes that the rising moral policing incidents in Kerala were the result of cultural degeneration and sexual starvation. Cultural leaders said moral policing was thriving in Kerala because of the failure of the state machinery to deal with the guardians of morality. Women’s activist Geetha said that those responsible for the life of Aneesh would not have dared to attack him if the police had taken action against the CPM student wing activists responsible for the moral policing in the Kerala University Campus.

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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2017 08:09:26 IST