One of the attractions of the old parts of many Indian cities is public signage. As you wander along Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, or Chowk in Lucknow for example, you are assaulted by a dense, multi-coloured array of shop fronts displaying humour both deliberate and accidental. A sign that I have seen a few times at the entrance to parks, and especially temple grounds reads ‘Kripiya prem ka dikhawa na karem/ No Public Display of Affection’. At first, this would appear to be akin to the ‘No running, no bombing, no petting’ signs of swimming pools in the 1980s. Yet the abundance of couples in some of the main parks of the big cities suggests something both more oppressive and risky is happening. Lodhi Gardens in Delhi is famous for couples, as is Nehru Park for gay Delhi. The site of the Siege of Lucknow in 1857 – The Residency, is now a common location for more intimate conquests. It is clear that particular parks are urban sites for physical contact and it seems that these young people go there to get away from something. More public liaisons, in these days of demonetisation, are probably less appealing. As a friend Saima Rehman joked, if your boyfriend complains that you don’t spend enough time together, take him out to an ATM.
One aspect of public physical contact that it took me a while to get used to, was the ostensibly platonic hand-holding between men. My very first, disarming sight of Indian policemen was two male constables strolling through the airport hand in hand. Some friends in my all-male Lucknow friendship group would regularly take my hand for longer than I would normally find comfortable. On discussion of the subject, they nevertheless rigorously denied the very existence of homosexuality in India. Getting away then, for those moving outside of these boundaries is clearly essential, not least because there are some people around who don’t like to see kissing. One group the Park lovers may be evading are the custodians of the nation’s ‘morality’- the various and now powerful organisations of the Hindu right. In October 2014, the youth wing of the ruling party (the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha) organised an attack on a café which had been the site of a news story around a kissing couple, believed to be acting obscenely in public. In response a Facebook group generated by a group of young Keralans called ‘Kiss of Love’ organised a mass kissing protest at Marine Drive, Kochi. Various religious organisations sent toughs to attempt to forcibly remove the protestors while the strong-arm of the state – the police (some of them holding hands)- stood by and watched. But the protests spread to other cities, including one very risky mass kissing event outside the Delhi HQ of the neo-Nazi organisation the RSS on 8 November.
We might almost say that there has been a public affection war being waged in the last ten years. Since the election of the BJP in 2014, the policing of couples in public has involved ‘Anti-Valentine’ protests and attacks. A Hindu Mahasabha spokesman leading up a public shaming campaign argued ‘we are not against love, but if a couple is in love they must get married.’ Consequently in 2015 the Mahasabha offered a ‘free’ and prompt wedding to those caught celebrating Valentine’s. As with most of its other interpretations of ‘Hindu’ culture, these groups’ view of public love is derived more from 20th Century nationalism than religious text or authority. The chapter of the Kama Sutra on 30 forms of kiss is well known. Some of the earliest Vedic texts dating back to the second millennium BC also make reference to it. Yet any attempt to point out the fluidity of India’s multiple, socially diverse and inconsistent Hindu cultures leads to violent resistance and censorship. India’s far right successfully pressurised Penguin books, for example to pulp Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, partly for this reason.
The ‘Kiss of Love’ Protest
These exhortations about public affection cannot be explained away as just the obsessions of fruitcakes with baggy shorts, nazi salutes and big sticks. Underlying them, as well as reaction to other sexualities, is a fundamental fear about changes in the nature of the family, and principally the freedom of women. Rana Dasgupta has recently argued that the virulence of sexual violence against women in Delhi, for example, has paralleled the expansion of urban professional and leadership roles for single women. I would argue, further, that this is not simply a product of recent changes in urban India, although its scale and public exposure has changed in recent times. There have been other moments historically when men faced sudden and large-scale challenges from independent women. These moments, in which Indian society was for a time polarised, tells us something more about both the social breadth and persistence of patriarchy and the flexibility of ideologies that challenge it.
One such moment of polarisation was the decision of India’s new postcolonial Indian state to establish a Constitution in 1950, containing one of the most elaborate and radical statements of Fundamental Rights of its time. Articles 15 and 16 of this enormously powerful document set out that no citizen could be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Neither could the state discriminate on those bases. Yet in the archive, the year the Constitution was promulgated, we can find files setting out how women should be ‘banned’ from an array of public service jobs. In the same period, legislation attempting to establish legal equality for women in the late 1940s and early 1950s – The Hindu Code Bill- was being debated. But at the heart of India’s political establishment, there was also resistance to this basic legal equality: Daughters, conservatives argued, would still not be treated like sons when it came to marriage, rights of divorce, or inheritance.
These arguments exposed a fundamental gender divide in Indian political culture – a divide most beautifully illustrated in a journal I read yesterday-Roshni- published by the largest national women’s organisation of the period, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). In May 1949 Roshni’s editorial described an address, made by women from Madras to the future first President of the Republic, Rajendra Prasad which called on him to support the Hindu Code Bill. The fury with which Roshni reported Prasad’s reply, leapt off the page: “We must take into account the views of not only the advanced people but also those who are not advanced” Prasad responded, “I am sure that if the provisions of the Code were explained to my wife, whom I consider to be a representative of the orthodox women of India, she would not accept them”.
The editorial then took out the scalpel: ‘It is unfortunate that Mrs. Rajendra Prasad should have been mentioned at all. We have no doubt that Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s wife is the arbiter of his destiny; but is it fair, we ask, to put on her frail shoulders the responsibility of the happiness of millions of her sisters?’ But it was the special Indian Post-Truth moment that I enjoyed the most: ‘It is almost as if the father of the family should say, when a member is ill with some serious ailment, “We should not only take the opinion of the expert Medical Board, but also of those who know nothing of medicine or disease.” Roshni was in no doubt that the progressive women of India were ‘more qualified to speak on the proposal than either Dr. Rajendra Prasad or his orthodox wife. And, of course, we are sure that the latter would express an opinion in our favour, if she were informed by one of her sex.’ (Roshni, Vol IV, no. 6. June 1949, pp. 2-3).
It is difficult not to feel a certain admiration for leading figures of the AIWC. These women were aware of the intimate connection between two acts of choice: that of an independent professional life and that of a love life. The pages of Roshni for the early 1950s are full of references to the confinement of women to domestic drudgery, and the hypocrisies inherent in that role symbolically: Women were good enough to be political representatives of the nation, figures of its integrity and power, but could not be permitted economic independence. In April 1949, the editorial captured this predicament, in again criticising the men who opposed equal legal rights: ‘It is hard to convince these idolators that she does not want to be thought of as a goddess and treated like a slave and that she insists on being treated like a human being’. The difficult questions of love then, were very much in the background of the concerns grappled by the organisation, and often very directly. One of the AIWC’s leading figures, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had been married at the age of 14, then widowed two years later. Acting against every convention, not only did she re-marry, but did so for love to a well known poet and playwright, Harin Chattopadhyay. Together they went on to produce plays and Kamaladevi even acted in the first silent film of the Kannada film industry, at a time when ‘respectable’ women were not seen on stage or screen.
It seems to me that in India today these spaces of intimacy have been increasing, despite the bigotry of the regime. But this is no simple action-reaction political moment. The forms of patriarchy that created among other things, the Hindu right’s hounding of couples has existed for a very long time in a number of institutions, including the top levels of the early postcolonial secular establishment. In some ways the term ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t capture this phenomenon, which penetrates deeply into institutions and debates through India’s colonial and postcolonial histories. In this sense, the meeting of young lovers is a very powerful symbolic act, relating to urban space, generation, moment and history. It is for this reason that places like Lodhi gardens are locations for affection not because of privacy, which is actually scant- the tombs are set out in vast open spaces. The decision to meet in such places is to begin to make a hard choice – to potentially enter what Parveez Mody has described as an unsafe, almost unthinkable in-between space. The couples we see in most parks then, may be getting away from family, or the problems of negotiating relationships outside the expectations of different community pressures. But in some ways they are also undertaking quite a profound act of rebellion.