An Indian couple kisses during a protest against moral policing on Saturday In New Delhi, India. © Shakya Anil Kumar/ABACA/Press Association Images

Could "kiss in" protests change India?

The younger generation wants sexual liberation—but has got a backlash
February 19, 2015

Driving down Mumbai’s Marine Drive, an onlooker might be confused by the number of rainbow-coloured umbrellas perched on benches along the seafront, seemingly enjoying the ocean breeze. A closer inspection reveals, however, that they are all propped up by the tangled limbs of young lovers, seeking privacy behind their brollies.

Marine Drive is famous for attracting couples looking for a spot far from their family homes where they can relax without attracting attention. Yet kissing in public remains unacceptable almost everywhere in India. “Kiss-in” protests late last year were a signal that the nation is in the throes of social upheaval—and some conservative norms won’t survive this generation, at least in the big cities. The demonstrations began in October when a local news channel broadcast footage of a young couple kissing in a café in Calicut, Kerala. In no time a Hindu nationalist youth organisation linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had raided the property, in an act of intervention widely referred to as “moral policing.” The incident triggered the “Kiss of Love” movement—with the first kissathon on Kochi’s own Marine Drive—where young people met and smooched en masse. The campaign’s Facebook page now has over 150,000 “likes.”

Ira Trivedi, author of India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st century, says the campaign is part of a wider shift in which a new generation wants more freedom in areas from sex to marriage. “It’s about a fundamental change we’re going through as a society,” she told me. “There is also a backlash because the change is happening so fast.”

Discussions about repression in India quickly descend into the same observations about how this is the home of the Kama Sutra, and one look at ancient Indian art makes it clear that raunchy romance isn’t a western import. But in modern India, repression is an everyday reality.

Right-wing religious groups have long taken it upon themselves to uphold what they see as traditional Indian values. Every year on Valentine’s Day there is talk of the Shiv Sena, a sometimes militant organisation that shares the BJP’s Hindu nationalist views and has in the past attacked restaurants, shops and florists celebrating the holiday in Mumbai. There are also stories about local police arresting couples for being openly amorous. The issue lies in one ambiguous clause of India’s penal code, which says “any obscene act” in a public place can justify a fine or imprisonment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made no official comment about the “Kiss of Love” movement. But since his BJP government took the reins in New Delhi last May, there have been whispers about the potential for rising conservatism in the country. That could clash with a new generation, who are moving in the opposite direction.

India Today, a popular local magazine, brought out its annual sex survey last month with a special focus on teenagers’ views of romance. It found that 25 per cent of 18 and 19 year olds had sex while at school, far more than many would expect in this country. Though the older generation may recoil at conversation that ventures beyond the birds and the bees, Indian teenagers have found trusty sources of information online and on television. Some 26 per cent of the teens surveyed said they had sent or received sexually explicit messages and only 2 per cent learnt about sex from their parents.

Society’s views of love and romance are evolving very gradually. Among the well-off in cities such as Mumbai, kissing and hugging in public is now not uncommon in the shelter of private bars and restaurants. And the number of couples on Marine Drive has increased. “There used to be a few but now there are so many,” says Trivedi. “They’re jostling for space.”

Bollywood films, a powerful force shaping public opinion, now show couples kissing. By contrast, my father recalls his teenage years in India, when scenes of rape seemed familiar but kissing on screen remained taboo.

The push for a healthier attitude to romance is widely seen as crucial, given sexual repression feeds into other grave problems in India. The conversation about demonstrative romance takes place against a backdrop of shocking violence against women, which has come into centre stage since a savage gang-rape and killing of a student in New Delhi grabbed headlines more than two years ago.

Along with problems surrounding poverty, education and rapid urbanisation, a distorted attitude towards romance and the opposite sex undoubtedly contributes to the disturbing incidence of rape in India. And rebalancing attitudes to love and relationships could be part of the solution.