India may be the world's largest democracy, but a kiss can still land you in serious trouble.
Kissing in public is not against the law here, but it is still considered somewhat taboo – and it is totally unacceptable to an increasingly active right-wing Hindu moral police. Lovers can be beaten up for kissing on the street or even for holding hands.
But a unique public kissing event – a protest against right wing groups in south India – is catching on around the country, challenging a deeply conservative belt of society.
On Nov. 8 hundreds of youth stole kisses, hugged each other, and blocked traffic in the nation's capital – to protest right-wing activists who see such public displays as a Western import that threatens India's traditional culture.
"Our protest is not against anyone," says Manohar Kumar, a student who took part in the protest. "It is about individual freedom. It is about our right to express our love.”
Kissing at a cafe triggers mob
The mass kissing event, called the "kiss of love" protest, began after a local TV report on Oct. 24 showed young couples kissing each other at a café in the southwestern state of Kerala.
Within hours, the café was attacked and ransacked by right-wing Hindu mobs. That incident created enough outrage via social media to cause a mass public kissing event to be organized.
While local reports say the kissing protest was actually not well attended, the idea has since captured hearts and minds. The initial campaign has received more than 124,023 "likes" on Facebook, with floods of shared photos of people kissing and hugging each other.
"It has been a matter of pride knowing that the young thoughtful India has [the] 'kiss of love' to fight against moral policing,” reads a Facebook page called Kiss of Love that has been something of a clearinghouse for those interested. “We’re getting hundreds of messages and phone calls about when and where the next protest is going to be conducted.”
After the Kerala protest came similar mass smooching actions in Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Delhi. In Kolkata, capital of India's West Bengal state, students gathered to protest against a local theater for refusing entry to a 17-year-old girl as she was “immorally” dressed in a skirt.
Targeting Valentine's Day
The latest effort to fight against public display of affection comes from the same Hindu vigilante groups that in the past have targeted Valentine's Day celebrations, painting exhibitions, pubs, beauty salons and clubs – or other expressions that don't conform to their notion of proper morality.
Last week university students in Delhi marched on the offices of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a large, elite Hindu nationalist volunteer organization. The students protested RSS moral policing activities. Hindu groups like the RSS have been emboldened since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party won power after elections in May.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, a close friend of Mr. Modi, stoked another controversy when he defined India as a Hindu nation and said that something called "Hindutva" – a controversial Hindu code – constitutes India's identity. Mr. Bhagwat's comments angered Muslim and Christian minorities and other secular Indians.
Hindus make up about 80 percent of India's billion-plus population. To consolidate power, Modi’s party, the BJP, has begun appealing to Hindu's by playing what might be called the "Hindutva card" by raising the philosophy of Hindu nationalism and identity in hopes of gaining political strength.
60 dead after 'love jihad' protest
Recently, for example, groups sympathetic to the BJP and the RSS have stepped up a campaign against what they term a "love jihad" – what they say is an Islamist strategy by which Muslim boys seduce and elope with Hindu girls to convert them to Islam.
While seen as a bizarre conspiracy theory by much of mainstream, moderate India, the phrase has gained credence in many places, leading to violent protests. In India’s biggest state of Uttar Pradesh, tension over the so-called "love jihad" turned into a terrible ethnic and religious riot last year, leaving more than 60 people died.
Nor has the issue gone away.
“I don’t know what 'Love Jihad' is. I know intermarriages because I’m a child of one," wrote Indian film star Saif Ali Khan in the Indian Express. Mr. Khan, a Muslim, is married to Hindu actress Kareena Kapoor. “Marriage is not jihad," he wrote. "Intermarriage is India. India is a mix.”
So far the Modi government has said little about the moral police tied to his party that make up the anti-kissing mobs or the "love jihad" vigilantes.
Meanwhile the next big "kiss of love" protest is being organized for Dec. 7 in Kerala, where it started.