What’s love got to do with it?
14 February 2009, Bangalore: Valentine’s Day: I am seated along with a hundred odd people in the cordoned area between the statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Queen Victoria in Bangalore, which is the officially approved site for those seeking to uphold the right to celebrate Valentine’s Day. A motley group of people representing various organizations has come together to demand their freedom and right to express love and to contest the call by members of the Sri Ram Sene to ban celebrations of Valentine’s Day.
One of the first to parade past us is the colourful Kannada Sene, led by Vattal Nagraj riding a horse buggy, and whose followers distribute pamphlets endorsing the right of all people to love. Groups come by to make their presentations. Agni Sridhar, former underground don and now a tabloid owner and editor, leads the Youth Freedom Group, which consists of large numbers of young men and a few girls, and he calls for the absolute right of all to love as they wish.
The Save Indian Family Foundation consisting mostly of middle class men, primarily from the IT and ITES industry, and all ‘victims’ of section 498A, call for gender neutral laws and voice their grievances against women who fleece men. Then come the transsexuals or hijras, who now want to be called Mangala Mukhi, and who are represented by a new organization, Mangala Mukhi Sanghatane and their leader, Kalpana, calls for their recognition and right to love without social stigma.
Members of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, Republican Party of India, and the CPI(M) call for challenging the erosion of democracy and reiterate their support to the young of the nation. Youth groups (Praja Yuva Chaluvali) and members of the local law college students’ union call for freedom of public expression of love. Jai Karnataka, a new outfit, with ambitions of becoming a political party, led by ex-mafia don, Muthappa Rai, comes in with a large group of people including several autorickshaw drivers who carry banners celebrating the freedom to love. An ambitious, young Congress (I) politician cum academic uses the day and the forum to herald his own political presence and aspirations.
All this has been preceeded by the ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign, designed and organized by a young journalist, Nisha Susan. Reacting to the Sri Ram Sene’s attack on young couples in a pub in Mangalore, the campaign calls for people to send in pink coloured chaddis (underwear) to Pramod Muthalik, the Sri Ram Sene’s leader. The English press provides wide coverage and the flood of chaddis (estimated to be about five thousand odd) and Muthalik’s response to this are reported as key news items.
In a state where the rise of the BJP and its associated network of institutions and supporters have accompanied the erosion of democracy in multiple ways and forms, it is ‘love’ as a category and the right to love and its expression that finds centre-stage. As in other parts of India, where increasing opportunities for the young to go beyond family and community prescribed relationships and where ‘love’ as a commoditized expression has spread, reactionary and fundamentalist forces have sought to target this as a source of violation of their own constructed ideas of ideal communities and relationships.
Over the past decade, a whole genre of ‘love’ films, tele serials, and songs have encouraged the young to seek new forms of love. For some youth, ‘love’ has become the source of defying family and community norms. As a result, a new youth culture rides on love and its insignia of commercialized love (hearts on objects, a flood of cards, new fast food items and sites associated with dating, the paraphernalia of flowers, jewellery, clothes, and trinkets and trivia designed to express and facilitate love) and seeks outlets for expressing interpersonal desires and relationships.
Parental disapproval of this and the intergenerational tensions over the new youth culture and the violations of religious and caste prescribed marital choices have become another source of intergenerational contestation. Love as a dislocationary category signifies contestations over gender and intergenerational relations, between tensions of tradition and modernity, over individual and community preferences, between choice versus subscription, and over customary norms versus commoditized culture.
But the Hindutva brigade reads and appropriates this social and cultural dislocationary category as a political category and seeks to build its base and membership by using it. In championing parental rights over youth and their criticism of the new youth culture, they construct and deploy the need to maintain and safeguard family and community norms and values that uphold tradition and prescribed norms. Constructing love or the freedom to express new forms of sociality, and choice of marital partners as a sign of degeneration, they seek to build membership among disaffected parents. This novel form of recruitment and intrusion into the fold of the family and community has found expression in the Hindutva brigade’s construction of several inter-caste and inter-religious (especially between Muslim men and Hindu girls) relationships as that of a ‘love jihad’ – a conspiracy by Muslim fundamentalists, a network supported by international Muslim ‘terrorists’, to convert Hindu girls into Muslims and to increase their population.
Where parents are unable to rein in the new sociality among their young, they may endorse the ideas expressed by the Hindutva vigilantes. As some parents provide legal dispositions indicating that their innocent daughters have been trapped by manipulative Muslim men and were the victims of the ‘love jihad’, they become both directly and vicariously subscribers to the intensifying public construction of the new forms of Muslim terrorism.
An interim report by the police department denies the existence of any formal and organized network that had deployed a scheme of ‘love jihad’. Cases of runaway inter-religious couples that were sought to be placed within the ‘love jihad’ framework are disputed by a lack of evidence. But the rumours and hysteria contribute to the objectives of the Hindutva brigade and even district and local newspapers report missing and absconding cases of young couples as cases of the spread of ‘love jihad’. Runaway and prohibited ‘love’ that brings together inter-caste, inter-religious and inter-class relationships, but which threatens the ideas and ideals of ‘pure’ families and communities, becomes the terrain on which growing communal tensions and hatred are promoted.
If caste and religious proscriptions prevent the free option to love, then terrorism as a private and public threat finds new sources to feed into pre-existing fears. ‘Love jihad’ as a construction and a campaign brings to the fore the circularity of hate; youth who dare to choose partners across caste, religion and ethnicity are targeted by families and organizations, and Hindu fundamentalist organizations seek to become protectors of these innocent and or wayward children and in disciplining them gain the support of parents.
The ‘love jihad’ as rumour and disinformation has led to an intensification of public and private animosity and mistrust: families deploy new curfew on their youth and stipulate choice of sociality and dress codes. Members and supporters of the Hindutva brigade take it on themselves to provide surveillance and punishment. That bus drivers in Mangalore curtail and punish what they see as ‘wrong and bad’ company and sociality among youth, and enforce strict segregation among passengers, is just a singular evidence of this growing tendency.
Proscription against love is also found on park benches, erected by the BJP government, on which are inscribed strictures such as ‘vulgar display of love will attract punishment’, ‘don’t embarrass others with displays of your love’, and ‘indecent behaviour is prohibited’. As possibilities of open sociality and romance among youth increase, the absence of private spaces and the prohibition of such alliances enforces them to resort to such public display of their relationships. In this they become the targets of new forms of surveillance and vigilantism and their actions are constructed as forms of wrong ‘love’. In the contestations over such issues, between Hindutva vigilantes and the protesters who seek to retain their right to love, are the issues of the very fragmentation of what is meant by democracy and of the abilities of different classes to defend, question, or assert their democratic rights.
In Karnataka’s march towards full-fledged and deep-rooted Hindutva, ‘love’ has become a cultural-political category through which the contradictions of an increasingly commercialized public culture and the possible loosening of caste and religion, prescribed forms of sociality and conjugality are constructed by the visible middle class and the media as sites over which questions of identity and democracy are to be fought. In this contestation, it is easy to see and criticize the Hindutva brigade’s attempt to forge ‘pure’ and culturally unalloyed communities and their defiance of what are basic rights. But, what is easily bypassed and which is more difficult to gauge are the reactions of the middle classes.
What can easily be read as popular resistance (the pink chaddi campaign and the defiant parades on Valentine’s Day) to the growing fundamentalism are only cases of the middle classes’s narrow definition of democracy and freedom. While they took the stage in rallying against such draconian prohibition of ‘love’, they continue to overlook the multiple other ways in which democracy, at its base, of public participation, accountability, engagement and a broader concern for all religious minorities and the working classes, is being eroded.
Despite reports of frequent violation of the rights of farmers and the working poor (as in the firing during rallies by farmers, the demolition of the homes of slum residents in Bangalore, the suicides by farmers and young women garment workers), the continued hold of the ‘mining mafia’, the burning down of churches, and the growing strength and presence of Hindu religious organizations (such as the mutths) in the state, the middle class and the range of civil society groups have largely turned a blind eye. Silence and indifference towards these issues mark most of the social groups. Barring the new surge to engage in the ‘development’ and ‘planning’ of the city, there are no composite groups that seek to reclaim democracy or challenge its erosion by the growing Sangh Parivar.
Love and contestation over its expressions and its associated freedom for youth, especially for the middle and upper classes, has become a platform for a limited reaction against growing Hindutva. This and the continued oversight of the more entrenched and pervasive violations of democratic structures and processes are telling comments on the state of civil society and its relationship to democracy in Karnataka. A fragmented society, with increasingly varied and hierarchical socio-economic structures, faces no singular issue as a common problem or challenge. Amidst this growing fragmentation and the inability of civil society groups to address the depletion of democratic processes and the erosion of even established forms of shared sociality, ‘love’ has become both a symbolic and real source of contestation.
14 February 2010 – Valentine’s Day: No major demonstrations take place and the managements of pubs, theatres, multiplexes, malls and other youth hangouts in the city, place extra security. The Sri Ram Sene issues another warning against public display of love. The now famous pink chaddi campaign is nowhere to be seen or heard. A few couples deliberately place themselves in public parks and a young couple, who has defied their parents, deliberately allow the vigilante groups to conduct an on-the-spot marriage ceremony for them.