Free Love Protesters in Delhi Spent Valentine’s Day Being Chucked in Police Vans
The rally – in honour of same-sex, inter-caste and inter-faith marriages – was shut down almost immediately by local police.
In India, Valentine's Day is an annual opportunity for fervent right-leaning religious groups to try to harangue young couples into marriage. Couples are often punished for kissing in public out-of-wedlock, or confronted with the threat of forced conversion ceremonies if they dare to start an inter-faith union.
This year, a far-right political party notorious for their crusades against "modern romance", the Hindu Mahasabha, announced they had big plans for the "Western holiday". Their intention was to ensure that the institution of marriage was at the forefront of the minds of these young debauchees, whose public displays of affection they interpret as a disregard for Indian tradition.
However, not intent on merely policing the streets, the Hindu Mahasabha's National President, Chandra Prakash Kaushik, told the Times of India, "anyone found displaying love on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp will be caught hold of. A total of eight teams have already been formed in Delhi to keep a check on social media."
Also speaking to the Times of India, a representative of the Hindu Mahasabha from Agra said that the organisation would, on this occasion, be happy to marry inter-faith couples, so long as the ceremony was preceded by a shuddhikaran, which can be understood as a purification process seeking to cleanse people of their non-Hindu religious beliefs.
But some young Indians were determined not to take this lying down. In reaction to the Hindu Mahasabha's statements, they planned a protest outside the group's Delhi offices, aiming to celebrate the kinds of love that conservative India doesn't readily accept: same-sex marriages, inter-caste couples and inter-faith unions.
In the lead up to the event, one of the organisers, who would only speak to me pseudonymously as "Laxmi Bai", explained that the event was spearheaded by a group of activists and student groups. They wanted to show that they were not going to let the Hindu Mahasabha's threats go unchallenged and that they rejected the group's self-proclaimed status as guardians of Indian culture.
"The thing is, this protest is not about celebrating Valentine's Day," argued Laxmi. "No one thinks that is important. It is about a larger politics of fighting back against right-wing assertion. 'Westernisation' in particular is a bogus and vague term that they use in their arguments. What's the difference between these cultures [Western and Hindu] that have historically merged, anyway?"
It greatly frustrates protesters like Laxmi that these declarations from religious groups are no longer reserved for Valentine's Day, but have become part of everyday life. "They come up with something new every day. 'Women should not wear jeans to college'; 'Women should have a certain number of babies...' And if you look in the papers you will see stories of lower caste girls or boys murdered just for loving a member of an upper caste. Sometimes these stories come from Delhi, and incidents from the fringes of the country won't even reach the media."
In other words, while the far-right religious love-haters might be real, their presence and power remains relatively unappreciated by many in what is a supposedly democratic nation. Not that the organisation is so powerful it's totally beyond ridicule. "There was already quite a humorous response on Facebook and Twitter to the Hindu Mahasabha's announcements," Laxmi explained, referring to the video below. "So we thought, 'Why not try and build on this energy?'"
Further momentum has come from the "Kiss of Love" protest, a display of mass public kissing that started in Kerala last November before spreading to other parts of India. Ishan Anand, secretary of the Democratic Students Federation, maintains that the need for a resistance movement is serious: "Hindu Mahasabha might sound funny and ridiculous, but they are a political force and they do run political campaigns. They have a vision of India as a Hindu state."
At Saturday's protest, groups of students arrived in wedding saris and colourful dress with homemade placards. Some chanted energetically and others played music in keeping with the "mass wedding" theme.
One by one, however, they were grabbed up by police and led straight into vans ready to take them to the local police station.
Several witnesses testified that the way in which the police dispersed the protest was worryingly "systematic". Protesters who did not readily comply were grabbed by their limbs and hauled into the vans by force.
"Some had barely lifted their banners in the air and they were already being led off. It all happened in just a matter of seconds," one bystander explained.
Rafioun, an English Literature student at the University of Delhi who attended the protest, was not impressed: "The government is always quick to throttle free speech. You have this flawed and bigoted notion of Indian culture [from the Hindu Mahasabha], and everything that they consider wrong is blamed on the West. Homosexuality is a Western import; this is what they believe. But they don't realise that for a long time within this culture we have had Kama Sutra and we still have Khajuraho temples that show man and man, and man and woman, and woman and woman making love to each other.
"This protest is not just about Hindu Mahasabha but challenging this whole idea of what love is," he continued.
As Saturday's event drew to a close, many protesters complained that the demo had come under much more intense police pressure than previous protests held by the Hindu Mahasabha. As one man called out to a police officer at the scene, "When the Hindu groups are burning effigies, you're not this quick to react!"
The reply offered was simple: "I am not comparing anyone with anybody, I am doing my job."
Later, through the bars of a police van, Rafioun called out, "We have been forcefully evicted! We are here to show we have a right to love everybody and anybody we want to love! This is a democratic country and we have a right to free speech."
Ishan from the DSF conceded that, while the actions of the Delhi police force were frustrating, they were not all that surprising. "Section 144, which prohibits an assembly, was imposed as soon as the protest began. The students were detained and taken to the police station. The police kept around 250 students in custody for about five hours."
However, Ishan came away from the event in high spirits. "The right-wing forces have been polarising the country along religious lines and campaigning vociferously on issues like love-jihad, and against same-sex relationships, as well as indulging in moral policing. In this context, it was heartening to see students resisting the diktat of these forces and hitting the streets."
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