Do you remember the FIR filed against All India Bakchod in 2015 for their satirical roast? Well … you can be charged under the same law for kissing another individual in a public place.
Public Display of Affection is deemed a criminal offence under Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code. If proven, it can lead to imprisonment of up to three months or a fine, or both. Section 294 of the IPC criminalises “obscene” acts but what is considered obscene, is a vague valuation of what causes “annoyance to others.” Sexuality is taboo in our context, and expressions of it publicly or even in the home setting outside the bedroom, especially by those who are not in ‘legitimate’ relationships ‘alarm the modesty’ and are generally considered anti-culture or simply categorised as Western concepts.
Similar to the arguments listed out against supposedly ‘obscene’ pieces of literature, PDA is derided for ‘corrupting Indian values’. PDA cases rarely reach higher courts and simple acts such as holding hands or hugging are not charged as an offence. But before these cases can reach courts, local goons, police authorities or even ‘well-meaning’ bystanders exercise justice as per their own moral compass. They shame couples who display affection in public, or worse, beat and/or harass them. The job of a police officer is to implement the law, not act as a moral watchdog. A young man and woman’s sitting together on the beachfront or in a park violates no provision of the law. However, they may still be a target of threats such as “Should I call your parents?” or “Do you run a sex racket?” and unfortunately for women, “Tomorrow, don’t come running to us crying rape.”
Sometimes one finds young couples from less privileged backgrounds kissing each other behind bushes and trees in public parks because they don’t have a room or private space to meet in and I myself have been guilty of experiencing a feeling of discomfort at seeing this. It’s imperative to examine from where that feeling of discomfort originates from. What’s criminal about an expression of love or of desire? The root cause is the bias, prejudice and taboo associated with expressions of sexuality. We have have been conditioned to believe that sex is acceptable only in a certain way, between persons of certain genders who are in certain relationships. For many people, the ‘A’ in PDA equates any act of affection or romantic love with a sexual act. Hugging or holding hands isn’t always a display of sexual ‘affection’. Friends and siblings hold hands too! The Supreme Court of India, in the case of S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal & Anr held, “obscenity should be gauged with respect to contemporary community standards that reflect the sensibilities as well as the tolerance level of an average reasonable person.” This, like any other definition of ‘obscenity’ is subjective and contextual. Holding hands may be considered obscene in a small town and be acceptable in a metropolitan city. The slippery slope gives those in power an opportunity to bend the definition according to their convenience.
Recent criticism around the Netflix series Indian Matchmaking has made it clear (and alarmingly so!) that in the Indian context, the choice of who you love, date and have sex with is dictated by multiple social and cultural factors. Another reason for the moral stance against PDA is that when people choose their own sexual partners they may breach social barriers. Paromita Vohra’s 2007 documentary Morality TV & The Loving Jehad: Ek Manohar Kahani delves deep into the dangerous tones ‘romantic love’ can take in the Indian context. Love Jihad has become a well-known crusade against interfaith couples and honour killings are prevalent enough to be the subject of popular Bollywood movies such as Ishaqzaade and Dhadak. Films romanticise the notion of love that breaks barriers with references to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the nobility of loving beyond caste and class identities.
But, in reality, the obscenity lens is heavily influenced by patriarchal and Brahmanical superiority. Sex, love, and desire can only be accepted when expressed with the aim of producing heirs with the same social identity as the dominant community. Here, the female body’s sole purpose is reproduction. Your personal “love” or choice in holding the hand of your partner topples this system. Nivedita Menon in her book Seeing Like a Feminist (Zubaan-Penguin, 2012), talks about the subversive potential of love and how the “us” vs. “them” divide is maintained by controlling which bodies can engage with each other. In the Indian context, sex is accepted only when it’s practised after the wedding vows. Your body’s sexual desires are acknowledged only when the purpose is reproduction, not pleasure. And, so certain bodies can only meet in parks and beaches, and try and a find a private space in the public.
Even for people who can afford to “get a room,” the reality is somewhat bleak. My young adult friends and I met before the pandemic, and as usual our banter revolved around a few common topics: aspiration, ambition, existential dread, and love lives. A few of us still live with our families and some of us are locked in restrictive housing societies. How do you live out your roaring 20s when all the roaring is done hush-hush and behind closed doors? Online hotel booking and dating apps do help. But then there too, the question of safety quickly takes precedence. Everyday incidents of aggression against women have become a part of the news cycle. For a woman then, there are extra steps of caution she has to exercise before choosing a sexual partner or a new surrounding.
The population size of India and our family-centric culture ensures that the divide between public and private isn’t as clearly demarcated as it is in the West. A large part of the population survives in cramped spaces with ever-growing families. Is your living room a public place? What about the housing society’s staircase? Shouldn’t the discourse move towards finding safer, sexuality-affirming alternatives?
In the field of economic development, India constantly looks towards the West. But economic or technological progress hasn’t directly translated into progressive thought. Biases and prejudices are still prevalent in our ‘progressive’ big cities. Every year, news headlines around Valentine’s Day flash names of groups threatening couples and burning greeting cards in the name of preserving their narrow definition of ‘Indian culture’. In 2014, The ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign gained momentum all over India. The movement was a non-violent protest against moral policing that started out as a Facebook page. It began after a mob vandalised Downtown Cafe, coffee shop in North Kerala’s Kozhikode. The mob violence was prompted by an exclusive report telecast on Jaihind TV, a Malayalam news channel alleging ‘immoral activity’ in the coffee shop.
For a country with the second highest population in the world, it is farcical that a kiss can create such an uproar. The law’s slippery definition of obscenity bestows the responsibility of its interpretation in the hands of those in power. Law here doesn’t uphold the image of objectivity; instead it quickly slips down to regressive moral policing. This, in turn, restricts sexual agency and autonomy over one’s body, sexuality, and identity.
Cover Image: Unsplash