The Politics of PDA in India

On October 23, about 20 activists whom police said belonged to the youth wing of India’s ruling, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) barged into a cafe in Kozhikode, a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The men smashed windows, overturned chairs, and destroyed a television. The cafe, in their view, was facilitating “immoral activities”: specifically, couples holding hands and kissing.

India’s “moral police”—informal neighborhood groups that enforce fundamentalist Hindu views by, for example, beating up couples engaging in public displays of affection—are nothing new. But what was striking about the vandalism in late October was that the nationalists who ransacked the place were young, in the same age group as the patrons they were taunting for their PDA.

And young Indians have been divided in their response to the incident. The attack, which was caught on film, brought urban students across the country into the streets to stage what have been dubbed “Kiss of Love” protests. Demonstrators have gathered to openly kiss, caress, hug, and otherwise show affection from the city of Kochi in the south to New Delhi in the north, with the explicit aim of challenging the “moral police.” At the same time, student organizations across the political spectrum have spoken out against the protests as contrary to Indian values, and counter-protesters have shouted slogans against Western influence as embodied, for example, in public displays of affection.

The splits within India’s youth are emblematic of broader cultural tensions in India—ones that have in some respects become more prominent with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, who captured a large proportion of the youth vote in India’s elections last May. “India has moved considerably in terms of its social attitudes over the past 20 to 25 years, particularly since economic liberalization took place,” conservative political commentator Swapan Dasgupta told the BBC last week. “And while public displays of affection are far more pronounced today than they were some time ago, I think the mores which operate, say, in Amsterdam or perhaps in parts of central London might not strictly be applicable in India.” (Ironically, as Atish Patel of The Wall Street Journal has pointed out, anthropological evidence suggests India may have been the real birthplace of the potentially misnamed French kiss.)

Still, the taboo against kissing persists in some segments of Indian society. Section 294 of the Indian penal code outlaws “any obscene act in any public place,” a provision some have argued prohibits kissing in public, though Indian courts tend to disagree. Until relatively recently, Bollywood movies would not show couples kissing; instead, shots would jump from couples about to smooch to fluttering birds tipping their beaks toward each other or roses waving in the wind. Among adherents of Hindutva, a conservative ideology that equates Indian identity with Hindu values, kissing in public is anti-Hinduand therefore, as one conservative former minister said on numerous occasions well before the current protests started, “Public kissing is just not Indian.”

But the Kiss of Love protests, and the opposition to them, make clear that the taboo against public displays of affection is not reserved for older generations that grew up before India’s 1990s-era economic liberalization. The result of this liberalization, according to the writer Akash Kapur, has been the “Americanization” of India—a trend that is visible in India’s cities, where people brandish the latest smartphones and young women wear shorts and T-shirts like Western college students.

The kissing controversy is just one example of young people’s complicated attitudes on the role of traditional values in modern India. A Hindustan Times survey of more than 5,000 18- to 25-year-olds in 15 major cities, whose results were released this summer, showed that 60 percent prayed regularly, and that less than 40 percent of men thought they should help women with housework. Only 4 percent of respondents said they would marry someone their parents objected to. And when it came to sexual norms specifically, 61 percent of those surveyed said premarital sex was no longer a big issue—but 63 percent said they expected their spouses to be virgins.