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Something Rotten in Kerala

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The 'moral police' are a serious assault on the freedom of expression in the state

In 2014, Kerala witnessed a unique mode of protest ‘Kiss of Love’ (KoL). It was a response to the moral brigands of the Yuva Morcha (the youth wing of BJP) who roughed up boys and girls sitting together in a restaurant in Kozhikode. The protest that started in Marine Drive, Kochi, spread to other states and similar protests were carried out in Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad. Despite such moves, the incidents of moral policing are only on the rise in Kerala.

Some body’s love has become every body’s business in Kerala. Public expression of love is unpardonable whereas that of hate is not. A husband beating his wife may be counted as a ‘private affair’ between them, but a husband holding his wife’s hands in public is a questionable act. If a woman raises her voice against someone molesting her in a bus, she may not receive support from the co- passengers, and might even be shamed. On the contrary, a lover putting his arm around the shoulder of his darling in a bus may prove fatal. Men can piss in public, but not kiss. One could call Kerala the state of paradoxes and hypocrisy.

The moral brigands, who think that they have a legitimate right over the privacy of others, often insult and shame couples. Recently, a boy who was subjected to moral policing committed suicide. Twenty-four-year-old Aneesh, who was harassed with his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day in Kollam, by a mob, hanged himself after a few days. His suicide note reveals that he was subject to constant harassment and threats by friends of the accused. His tragic death and the suicide note resulted in the arrest of the five miscreants who had ambushed Aneesh and his girlfriend. Even the suicide of a young boy had little impact on the self-styled champions of moralism. On International Women’s day, a team of Shiv Sena members went on a rampage on couples sitting at Marine Drive in Kochi. The girls and boys were beaten with canes and chased away. It was a planned attack, as information had been passed to the media in advance to ensure the presence of cameras. The police stood as mute spectators. They did nothing apart from requesting the goons not to create trouble. The government suspended the Sub Inspector who was on duty that day itself. Eight other cops were transferred to the Armed Reserve Camp.

The difference between the Kiss of Love protest of 2014 and 2017 was discernible. The 2017 protest was peaceful with fewer spectators. The number of KoL activists has doubled. The first KoL protest in 2014 took place amidst tension, and threats of violence by right-wing groups which declared that they would block it at any cost. The number of KoL activists was less than 50 whereas those who came to gawk and oppose was closer to 5,000. The police also attempted to block Kiss of Love instead of giving protection to a peaceful mode of protest. In 2014, the police arrested KoL activists well in advance and struggled to separate couples before they lip-locked. “The 2014 Kiss of Love protest had a huge shock value, now I think it has had an impact,” said Maya Krishnan who was part of both the protests.

On 9th March, the day after Shiv Sena’s vandalism, Marine Drive was flooded with protests. The police, this time, blocked Yuvamorcha protesters coming near the venue of Kiss of Love. The youth organisations of the Left and the Congress turned Marine Drive into a sea of protest. Yuva Samiti, the youth wing of Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad staged a street play against moral policing. An independent platform called People Against Fascism also joined hands with the protesters. Kalakakshi a group of Kochi-based artists displayed umbrellas painted with kissing lips. (The Shiv Sena alleged that couples were engaged in ‘obscene acts’ under umbrellas). The culmination of the day-long protest at Marine Drive was a performance by the folk rock band Orali. “We stand for love, not for hate. Here you can see a diverse range of people including sexual minorities. I think this is the fitting reply to the right-wing extremists who promote hate and divisions among people,” said Laser Shine, an activist and writer.

Though SFI and DYFI protested against the Shiv Sena, they also turned into the moral police themselves. In a recent incident in University College, Thiruvananthapuram, two girl students and their male friend were assaulted by SFI activists in the college on the allegation that they were seen in a ‘compromising position’ in the campus. The girl students were watching a play along with their male friend who was not a student of the college. The boy was questioned by the SFI activists for sitting near the girls. The girls also were manhandled and even molested by the male crowd. The boy was badly beaten up. Later, the SFI engaged in slut shaming campaign against the girls, alleging that three of them were caught in a compromising position.

Moral policing has become a serious menace infringing on the freedom of expression in Kerala. The parks, cinema halls, cafes and beaches have become the places where the self-styled champions of morality take law and order into their own hands. Couples are often questioned, insulted and attacked. In January 2017 a man was tied to a tree and beaten by a mob in Thrissur district, because he was allegedly seen in suspicious circumstances near the house of a woman. In November 2016, a BEd student from Kasaragod was assaulted by a gang of around 10 people for being seen with his women classmates in a restaurant. He was manhandled and later released with the warning not to be seen with girls any more. A few days later in Malappuram, an 18-year-old boy was stabbed by the relatives of his girlfriend when he tried to meet her ignoring their warnings.

In October 2016, a law student was subjected to the fury of a woman in public for wearing Jeans and short top. The law student confronted the woman and called the police. The woman finally apologised to her. Cyber-bullying of women in social media has become an everyday exercise in Kerala. Slut shaming, verbal abuse and rape threats are being used against women who refuse to align with the commonly accepted moral standards. There is no end to the stories of vandalism by the self-styled guards of morality both in the virtual and public spaces of Kerala. In November 2016, the National Institute of Technology issued a notice to a lady’s hostel that women should not be seen roaming around with boys after 7pm, and they could be expelled for not following this. This was later withdrawn when the students raised strong protest. Clearly such incidents are more rampant than we would dare admit.

There have been a couple of incidents in the last two months in which protectors have turned perpetrators. The ‘Pink Police’ is a wing of women cops which is supposed to provide support and help to women. On 22nd February, a team of Pink Police questioned a young couple seen sitting and talking in the museum compound in Thiruvananthapuram. The police threatened to arrest them if they were not married. The smart couple in return challenged their authority claiming that they are two consenting adults sitting in a public place. They went live on Facebook while they were engaged in a heated argument with the police. In the video it was clear that the cops were threatening the girl. Later they were taken into custody and were released only after the arrival of their parents. The Facebook footage has gone viral and there had been outrage against the high-handedness of the police. As a result the DGP ordered a probe.

On the other side, there is a steep rise in the number of sexual crimes against children. Two young siblings (11 and 9) were found dead in mysterious circumstances in a span of 52 days in Walayar Palakkad. In both the cases, the Police confirm rape. The elder girl was found hanging from the roof of her one-room house on January 13th.The nine-year-old was found dead in the same manner in the same place after 52 days. After the first death, the mother had told the police that a relative used to molest her daughter. The police paid little attention to her complaint and closed the file, ruling it as suicide. Even the autopsy report that suggested sexual assault was ignored by the police. It is reported that the younger child had witnessed her sister being raped. After the death of the younger one, the government suspended the concerned police officer who was in charge of the investigation of the first case. The relative who allegedly raped the girl was arrested.

Before getting over the shock of the rape and death of two children, the media came up with another story of the serial rape of seven minor girls in an orphanage. They were forcefully taken to a nearby shop by a gang, raped and filmed. The orphanage authorities did everything lawful as soon as they came to know about the horrifying experience of the girls. They informed the police and the Child Welfare Committee in no time and six persons were arrested and charged under the POCSO Act (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act).

According to the figures provided by the Crime Records Bureau, there is an increase of 400 per cent in the rate of crimes against children in a period of eight years (2008 to 2016). An average of four children is sexually abused in Kerala every day. Kerala’s high rank in the human development index is eclipsed by the crime rate and the oppression of women. In Kerala, the expression of love between two consenting adults invokes public fury, but not the rape and murder of women and children.