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Down Town to Kiss of Love: Problems of ‘Public’ Reasoning

Down Town to Kiss of Love: Problems of ‘Public’ Reasoning

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Ajith Kumar A S & K Ashraf

Certain debates are constructed around the deceptive dialectics of progressive versus retrograde. The scheme of either/or motivates us to fall in line on the point of saying either an unequivocal yes or a categorical no. Fissures in the society and politics are sometimes rendered invisible through such a contrived dialectics. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign held in the year 2011 and widely celebrated in the media is a case in point. Anathema against corruption slaps on our shoulder the ‘responsibility’ of an ethical position in support of the campaign, entitling us, by not jumping on the bandwagon or keeping a sceptical distance, the tag of corruption-tolerant. The campaign was trumpeted around as a phenomenon to be supported sans political divides. Gandhians and leftists joined the campaign without criticism, tripping over the question as to who can keep away from an agitation against corruption.

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Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) activists attack Down Town cafe in Calicut

Almost everyone turned a deaf ear to the critiques against the campaign, especially from the Dalit-Bahujan front. Later what immunized the Left parties against the campaign were not its political problems; rather Hazare’s Sangh Parivar links. A similar effect has been created by the Kiss of Love campaign. Who can oppose kissing, love and display of affection? Who can’t help agitating against such a grave social problem as moralist policing? How can we approach the civic discourses around such campaign beyond the simplistic dialectic of either/or? Are there no other avenues open to take a perspective on the campaign? It is critical that the campaign obliterates many political issues surrounding the attack of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP, against Down Town, a coffee shop in Calicut. Beyond those, this article tries to tease out different political discourses about the Kiss of Love campaign or such a form of agitation.

Public Space: The crisis of imagination

Discourses advanced by the Kiss of Love campaigners are tied around the issue of freedom in the public space. Such discourses take for granted definitions of the public space. It’s critical, therefore, to put in perspective the meanings generated of the public space.

There is such a transition in the social mores as to problematize the private/public divide. Public spaces are deplorably small nowadays owing to the surveillance cameras and security professionals installed in parks and shopping malls and the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones (with its cameras). Public spaces are said to have limited privacy. Does not the kiss of love campaign demand the same seen from another perspective? The campaign demands a private space in the public sphere where none else should intervene in the freedom of two or more people. The loss of privacy has been posed as a vital socio-political issue in the online space as well as in the context of identification measures taken by the state through such measures as Aadhaar. Do the campaigners signify that there should be the same freedom in the public space that we enjoy in the private space, or that; in other words, public space should be rendered as nothing but an extension of the private space?

It is true that the discourses advanced by the Kiss of Love are centred on the dialectics of individual freedom in the public and private spheres. But is that of the same relevance as the issue of social groups mobilized around religious, caste and communal identities defining and categorizing the public and private spheres? Are there not differences in the status and stature of public spaces and the public as regards social dignity? For example, shopping malls, pubs and five star hotels are categorized as exclusive spaces, where the elite classes socialize without sacrificing their familial and social statuses. They are nothing other than their private spheres. But spaces like fish market, where subaltern groups mostly gather and which different social groups consider as a predominant public space for social interaction (hence more ‘public’) are not reckoned as having the social dignity.

Public space is more an interpretive space than a pre-given space. It is no longer an issue-free space but something determined and divided along the lines of caste/religion/community and colur and the power relations maintained in and between these groups. These spaces are defined through the processes of inclusion and exclusion. It is such a space where everyone is conditioned in one way or other. Therefore, public and private spaces can’t be spoken of without problematizing the conditions and the processes of inclusion and exclusion.

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After the attack

It is also problematic to consider the public space as a space for unconditional ‘freedom’. Public spaces are so constructed and maintained through several controlled mechanisms. As the public space is implicit in the construct of nation state, it is conditioned upon state surveillance, modern secular regulations and controls. State permission or legitimacy predetermines the expressions of body in the public space. While speaking for liberation, everyone engages in the public space through negotiations within the control of the state. In other words, liberal bodies who foreground liberation seek to express it in the very space constrained by the technologies of power, including the state.

So, can’t non-liberal bodies express bodily negotiations in different control mechanisms? Are there not spaces for non-liberal negotiations regarding bodies? By thinking about exclusion problems that public spaces carry become starkly clear. The stance taken by the Kerala police of chasing out migrant labourers (from north/north eastern regions of India) from Gandhi Park, a public park in Thiruvananthapuram and foreclosing the space to them was justified as an action meant for safeguarding public space. Though the question of who is being safeguarded against whom is relevant, the control and maintenance of public space is generally supposed to be the tasks of the state.

Exclusion is a major problem in defining public space. Though gender is a category we seriously think about in connection with the issue of exclusion, we tend not to take into consideration the categories of religion, caste, community and colour. Sexual attacks against women in the public space have clearly explained the nature of encumbrance in the public space. But how open is the public space for religious and linguistic minorities, migrant labourers, beggars, the poor, Dalits and Adivasis? How do they imagine and experience the public space?

Closely related to the issue is the way each community defines and divides the public and private spaces. Studies on clothing say that dress has become a problematic space delimiting the boundary of the private and public. The privacy of body is defined by dress. Religious dresses play the dual roles of signifying identity on the one hand and of defining the theological division of the public and private on the other hand.

Whether temporal differences and change of meaning in different times influence our imagination of public space is a question worth pondering over. Public spaces are imagined in diverse ways in different times. Historically speaking, public placeshave had different cultural connotations. At a time when the public roads were foreclosed to the untouchable castes, how could they be termed the public space? Can spaces delimited by the mechanism of caste be called public? Later public spaces came to be redefined through anti-caste struggles, subaltern politics and the possibilities brought open by the colonial modernity. Cinema, political movements and public schools give space to communities beyond the bounds set bythem. Upper caste assumptions viewed public space as a troubled, contaminated space rendered untouchable by the lower class presence. When did such a space become a moral space?

Are bodily expressions homogenous in the public space? Elite castes/social groups don’t consider street as a safe space. It is still a ‘lower’ space, inhabited by the ‘others’ such as drunkards, prostitutes, thieves, manhandles, smugglers and migrant labourers. When the debates about Delhi rape were hogging the headlines, the accusing fingers were pointed at the migrant labourers hailing from Bihar and other rural spaces. Almost always, those who are suspected of morality policing are culturally “lower” sections of people including auto drivers and coolies. Males from elite classes are not arrested, imprisoned and subjected to media trail. Why are males belonging to the subaltern groups being implicated on the question of morality policing? Why are subaltern males being imagined as encumbering free sexual lives? Is not the word morality policing insufficient to tease out the problems?

Does policing maintain social mores?

Are social mores and discourses of a time maintained by external policing? Are not social mores and regulations entwined in the complex web of religious and secular ethos such as family values, concepts of personal morality, state regulations, modernity, discourses on sexuality, religious and caste discourses etc.? Rules and constraints work through internal more than external censures. Morality in other words exists in everyone in diverse ways. There are submissions, ruptures and negotiations in it. For example family morality in Kerala exists through disruptions and negotiations. Family discourses are inextricably intertwined with the concepts of illegitimacy, adultery and incest. Other cases in point are the censor board which determines the normal/decent and ‘obscene’ in cinema and the political morality respected and celebrated by the media. For example the reason why the sexual ‘transgressions’ of political figures become a staple of news, is the morality consciousness internalised by the media. There should be studies on the internal, self-regulated, if invisible internal policing inside modern, secular institutions. Following are some features of the moral imaginations in modern societies.

1. People in modern societies try to erase the blemishes of internally maintained morals in diverse areas of life by inflicting it upon an external /vigilante group. The same holds true about the definition of modernity. Modernity defines itself against savages and conservatives. Those who oppose violence in the name of morality do it by tagging religious groups and conservatives with the violence. The problem comes out of a skewed notion of policing as being external. Thereby, they could place themselves outside the discourses of policing and imagine themselves as the reformed ones.

2. ‘Pre-modern’ elements such as religion and caste are imagined by the liberal modern self as impediments on progress. Caste, religion, lives based on them, determinations motivated by them, power centred on them, struggles inspired by them are not understood to be part of modern living and modern self. Progress is as an antonym of religion. Whether religion is compatible with democracy and modernity is a question that is posed against religious communities by the ‘modern’. Modernity can get away from its dilemmas by slapping them on religion.

3. just as we behave in the public space under self-regulations through internal policing, we are hardly concerned about policing in the form of police officers and surveillance cameras in the public space including parks. Teens are often handpicked by the police from public spaces. Under the diatribe against religion, these regulations in the name of morality are camouflaged.

4. the way modern Kerala life predominantly defined by the Leftist morality is represented in debates on morality gives us enough possibilities to tease out the problem of internal policing. The mention of sexual life of erstwhile Communist leaders during the time of underground political activism caused DYFI activists to manhandle writer Paul Zacharia. There was not a movement or protest against the vandalism. This might be because religion was not implicated in the act. In the year 2008, during a state public meeting of CPM, party state secretary Pinaryi Vijayan exhorted his party members to behave themselves as it was not ‘UshaUthup’s music program’ . The left moral ethos against UshaUthup’s music also had worked in West Bengal where her events were banned in government institutions by CPI minister Jatin chakroborty in 1983 . The hegemony of morality established by SFI in Kerala campus is to be understood in this context. But such a policing can be seen escaping from criticism under its secular label. Morality using the excuse of secularism should be separately discussed.

Secular procedures regarding morality and Religion

The ‘Return’ of religion: Secular morality gets away from censure by incriminating the return of religion for the same. The elevated morality and enlightenment of secularism is maintained through the process of displacement of the problems of secular power into the sphere of religion. The social common sense has it that religion is a unalterable, and freezed in its essence while secularism is free from all pitfalls so much that if the secular appears to exhibit some of its problems , it is interpreted as being either a deviation to religion or an failure in its nature. For example, in the cartoon of a newspaper about the Kiss of Love, the police officer who appears to discipline the protesters transfigures into a saffron activist. Does it not mean that the police could take action against the protesters by ceasing to be secular? We have also ceased to reflect that violence and discrimination were possible from a secular framework. For example, among those who protested Kiss of Love agitation, there were movements like KSU and it was the UDF government which forcibly suppressed the agitation. However, the commonplace conclusion was that those who raised any criticism against the agitation were all fundamentalists and are ‘two sides of the same coin’. In many discussions on the issue, KSU’s stance was construed as a deviation to religion from the secular, nationalist politics. Another problem is the sublimation by the secular logic of Sangh Parivar (the saffron brigade) to a mere moral police force, thereby letting them off the hook of more dangerous crimes it orchestrated like genocide.

Religion as a target of secular allegation: Religion appears in secular discourses as a space to shower its allegations of its own problems down (violence, oppression, denial of diversity, control over body and sexuality etc). Secularism ontologically defines itself by generating such a difference from religion. Secularism is maintained as a specific power centre by so cunningly ‘keeping away’ from its own problems.

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The secular concern about the unison of religious behaviours: that Religions behave in the same manner through the denial of love; majoritarian and minoritarian forms of religion work in the same manner; all religions ultimately attack secular/leftist public sphere; religions retract the hallowed enlightenment values in Kerala and that Religious movements unleash onslaught against the civic society. These are the stereotypical secular critiques of religion. Not only is religion essentialized as being the opposite of the secular; but any different deliberation about religion is precluded. The anti-democratic assumption about religions as their being the birds of a feather has been uncritically accepted. Moreover, Kiss of Love has been construed as a secular movement which could expose the ‘true colours’ of religions. Sangh parivar is merely understood as a family of ‘religious’ organization through this discourse.

Secularism as a negative definition of religion: Secular can’t exist without defining and discoursing on religion according to its needs. The tactics is to essentialize religion as its diametric opposite. As many post-secular observations hold, modern secular discourses do not characteristically stand on an artificial division between secular and religion, but as a power centre which maintains religion in relation to the secular.

Where religion transfigures as Islam: As pointed out by many scholars religion is translated into Islam in the nationalistic, secular public discourses in India. In other words, as far as secular discourses are concerned, Islam is easily tagged as conservative. Common sense has it that the Hindu society has become modern and secular. Public discourses on Kiss of Love bear the same assumption. It is also held in this context that the Hindu society has been a sexually liberal and has become rigidly closed and conservative owing to the influences of Semitic faiths including Islam. Hindu moral values are imagined not to contravene the secular values. But Islam bears the burden of immutability, conservatism and incapacity of being modern and secular

The way the Muslim appears in Kiss of Love debates

When the DownTown coffee shop in Calicut was attacked, there were discussions about it being a Muslim issue as the shop was run by Muslims. But such a response was quickly dismissed as unwarranted and communal. When a counter argument was raised that a Muslim firm was attacked under the guise of safeguarding morality, the possibility of an anti-muslim angle was opposed downright. The YuvaMorcha raid was construed as an incident in the chain of the moral policing incidents in the state. The agitation was hoisted on the pedestal of an assumption that raising the Muslim angle of the issue would lead to communal conflagration.

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Kiss of Love campaigners kissing during a TV debate

We understand the raid as a part of conspiracies against Muslim cultural and commercial firms, cultural prejudices as in the assumption about intellectual Jihad, and state interventions like raiding. Prejudices against not only eateries, but publishing houses, research houses, media institutions, political and economic institutions, intellectuals, writers, translators, researchers and publishers have become visible in Calicut as everywhere. Yuvamorcha raid has to be seriously seen as a Sangh Parivar onslaught beyond an immediate social and cultural deviation. Public debates and the public sphere have erased certain events like the raid from its memory. The way public sphere remembers and includes Muslim is relevant in this context.

Quite different from the issue, but related closely to it, despite being kept secret, was the attack of the Sangh Parivar brigade of a student’s hostel under the control of a Muslim student’s organisation located at Eranjippalam near Calicut. The inmates were threatened on the point of dagger at the broad daylight. The hostel was asked to be closed down and the non-Muslim inmates were threatened to leave the space. When the office-bearers were asked why they did not approach the police and register complaint, they remarked that such a move would lead to further attacks from the outfit or to the smooth functioning of the institution. They also fear the public anathema against Muslim organisations raising complaint against the Sangh Parivar. The problem has two dimensions. The first is related to the way the state, hegemonic cultural politics and Sangh Parivar deal with Muslims-the way external policing works in the issue. The second dimension is the internal censoring of Muslim organisations through the assumption that raising the complaint against the Sangh Parivar outfit would lead to problems. So problems are repressed as community secrets from the public sphere. The secret spaces of othered communities signify the crisis of simplistic imagination of the public/private divisions.

The hegemonic discourses which erased the Muslim or ‘communal’ angle from the Down Town attack brought the same to the forefront after the first episode of the Kiss of Love campaign at Eranakulam. Here, the ‘rioting/conservative’ and ‘moralistic Muslims’ came to be at the centre stage. When the Muslim angle was concealed during the attack, the Muslim angle came to be one of the main the focus during the kiss of love campaign. This is why morality is being reduced to a religious (Muslim) problem. An anti-Muslim discourse was created in such a way as to obliterate the role of Sangh Parivar. During a discussion on the Down Town attack, MB Rajesh MP, a DYFI leader, described the Sangh Parivar attack as Talibanism. The word, adopted as a jargon in the secular politics, connotes Muslim in such a way as to signify Muslim as moral police thereby matching Sangh Parivar with Muslim.

 After the Ernakulum episode the two-sides-of-a-same-coin theory was adopted to club the Muslims organisations and the Sangh Parivar together. It was said that though Sangh Parivar was understood to be deviant, the true colours of Muslim organisations were exposed. Wolf in sheep’s clothing is a metaphor used against Muslim organisations. Through this differences in the Muslim politics and the defence it sets were tried to be erased. Secular discourses consider Muslim organisations as having a hidden agenda to be exposed in certain contexts. This is a far cry from a creative and critical intervention in the Muslim politics. The emergence of new political movements among Muslims came to be obliterated. The new political awakening in the aftermath of Mandal and Babari phase was thus rejected downright. By clubbing the ‘majoritarian’ and ‘minoritarian’ ‘communalism’ together, the secular consciousness justified the Sangh Parivar assumptions about ‘Muslim communalism’. (GyanendraPandey’s observations about the category communalism are remarkable in this context). In short, the Muslim attitude towards Kiss of Love was considered to be a litmus test of the Muslims’ adaptability to secular ethos.

 The (im)possibility of a homogenous moral value

 Kiss of love brings to fore the symbols of universal love. This is being put forward as an universal standard which everyone has to achieve. Some of us still harbour a mythical sexual freedom in the west to be emulated and achieved by the ‘non-western’ world. The liberal ‘West’ is thus imagined as a progressive space and a liberated zone that is the ultimate for someone thinking about sexuality or love . Need everyone share this imagination and harbour the myth. (Also the new social situation which imagines body as an open space for attraction and as being part of liberal political right contradictorily situates it in the boundary of capitalist market, as new studies on body and power in western societies show).

 Those who sublimate love don’t consider the complexities created by the social elements like caste in love and marriage. They are hardly concerned about the problem of seeing love outside everything social life and transcending barriers including caste. They don’t advance any struggle which shake the caste-ridden family mores constructed around endogamy. In the context of Kiss of Love campaign it was said that it contravenes ‘modern untouchability’. ‘Untouchability’ is meant here as the moralist restriction of gendered bodies to touch each other, sit together or make friendships . but if we try to understand ‘Untouchability’, is not just a problem of touch; it is a whole set of discourses and structural discrimination based on caste. When the term ‘untouchability’ is used as part of an hollow rhetoric separating it from history of untouchability as a caste practice the presence of untouchability in the modern sphere is rendered invisible as if ‘untochability’ in the ‘past’ based on caste has been replaced by untouchability based on gender. This is part of the liberal understanding of caste as something of the past.

 Does Kiss of Love bear assumptions of being a civilizing mission to de adopted by everyone? Do those who vigorously protest external controls on morality bring in its wake its own moral codes? Without enunciation, a universal code applicable to all is brought to fore and enforced. Though liberal politics claims to have respect for all choices, it reserves its judgement against certain choices (wearing purdah, reluctance to kiss in public and keeping beard etc).

 Is it necessary that everyone should follow a universal moral code? Is it possible that different communities could believe in different moral codes?(This difference is hardly homogeneous)? What is the commonly accepted moral pattern? Is it possible for someone to follow a moral value inside or outside faith? Can’t someone have reservations about the open expression of body espoused by the kiss of love cause and think of body In a different way, like not just a space to liberate but to negotiate different power structures? To enforce morality on others becomes as undemocratic as to prescribe a common morality for others and classify them either progression or retrograde on that basis.

 The engagement of people with the politics of the body and the lived experience of the body in relation to the domains of religion, community, and nationality is more complicated than it is viewed from the athouratative secular logic. There is difference in Islam between Sunnis and Shias about the expression of body as part of religious power. Shias are not opposed to inflicting pain on their own body and consider it as a religious ritual. Sunnis have problems in the self-infliction of harm on human body. The modern Liberal/capitalist economy defines controls and delimits human body through the concepts such as citizen’s law. For example, though suicide is rendered as illegal as a liberal choice to end oneself in many nation states, killing in the forms such as state sponsored encounters; law, justice and safety are sanctioned.

 It is wrong to insist that everyone should follow the tract paved by the progressives. Are the Kiss of Love activists willing to listen to others? The reservation posed by the black feminists about the slutwalk agitation is remarkable in this context. A letter jointly signed by black feminists said “We are deeply concerned. As Black women and girls we find no space in SlutWalk, no space for participation and to unequivocally denounce rape and sexual assault as we have experienced it.” And they demanded the slutwalk organizers to “take critical steps to become cognizant of the histories of people of color and engage women of color in ways that respect culture, language and context.”(see- Can the progressive movements be reluctant not to tolerate questions posed on it, predetermining that they are essentially wrong? If they are willing to accept differences, why do they not consider that there is a different moral consciousness in the society? Why do they accept their standpoint as unquestionable standards? The question whether a form of agitation should be give access and possibilities to other and marginalised communities is the one worth pondering over.



Ajith Kumar A S is a Dalit musician, writer and filmmaker based in Trivandrum.

K Ashraf is an MA candidate in department of religion studies in university of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Pictures courtesy: the internet.


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