A recent clip of a young couple canoodling in Delhi Metro predictably went viral on social media. Their faces may not be properly visible but the very intimate act of kissing has sent tongues wagging because it is believed that public transport, where people of all age groups, including children, travel, is not the right place to shed inhibitions that can cause embarrassment to others. Driven by their basic instincts, most of these youngsters perhaps want to embrace the non-conformist aspects of human behaviour and desire. They perceive morality as subjective. The act purportedly becomes an assertion of their freedom. The clipping of the young couple has brought to the fore the simmering tension between conflicting values and individual desires. Perhaps, it is time we accept the fact that the culture of PDA (Public display of affection) is finally upon us.
Love-struck youngsters generally seek out deserted areas like garden, park or ancient monuments as places to indulge their passions away from prying eyes, but not anymore. The heart of the matter is today’s youngsters love letting it all hang out and have few, if any, inhibitions when it comes to physical intimacy in public places. They don’t consider kissing and hugging in public places as acts of obscenity.
In the last few months, Delhi Metro has been in the news for all the wrong reasons as videos of young couples indulging in romantic gestures have caused some raised eyebrows. This despite the fact that Delhi Metro authorities have categorically issued instructions not to indulge in such intimate behaviour inside the coach. Of late, Delhi Metro has become the stomping ground for the romantically inclined couples who do not mind cuddling and osculating each other. They don’t give a damn about what others think about such transgressive behaviour.
The question is, is kissing in public an obscene act? Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), states that “whoever, to the annoyance of others, a) does any obscene act in any public place, or b) sings, recites or utters any obscene songs, ballad or word, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.” However, the point to note is that the most critical element of this provision — obscenity — is not defined. Which clearly implies that whether or not a couple kissing in a public place, or in a Metro coach, is an “obscene act" is entirely a matter of interpretation. The word “obscenity” remains a millstone around our neck. Famous Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto was charged with obscenity six times, both in British and independent India. In 2020, actor and model Milind Soman was charged under Section 294 after he posted a picture of himself running naked on the beach to mark his 55th birthday.
After former Bollywood film actress Padmini Kolhapure kissed Prince Charles (on the cheek) when the latter came visiting Delhi in 1981, conservatives foamed at the mouth. But the actress stood her ground and said that she didn’t commit any crime. In 2007, Hollywood actor Richard Gere osculated Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS awareness campaign event. Before all hell could break loose, the Hollywood actor said that he wanted to spread awareness that kissing was a safe act that could not lead to the transmission of HIV.
In 2018, a young couple in Kolkata were detained by the police after they were caught kissing at a Metro station. This led to widespread furore among the college students. They even took to the streets to protest the high-handedness of the police who bullied and intimidated the young couple for kissing each other.
In the last two decades, moral policing in our country has tightened the noose around the neck of romantically inclined couples whose only fault lies in expressing love for each other and deviating from social conventions. From “love jihad” to Valentine’s Day vandalisms, to disruptions of art exhibitions and film shows, goons who claim to be custodians of Indian culture have indulged in hooliganism and criminal intimidation, aimed at stamping out from public view any and all displays of romantic love between free, private individuals. In 2014, when a group of youngsters in Kochi, Kerala, tried to protest moral policing, they were taken to the police station, and charged with “unlawful assembly” and “disturbing peace” in a public space. It is clear that there is no overarching framework against which moral judgments can be made.
Perhaps it won’t be wrong to say that the idea of obscenity is subjective and a matter of moral relativism, as moral principles are not universally applicable but rather subjective and dependent on individual perspectives.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist