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-Hindu—and 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 regarding the role of traditional values in modern India. A recent Hindustan Times survey of more than 5,000 18- to 25-year-olds in 15 major cities showed that 60% prayed regularly, and that less than 40% of men thought they should help women with housework. Only 4% of respondents said they would marry someone whom their parents objected to. And when it came to sexual norms specifically, 61% of those surveyed said premarital sex was no longer a big issue—but 63% said they expected their spouses to be virgins.
Young Indians certainly helped put the BJP in power in India’s recent election—and the BJP, in turn, embraces Hindutva as part of its philosophy. An astounding 150 million of 788 million eligible voters in India this year were first-time voters, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted ahead of the election. The same survey found that 66% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 favored the more conservative BJP, while only 19% of eligible voters in the same age group found the left-leaning and more secular Indian National Congress more to their liking.
Still, these young voters weren’t necessarily motivated by the BJP’s conservative Hinduism. Many Indian youth may have been more attracted to Modi’s success as chief minister of Gujarat, where smooth roads, modern factories, and lavish foreign investment made the western province a symbol of prosperity. 72% of young Indians in Pew’s pre-election poll indicated that they craved a change from Modi’s predecessor, the former economist Manmohan Singh of the Congress party, who presided over a period of economic stagnation.
Economic threats to young Indians are real and frightening. Inflation is starting to slow down but remains high, unemployment is rampant, and the economy has generally not favored young Indians. Indian youth are going to college at higher levels than ever but often find themselves unable to translate their degrees into jobs.“Moral policing is mostly about defending traditional control over women and not so much about public decency.”
The debate over engaging in public displays of affection is also occurring amid growing awareness of sexual assault against women in India, a problem exacerbated in part by the longstanding marginalization of women in Indian society. A recent editorial in India’s Economic Times newspaper argued that the moral policing that Kiss of Love protesters are opposing has similar roots, including “the age-old social norm that women’s sexuality should be controlled, that their morals are not secure in their own hands and should be left in the care of others, particularly men. … Moral policing is mostly about defending traditional control over women and not so much about public decency, whose limits change over time.” Kissing could be both a blessing and a curse for India’s women: Some have used the Kiss of Love protests to demand gender equality, but the demonstrations have also reportedly elicited online rape threats.
Modi himself has spoken out against rape and called for women to be valued more in Indian society, though he hasn’t commented on the Kiss of Love protests directly. But, again, his popularity among young people has less to do with women’s safety than with efficiency. “The young voter is a no-nonsense, delivery-focused voter,” pollster Yashwant Deshmukh of C-Voter, a statistical research group, told The Times of India. “For them, governance is a product, and proven governance is a proven product. Modi’s answers would always begin with what he had done in Gujarat. That image of the doer seems to have clicked big time with the youth.”
If the clash of the kissers shows anything clearly, it’s that, with 65% of India’s population under age 35, it’s a mistake to think of Indian youth as a coherent political bloc. When it comes to their politics, not all of them kiss and tell.