Public morality is a sensitive issue in largely conservative India, but opposition to the imposition of societal restrictions on public displays of affection has been on the rise over the years. Notable instances of these include the ‘Pink Chaddi Campaign’ in 2009, which non-violently protested attacks on young couples found together on Valentine’s Day, and Besharmi Morcha, the Indian equivalent of SlutWalk, in 2011. In November 2014, the ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign was launched in Kerala to non-violently protest against moral policing and gained widespread attention.
An event along similar lines was organized by Chinta Bar, an independent Institute student body, in IIT Madras to raise awareness about moral policing. Close to a hundred students gathered in front of Himalaya lawns at 5 PM on November 14 to register their views on moral policing. A couple of speeches were made, songs were sung, hugs exchanged and cheeks kissed, with the occasional peck on the lips. The organizers maintain that the event was about ‘Celebrating Love’ and not kissing in specific, but the parallel stuck, with it being widely reported by the media as the IIT Madras version of ‘Kiss of Love’.
Arya Prakash, one of the organizers, stated that, ‘”Celebrating Love” was an outcome of the many discussions on gender segregation in campus, gender violence in campus, rampant moral policing by security guards, reported and unreported cases of molestation, lack of active discussions on sexuality/relationships and so on. We were of the opinion that, open discussions on love, sex, relationships and sexuality are required for a campus to sustain healthy relationships between all genders.’
The responses to the event from the students were mixed. There were lots of supporters, but a large faction disapproved of the manner in which the protest was being registered. The following note was found posted right above the event’s posters on hostel notice boards.
The event elicited strong reactions from outside the Institute. The Hindu Munnani, a right-wing organization, carried out a ‘spitting campaign’ at the Institute’s gates on the 17th of November. Most others were less violent in lodging their protest, choosing to respond vocally by calling the event a Western subversion of Indian culture.
The organizers found themselves at odds with the administration as well. The administration claims that the authorities were not informed by the organizers prior to the event, but the organizers maintain that Chinta Bar, being an independent body, is not under the supervision of any administrative member. They further contend that permission from the administration is not required for conducting events in the Hostel Zone. The administration points out that since the topic being handled is sensitive, there was a possibility of violence and hence they should’ve been kept within the loop, to ensure that order was maintained. This argument, however, did not go down well with some, who found it absurd that the admin expects consenting adults to keep them updated on when and where they intend to meet, and point towards the need for greater gender sensitisation.
The media decided to cover the event, but mediapersons were denied entry into the campus. A few cameras were visible at Himalaya lawns, but a large number of mediapersons (close to a couple of dozen in number, according to an Executive Wing member’s estimate) were not allowed in through the Main Gate. As a result, the congregation decided to march towards the Main Gate, where the participants interacted with the media right outside the campus.
Six days later, on November 20, a few students, including members and non-members of Chinta Bar as well as non-participants of ‘Celebrating Love’, were summoned to the Dean of Student’s office. The Dean suggested that Chinta Bar should register itself as an Institute body and acquire a faculty advisor. Since this would imply that all future events conducted by Chinta Bar be vetted by the Dean of Students, the Dean’s suggestion was turned down.
These incidents expose a wide rift in how the Institute, and as an extension society as a whole, views public morality. The Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court have held, in landmark judgments, that kissing in public is not a punishable offence. Society, however, still views public display of affection as immoral and couples have often found themselves at the wrong end of the stick as a result. The argument for the cause is simple — everyone should have the freedom to do what they want, as long as they do not affect anyone else. In this case, it is argued, two people displaying affection for each other in public should not be anybody else’s business. The counter argument is that Indian culture frowns upon such acts, and hence observers are indeed affected, but it is debatable whether this interpretation of Indian culture is valid. However, this did not deter a journalist from filing a complaint against multiple parties — the MHRD, IIT Madras’ Director and the DIG, Commissioner and Inspector of Police — with the Saidapet Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court, saying, ‘Pre-marital sex is not allowed. Kiss is a kind of pre-marital sex. The organizers wanted to do pre-marital sex.’
A few other issues, specific to the Institute, are thrown up as well. Some students and student representatives complain that the atmosphere within the Institute is turning ‘politically charged’. They argue that the main focus for students of the Institute must be academics, and hence events that highlight liberal and conservative rifts should not occupy centrestage — they serve only to distract and disrupt. Others point out that holistic development of a student’s mindset is the primary objective of higher education in today’s world, and hence the Institute community must not be denied exposure to, and participation in, a pluralistic discussion.
The administration is also worried that events such as these, which do not find widespread acceptance among the general public, would generate negative publicity for the Institute. This concern leads to an important question — how free are the students to use the Institute’s campus for any activity? All events will directly be associated with IIT Madras once held within its confines. Specifically, in this case, the organizers maintained that they designated themselves as ‘Member, Chinta BAR’ in interactions with the media, but most media reports carried ‘IIT Madras’ in their headlines anyway. Further reactions to this event, including the ‘spitting protest’, centred around IIT Madras, even though the Institute wasn’t directly associated with the event. Both the Dean and the Director received numerous calls from the authorities and concerned alumni on the Institute’s supposed endorsement of the event. Also, the journalist complainant held that administrative action should have been initiated against the Institute’s Director as well. As a result, it seems reasonable to argue that the Institute should have a say in what it is being associated with. Arya Prakash, however, disagrees. ‘The institute’s “right” to consider how it is portrayed in public is a problematic “right”. It sounds more like an attempt to suppress any view other than the administration’s. This is the same logic used to suppress complaints of sexual harassment and rape in the name of safeguarding the honour of family/institution.’
The administration’s decision to restrict media access, prompted by the same argument, is contentious. In today’s digital age, the media would have found access to the organizers of the events anyway. As a result, the decision to curb media interaction would itself lead to negative PR for the Institute.
The event and its handling by the administration led to protracted discussions over social media, with some supporters of the campaign conveying disillusionment with the administration. Detractors — who included student representatives — argued against the airing of such views openly, comparing these to ‘washing the Institute’s dirty linen in public’, but given the desperate lack of conversation and redressal forums within the Institute, these arguments hold little water. The organizers themselves clarified their stances on various forums, like Arya Prakash on a blog or Veena Vimala Mani, who represented ChintaBAR in a debate organized by News7, a Tamil channel.
On what basis should the Institute decide to allow or disallow events being held independently by students or groups? It is only fair that students and independent student bodies be free to express themselves in any manner they choose, provided they coordinate with the administration if sensitive issues are being taken up. If such coordination is called for, the Institute must also make sure that the right balance is struck between providing students with their rightful freedom of expression and the Institute’s right to choose how it is perceived by the outside world.