Moral policing is a term that has gained popularity in India over the last couple of years. It is a term used to describe vigilante groups which act to enforce a code of morality in India. The goal of such groups is to essentially call out and punish people who do not comply with “Indian traditions” or who go against what is considered “pristine Indian culture”.
Most of the times, the enemy here is Western culture that seems to have seeped into the traditional values that Indian parents expect of their children. For example, wearing jeans or skirts is Western influence, and is considered unnatural for Indian women who are expected to adorn sarees or salwar kameez, because apparently clothes define how much a woman respects Indian traditions. Another good example is the many groups of men and women who set out on Valentine’s Day to moral police young couples, often beating them up for ‘obscenity’ (holding hands, hugging, etc in public) because it is an ‘attack of the west’ on Indian culture (Uddhav Thackrey’s words, not mine).
The incident that happened on Dum Dum metro station in Kolkata in May 2018 is not an isolated incident. A young man and woman were abused and thrashed for hugging in public by certain elderly folks who thought the act was indecent. But isn’t this the story everywhere? It may not always end up in physical violence, but the words of disapproval and the looks of disgust and shame are nothing short of moral policing. We have all experienced those glances between two elderly aunties while travelling with a male friend or wearing our little black dress, those glances of silent judgement, of Indian culture being ‘destroyed’ by modern youngsters, of disappointment of maybe not finding the ideal Indian bahu.
If I am travelling with a male friend at 10 pm in the night, does it warrant an attack on my character? Does it mean I am a loose woman? No. A man groping a woman in broad daylight in a packed metro does warrant an attack on the man’s character. But does anyone stand up against the perpetrator then? No. Because ye sab toh hota rehta hai (this all is pretty normal). This culture of normalcy that surrounds sexual harassment is conveniently forgotten when two consenting adults are beaten up for showing basic affection in public.
I remember once hanging out with a male friend in a dilapidated park that was near our house. The two of us were exploring the rustic elements that the park had, given that it was at least 10 years old. There was a line of dense trees, behind which was a small lake. The two of us were walking towards the lake when for some reason, I turned around for a second. I saw a middle-aged woman, some 20 feet away, making a phone call while looking at us rather suspiciously. I didn’t make anything of it; by now disapproving looks from aunties were pretty normal for me. About 15 minutes later, while my friend and I were sitting by the lake, we heard someone come up behind us. It was a policeman. I asked my friend to leave, and told him I would handle everything. The policeman walked up to me, and asked me what I was up to and who was I with. I told him I was alone. He knew I was lying and said that the neighbours had complained about a young couple engaging in certain activities that were immoral. And then, he very bluntly asked me, “Aap sex toh nahi kar rahe hai na?” (you aren’t having sex right?). I was 16 back then.
As much as this incident pretty much scarred me for a long time, it also taught me how easily people question a woman’s character for being with a man in public. The policeman didn’t once ask me where the guy was (of course my friend came back 5 minutes later with his elder brother to sort things out).
Everyday, several young men and women are publicly shamed for breaking the apparent code of conduct that has been written by frustrated old men and women- a part of a generation that believes marital rape is a myth, and abusing your wife is the only way of controlling her. How long are we going to put up with this? How long will the law support the perpetrator rather than the victim? Moral policing is a virus that needs to be killed before it becomes an epidemic.
By Samruddhi Ganvir