The current series of kissing protests in India are indicative of a country and a culture in transition.
NEW DELHI — The India of today is basically conservative in nature. Bollywood and Tollywood movies may be full of heaving breasts and thrusting hips, but everyone knows they are fantasies.
Katrina Kaif may seem close to reaching expand=1] a climax while promoting a mango drink, but actors are considered outside the pale. An advertisement for strawberry-flavored condoms in the middle of a Saturday afternoon sports match may appear risqué — but it’s sponsoring the national passion of cricket, so all is forgiven.
And while one can often see young men strolling on the streets holding hands (accepted because it is viewed as platonic), public displays of affection, commonly referred to as PDA, between young men and women are discouraged. PDA are not illegal per se, yet Indian law does state that an obscene act in a public place that disturbs others is punishable, and there’s often someone around disturbed enough to label an act as obscene.
Kissing is seen as the tip of the iceberg, with orgies and social anarchy lying not far below the surface.
But not everyone buys into this perspective. Recently a couple was kissing in a café in the southern state of Kerala, and was caught on video, which sparked vandalism against the café. Galvanized via Facebook, a "Kiss of Love" protest against this moral policing of PDA was organized in Kochi. Soon groups of young, urban, college students were gathering in support in various cities all over the country to stage kiss-ins.
Interestingly, ancient India was very liberal. The Kama Sutra — written around 300 BC — describes 15 types of kisses, a fitting rebut to anyone arguing that kissing is a western import. Furthermore, the Hindu and Jain temples in Khajuraho, dated around 1000 AD, have several graphic statues showing superbly athletic and creative acts of love-making.
But over time, attitudes, particularly towards women, became more restrictive. With the arrival of Islam, women took to covering their heads and sometimes their faces with their saris. With the arrival of the British, women began wearing blouses under their saris. And most recently, Hindu fundamentalists in some smaller towns declared that young unmarried women should not wear jeans or carry mobile phones, so as not to tempt rapists.
Now, having reached one extreme, the pendulum of acceptability is starting to swing back towards the lenient side. And that’s happening for two reasons. Firstly, globalization — spearheaded by satellite TV, the Internet, and the Indian diaspora — has exposed Indians to life and practices in other countries, and some of it looks like fun. Secondly, the youth of India are stirring, and there are a whole lot of them.
Half of India’s population is under the age of 25 and 65% is under 35. The 15-34 age group currently numbers roughly 430 million. By 2020, this age group will number 460 million and the average age will be 29, making India the youngest country in the world.
There will be enormous consequences — not only political and economic, but also cultural — to this demographic shift. The young will demand not only less corruption, more transparency, better education, and more job opportunities, they will also want a culture that better expresses who they are. While respect for tradition and subservience to the elderly are Indian hallmarks, over the next few years the voice of the youth will gain in importance.
Power is shifting from the old to the young, as politicians begin to woo them for their vote. Then, once the young are earning and have spending power, the markets will cater to them as well.
A kiss is not just a kiss. While the acceptance of PDA may not lead to anarchy, it may enable affection and desire to be expressed in a healthier way: less repressive, more consensual, less violent, and more mature. Acceptance of PDA may also lead to a questioning of other restrictions. It may free India’s youth to ask: “Why not?”
As they find their voice, these kissing protesters may sound the first note of a longer song that expresses their liberality and their vision for their lives and their country. When this happens, both political and cultural change will accelerate further.
Given the competing forces of tradition vs. progress, old vs. young, and rural vs. urban, it remains to be seen where the pendulum will come to a rest. But for now, India is as much a tangle of contradictions as it's ever been. Krishna’s birthday was celebrated a few months ago with much fanfare all over the country, but the deity was a consummate Casanova and no doubt kissing rated high among his skills. And last week, while the inside of the national newspaper The Times of India earnestly discussed the ongoing kissing protests, on the front was a half-page advertisement for Skore Easy condoms, with the tag line “Just sex. No mess.”
*Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer based in New Delhi. Her previous articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Financial Times, The Atlantic and other publications.