In India, Where A Kiss Is Not Just A Kiss

The current series of kissing protests in India are indicative of a country and a culture in transition.

"Kiss of Love" protesters in New Delhi on Nov. 8
"Kiss of Love" protesters in New Delhi on Nov. 8
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty*

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.

Youth revolution

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.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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