Two girls in their early twenties alighted from a steel coloured car and exchanged hurried goodbye hugs with two male friends near the Asian College of Journalism hostel gate in Chennai, as curfew time was closing in at 11.30 PM. Just as they were about to leave, a khaki clad policeman drew up on a Hero Honda bike like an owl on its nocturnal hunt demanding money for having committed the public nuisance of hugging.
The girls hurried to their campus gate 300 meters away. Guessing was just another policeman on his night patrol trying to make some money. Their friends, left to defend allegations of drunk driving and public nuisance, succumbed to paying Rs. 2500 after the policeman in his late thirties seized the car keys and threatened to bash up their car unless paid.
“We told him we have only Rs 1500 even emptied our wallets before him but he said get the money from an ATM. I will keep your cell phone on hold till you bring me the money. We finally paid by borrowing from a friend in the hostel,” says Kshitij Kumar, a student of Asian College of Journalism as he digs into in his lunch of brown roti in the canteen.
In their panicked efforts to get rid of the policeman, Kshitij and his friend neither noticed the policeman’s name tag nor did they demand a receipt for being fined. They reluctantly signed on a notebook register saying they will not drink and drive again when the reason they were fined for was hugging. The duo was only too happy to see the policeman vroom away on his bike with his red tail light bidding them adieu for the night.
Kshitij’s experience is shared daily by many in cities across India. Policemen and citizen take it upon themselves to morally police youngsters on road under claims of preventing prostitution and harassment of women. A lot of times the police is not involved in moral policing. However, when present, they bend the ambiguous Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to public nuisance to book citizens for conducting simple acts like holding hands, hugging, or just sitting on a park bench with someone of the opposite sex. Since most of these cases go unregistered, there are no concrete numbers to indicate how many people are victimized like Kshitij.
Under Section 75 of Chennai Police Act, activities which fall under public nuisance include harassing women in public, masturbating by looking at someone and drunkenly assaulting another person.
“Hugging or holding hands is not considered,” says sub-inspector, M. Venugopal of J-13 Taramani Police station, his hands tightly squared against his body, resting on a brown varnished wooden table. A cello tape bound walkie-talkie sits on his left side with J-13 written in white on the black plastic casing. He uneasily twitches his lips, adding, “Kissing is not considered usually”. Although, Venugopal adds that police can demand couples to vacate beaches and public spaces post 10 PM.
“We were not even drunk that night, we just hugged,” says Kshitij, his friend Arunima nodding in approval.
It is not always the police who take it upon themselves to prevent ‘public nuisance’, most of the time, it is the citizens of India who task it upon themselves to maintain the sovereignty and integrity of the great Indian culture.
Eight years ago, Kamatchi was enjoying the breeze in the Thiruvanmyur beach with two other mutual male friends. Joking and cajoling with the usual gusto of a girl in her first year of college at 10.30 PM. A man in his early thirties reprimanded her for being with boys this late. He accused her of tainting the family atmosphere of the beach with her ugly business (prostitution), hinting at her character. “We were too young and too shocked to reply,” Kamatchi says. “Being approached with such hostility for laughing with your friend in the beach at night is both embarrassing and confidence breaking,” says 26-year-old Kamatchi, now a copy writer at an advertising agency in Chennai.
Her tone only hints the embarrassment she had felt back then. But Kamatchi refuses to be intimidated. “They have not coloured me, I was too rebellious to fall for people condemning my behavior.”
The act of moral policing which controls women through their behavior and clothes, sometimes becomes an act of harassment.
Dressed in a baby pink sleeveless dress, Nanditha stepped out of the ongoing wedding buzz in Loyola Church in Chennai with another bridesmaid to click pictures below the coloured glass window of the church. While they were posing for selfies, somewhere between making fish faces and pouting, a group of four boys of 10 to 12-year-olds approached them and mockingly told them, “you look pretty but you should not be standing here”. Shocked, unable to comprehend how to react to threats by such young people, Nanditha thought it best to ignore them and continue the photo session. After a few moments spent lurking and observing, two of the boys started hurling pebbles at them. It was only when the security guard came running towards them following Nanditha and her friend’s screams did the boys flee.
Young boys picking up such habits are a reflection of their observations. Every once in a while walking down an empty road, you can expect a boy in half pants and spiked hair ride his bicycle alarming close to you shaking his handle bar in an attempt to intimidate you to break you pace and simply be disturbed. An ‘Oh my’ from you is all it takes to satisfy him.
“It is not like they had anger on their faces, they were smiling like they were doing it out of fun but we were humiliated and shocked because I had never encountered anything like this before,” says 24-years-old Nanditha Hariharan, who works for a private firm in Chennai.
If you are used to travelling in public transport as a female in India, you are sure to come across middle-aged aunties who with their miraculous power of eye-ball gesturing will let you know if your bra strap is peeping or if your dupatta has slid to your neckline baring the shape of your breasts. The dupatta for an Indian woman can never be emphasized enough. The two and a half meter long rectangular piece of cloth draped around a neck is a safety noose.
Aishwarya was waiting with a crowd of fifty at the Chennai Central Railway station for her train when she noticed a man holding his smart phone perpendicular to his face, his camera lens pointed at Aishwarya. She felt oddly displayed in the crowd of fifty. It was only a little later when the man kept angling his phone at her, did she realize that she was being publicly photographed. A few quick steps, she approached an idling policeman, pointing to the man in the crowd. She placed her allegations before him and the man in khaki steely said, “What else were you expecting? You aren’t even carrying a dupatta.”
Aishwarya’s experience was no different from Kshitij’s or Kamatchi’s as it points to a nation which morally polices people as a national pastime.
Commercial media has also played a role in normalising such policing. While getting close with a lover in a public space is something every college student does, bribing a policeman to stop him from calling your parents you is also portrayed as an errant part of college life.
However, young lovers don’t always experience the sweet side of moral policing. While the police does it to make money, extreme right wing groups wearing saffron sashes do it to prevent tainting their great motherland by converting Valentine’s Day to La Tomatina festival. Tomatoes are showered on unsuspecting couples of opposite sexes seen together in public.
A group of four boys and three girls, all working in their early twenties parked their car on the road adjacent to Marina beach. It was a detour before they headed home after clubbing early. They stood at the kerb at 8 PM, reluctant to get sand in their shoes. They were enjoying the breeze when a policeman manifests, attacking the girls, threatening to call their parents. He spewed allegations of drinking and misbehaving. One of the boys, who was fortunately a lawyer, demanded the grounds on which he was threatening them. Noticing the black and white advocate’s collar sticker on the windshield of the car, the policeman realized he targeted the wrong prey and transformed to a paternal figure warning children of the hazards of hanging around a beach late.
Even though Nanditha’s experience ended in the bully being showed his place, it has left a scar.
“At that time, I was actually scared of my parents being phoned. The horrible way in which he raised his voice, numbed my thought process. We left the beach after a while since the incident really shook us all,” says Nanditha.
It is the fear of parents reacting when told their children were wrongly behaving in a public space, that encourages the police and overtly inquisitive citizens to bully and harass youngsters even when without fault.
Harini and her boyfriend were on their way to a movie on February 14th at 12 PM in Hyderabad when they were stopped by a constable on road. The first question put to Harini was ‘Why are you with this guy? Does your father know?’ He demanded they call their parents so he can speak to them. After a little more time spent arguing, Harini’s boyfriend Hemanth finally called his father. After exchanging a few words with his father, the constable left apologizing.
Parents holding enough faith in their children and that being reciprocated by children seems to be the only way in which overtly intrusive policemen and citizens can be stopped from morally policing youngsters in a nation that morally polices to uphold a culture.