Right-wing Hindu nationalists keep cracking down on sexually liberated women. But sometimes their efforts backfire.
In the days before Valentine’s Day 2009, members of a group called the Sri Ram Sena dragged several young women out of a pub in Mangalore, a city in southwest India, and beat them. According to the group, whose members lobby, sometimes violently, for the religious and cultural dominance of Hinduism in Indian society, the women had violated the country’s traditional values by hanging out in a bar with men. Two of the women were hospitalized for their injuries.
On Valentine’s Day that year, other Hindu far-right groups continued the moral policing, smearing black powder on the faces of supposed lovers or beating them in the street. A policeman was caught on video spinning a woman around by her hair as punishment for her supposed “immoral activities.”
What compels the Hindu right’s volcanic reaction to Valentine’s Day? Some of its members have protested that the holiday is the product of a “rotten imported culture” from the West. Others have claimed that people tend to buy more contraceptives on Valentine’s Day, which “leads to a rise in incidents of rapes and other atrocities.” Yet others have tried to force unmarried couples to marry, or advocated for violence against them.
The issue, they say, isn’t that couples are having sex, but that they are having sex outside of marriage. Prominent Indian journalist Lakshmi Chaudhry said these attacks on expressions of love are really attacks against the idea of a sexually liberated woman. “Modern love—by this I mean dating, romance, premarital sex —strikes at the very heart of traditional patriarchy, which relies on the policing of women’s bodies,” Chaudhry wrote to me. “This is less about policing men—who remain free to harass, assault and rape women with relative impunity—than controlling women, who are increasingly asserting their sexual and personal freedom.”
Some Indian women have refused to cave to these moral vigilantes. In response to the 2009 attacks, thousands of angry women from across India mailed pink panties to the offices of the Sri Ram Sena. At the time, one academic described the campaign as “so cool because it refuses to take the fascists seriously. It laughs at them, it insults them and tells them they are not being taken seriously.”
These Hindu nationalists see the changes happening around them—more women are getting educated, juggling their home life with work, choosing to marry for love, watching pornography, or engaging in premarital sex. Even if these changes are sometimes incremental, these groups say India’s moral fiber is being eroded by Western-style permissiveness; a common refrain from these groups is that “Indian culture” and “our roots” are being lost to pubs and public displays of affection. So they target couples holding hands or kissing out in the open. Some conservative politicians have claimed these activities are punishable under the law, and more than one fundamentalist group has gone so far as to declare kissing in public as “un-Indian.” Harassing lovers on Valentine’s day, in other words, is the next logical step.
But over the last two years, the Hindu right’s efforts to crush Valentine’s Day seemed to be waning. In 2016, two far-right Hindu groups said they were instructing their activists to give up the fight, because they’d decided it was “useless” to try to stop couples from making what they described as animal-like public displays of affection. Last year, the op-ed page of India’s main business publication declared the war against Valentine’s Day lost, because the moral vigilantes had seemingly gone quiet. Meanwhile the mass marketing of Valentine’s Day in India continued apace, with teddy bears, flowers, and chocolates appearing in nearly every big store and in ads in newspapers. It seemed that Indian progressives had won.
But progressive activists today warn that far-right Hindu groups, feeling emboldened by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism, now practice their moral policing 365 days a year. “[It] is no longer just an annual Valentine’s Day affair,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, wrote to me, but instead “organized everyday violence against women’s autonomy and interfaith relationships.”
Interfaith relationships are a particular sticking point for these groups. Hindu nationalist outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh perpetuate a false notion of the “love jihad”—the false idea that young Muslim men are making Hindu girls fall in love with them to trick them into converting to Islam. Just this week, a Facebook page called “Hindutva Vrata,” or “Hindu talk,” published a list of names of more than 100 interfaith couples and called for violence against them. “Every Hindu lion is urged to track and hunt the boys from this list,” the post read. The page has since been removed by Facebook.
In this climate, the same familiar groups have popped up once again to protest Valentine’s Day. Bajrang Dal, the militant youth chapter of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu organization, posted a video this week showing its members holding posters featuring a Disney princess kissing her prince with an “X” over her face, a skull and crossbones over a heart, and the words “Save Bharath [Indian] Culture: Ban Valentine Day.” The group also posted ads in at least one city warning Hindu girls of the supposed dangers of love jihad, and asked several pubs in south India not to host Valentine’s Day celebrations. Another Hindu group is once again running a campaign to replace Valentine’s Day with “Parents’ Worship Day,” a holiday to encourage moral piety and respect for one’s elders. The “day of lust,” the group has argued, leads to sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, and sexual assault.
Valentine’s Day and its associations with romantic and sexual freedom is especially threatening to these groups, Chaudhry said, “because it presupposes a woman freely making those choices” above her love life. The “love jihad” activities, she added, only piggyback on that existing hostility “to further serve the Hindu rightwing agenda.”
When I spoke to Surendra Jain, a former Bajrang Dal president who has now graduated into the VHP, he insisted his group’s activities against Valentine’s Day were about protecting girls, not controlling them. “We want to save our daughters and sisters from this type of vulgar presentation of love,” he said. “We don’t hate love. But we don’t like the commercialization of love and the vulgar presentation of love. In fact, this Valentine’s Day has become the commercial game of multinational companies.”
Jain isn’t entirely wrong. Chocolates, teddy bears, and roses fill shelves again this year, while lovers regularly gather on India’s beaches, sometimes under an umbrella for privacy. Valentine’s Day, with all its commercial trappings, is only becoming more popular in the country. “In a way,” Kavita Krishnan said, these far right groups are “up against the common sense of the young.”
While the Hindu right may have gained power with Modi in office and remains a dangerous force in Indian society, its efforts to police an event like Valentine’s Day now look silly. This year, the Valentine’s Day haters are being met online with memes, gifs, and jokes, which mostly lampoon them as insecure men trying to prove their mettle by beating people with sticks. A fake Bajrang Dal Valentine’s Day protest event slated for New Delhi on Facebook lists 116,000 people as “interested” in attending. The comment section is full of jokes: One warns people to be careful before signing up, lest they someday fall in love; another inquires whether free bamboo sticks will be distributed. Some asked when the group was going to do something actually useful, like go after rapists. Among the suggested slogans for the protest day: “Romance is a waste / One’s hand is best.”
Trolling these groups with pink panties and online memes show that mockery is a powerful tool. It seeks to undermine the message of groups like Bajrang Dal, and suggests that more of India’s young people—and especially its women—are in command of their own hearts.