NEW DELHI, India — In India, to kiss openly is considered a public disgrace that can mean jail time.
This appeared to be the message conveyed on Oct. 23 by Jai Hind News, a popular local news channel in India’s southern state of Kerala, when it broadcast footage of a couple kissing in an upscale terrace cafe in Calicut.
Within an hour of the broadcast, a group of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists entered the cafe with iron rods, smashing windows and upturning furniture. They claimed the cafe endorsed “un-Indian” behavior.
Less than a day later, the incident ignited a nationwide movement, city-hopping from Kochi to Hyderabad to Calcutta to Mumbai to Delhi. Known popularly as the “Kiss of Love” campaign, the movement’s message is straightforward: Let’s kiss in public.
“We wanted to show how humans express their love. A kiss is a short and sweet expression,” explained Rahul Pasupalar, co-creator of the movement’s Facebook page along with Farmis Hashim. “We didn’t think the page would get more than 200 likes.” By the time Pasupalar woke up the next morning, the Kiss of Love Facebook page had over 1,000 likes. Within two days, that number had increased ten-fold.
In early November, more than 10,000 people gathered on Marine Drive in Kochi, but according to Pasupalar, about 80 percent of the crowd was there to watch. “Kissing and protesting has never happened in India. People had big imaginations; they were climbing up on trees to snap photos.”
Still, the Kerala protests gained enough clout to raise national eyebrows. A photo of Pasupalan and his wife Resmi Nair, kissing in the back of a police van after being detained, went viral. Following the protests, 52 Kiss of Love protestors were detained, and roughly 25 hospitalized for minor injuries inflicted by right-wing opposition protesters, who’d arrived equipped with tear gas and iron rods.
The Indian Penal Code states that anyone who “does any obscene act in any public place” may be subject to arrest. Police are granted moral authority to intervene. Kissing in public violates this act.
According to Kiss of Love activists, the rule is “completely arbitrary.”
But according to an official statement released by Kiss of Love’s counter-group Ban Kiss of Love, “There is no ambiguity in IPC/Constitution regarding the public indecency. It’s like, ‘When you are in Rome dress like Romans.’”
The debate has morphed into a philosophical one over how to define Indian culture. Hindu nationalists claim kissing in public is a thing exclusively for “Western culture.” (Or as one Facebook commenter wrote: “Filthy western people, where shame exists only in the dictionary.”)
Other critics of the movement believe the message is right, but the medium wrong: “It turns full-on PDA into some kind of lodestone of liberation,” wrote journalist Sandip Roy. According to Pankhuri Zaheer, a co-organizer of Kiss of Love’s Delhi chapter, “Indian culture is so many things; making it a monolith is a ridiculous thing in itself.”
In its brief existence, the movement made national headlines. Protests in Calcutta, Hyderabad and Mumbai, though weaker in numbers than Kochi, were met with strong, often hostile aggression from right-wing activists.
In Hyderabad, 21-year-old Arundhati Naluketi, a Kiss of Life organizer, received so many threatening calls she had to change her phone number. Photos of her kissing at the protest were Photoshopped onto nude bodies and spread on WhatsApp.
Others have faced similar threats.
“The death threats began before the movement,” explains Pankhuri Zaheer, a co-founder of Kiss of Love’s Delhi chapter. “My phone has not stopped ringing. They say abusive things about my mother, my father, about what they’re going to do to me, how they’re going to fuck me, rape me in the streets.”
When the movement reached New Delhi on Nov. 7, it came to a (perhaps inevitable) political head. A handful of Kiss of Love activists, primarily University students, shouted slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and directly targeted the right-wing headquarters of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as their intended grounds for protest. RSS protesters charged at Kiss of Love protesters, chanting, “Western culture is degrading Indian culture, Western civilization shall not work!” The crowd moved from outside the Metro station to the streets, blocking traffic for hours as nighttime crept in, and police struggled to contain the movement, detaining 70 Kiss of Love protesters.
The number of likes on the Kiss of Love Facebook page is now exceeding 138,000. There are plans to protest in Calicut Dec. 7. India’s right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to comment, but an affiliate of Modi’s party gave a statement on its behalf: “Our Indian culture does not permit us displaying such kinds of affection in public spaces.”
The kiss is becoming part of a growing trend for activists in conservative countries itching to liberate the public sphere. In 2013, a kiss protest was staged inside a Turkish metro station where Islamist extremists stabbed a protestor. In Morocco, a “kiss-in” was held in Rabat; in Tunisia, activists called for a “national kissing day,” and in Saudi Arabia a “free hug” campaign was immediately shut down.
“When I saw photographs from Turkey I thought, okay something like this could happen in Delhi. And I’m hoping that the Delhi photographs will give strength to others,” Zaheer said, adding, “We’re trying to enlarge the vocabulary of protests.”