Kissing Goodbye to Freedom: The Moral Police and Public Display of Affection in India

It was a moment of solemn beauty.

The sea a hundred bawling shades of grey. The moon and black chasing each other across the fickle sky. The sporadic drizzles pecking the mutinous waves down below.

I was speechless. Just thankful that it' s all happening. I don’t know when it was –but I guess right after I’d pecked him lightly on the cheek – when my reverie was shattered by the distinct sound of throat-clearing behind us.

There he was –short, dark and carrying a colossal round paunch and an even more colossal smile of conceit – the omnipresent (OK with the exception of where he’s needed) Indian policeman.

He had apparently known it all along – what we were up to. He’d been keeping a “close watch on us” ever since we parked the car, you see.

“The people who live on this road are the most important people of Mumbai,” he warned. “ I’m entrusted with making sure no one disturbs their peace of mind. And you, sir, are doing just that with your obscene acts. So I’ll have to fine you. Rs. 4000.” And with that he pretended to pull out some papers.

“But we don’t have so much cash on us. Will Rs. 500 do???” My multiple brained academic star of a husband blurted out.

***

I’d later shared this story with a friendly taxiwala and this is what he’d got to say, “One bakhra like you per day, and the b***ard’s achieved nirvana. You should never have even offered more than Rs. 50.”

Welcome to the world of haggling over bribes. But I digress…

You know who I’m talking about – you’re all familiar with him – the fatherly neighbourhood policeman who always has an eye out for youngsters running a risk of going astray. That well-meaning gentleman who always shows up at the right time and place to teach you the price of a lesson or two on the right way to behave in this country.

What makes him so powerful? So omniscient?

Welcome to the scar on the face Section 294 of the IPC of 1860, which deals with obscenity laws in this country, and is generally used by policemen for earning those few extra bucks for their hard work of harassing innocent young couples. Here’s how it goes.

“Whoever, to the annoyance of others,

(a) does any obscene act in any public place, or

(b) sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.”

 

Now that’s what I call the death-knell of individual freedom. And that’s because of those three little highlighted words in there.

 

What is ‘annoyance’? In the maddening motley of noodle straps and noodle-nourished necrophilia, spaghetti and spirituality, premarital abstinence and preposterous abuse that is India, how do we define what is ‘obscene’?

 

The spine-chilling aspect of this Section however, is the ‘others’. If ‘annoyance’ of some unqualified group of ‘others’ could be the legal basis for determining the degree of criminal offense committed, we could just as well blissfully repeal our legal code altogether and defer all legal decisions to “the majority”.

 

To take an example – I’m sure a great majority of Indians would consider love marriages “annoying”, if the sheer proportion of Indian marriages that are arranged is anything to go by. Does that mean a “love marriage” is a crime as per the IPC?

 

We’ve all (I hope) heard of those magnificent things called “individual rights”. The legal code stipulates what falls within and outside of these rights. If the majority finds the exercising of any of these rights offensive, I should think it’s their business to learn to deal with it.

 

Our law however leaves “obscenity” and “annoyance” to extortion. Did I say extortion? I meant interpretation. Unfortunately for the common man the only significance of that tiny room for interpretation is the brilliant scope of extortion and harassment created within it by some resourceful government servants (read police-people).

 

As a totally irrelevant and insignificant aside, I’d like to mention that we were already married when the Worli sea face incident occurred.

 

Repeat - We were already married when the Worli sea face incident occurred.

 

“But why do you think telling that to the police person would’ve made any difference? He accused us of performing obscene acts in the public, and whether we’re married or not has got nothing to do with it – isn’t that so?” My poor guy enquired innocently.

 

“Oh that’s only inside your logical little brain dear. This is India. Marriage is the ultimate license for any act of affection between a man and a woman – obscene or otherwise.” I sighed.  

 

Apparently my instincts had not lied.

 

“It is inconceivable how … the expression of love by a young married couple, in the manner indicated in the FIR, would attract the offence of obscenity and trigger the coercive process of the law.”

 

That’s what Justice Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court had to say in his judgement, dismissing obscenity charges brought on by an FIR filed against a married couple caught kissing in public, in 2009. Incidentally, the police overlooked to name any “annoyed” complainants in this FIR.

 

Married? Unmarried? Legal? Illegal? Scene? Obscene? The jury is still out on the question of legitimacy of Public Display of Affection (PDA) in its varying degrees and contexts. But here’s something that’s certain – as long as the laws remain antiquated and unclear, and the police remain free of a stipulated code of permissible conduct while dealing with possible offenders at the scene, harassment and extortion of young innocent couples by the force responsible for upholding the law, are here to stay.

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