Morality, as an ethical concept, usually refers to the innate sense that a person possesses that allows them to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. There are general, prevailing notions in society of what moral behaviour constitutes, which are enforced by its members among themselves, and followed due to fear of facing social ostracism otherwise. Recently though, darker trends have been emerging, with politics beginning to interfere in the realm of public morality and what constitutes ethical behaviour. The party which gains power tries to influence the public with what it believes is moral, completely disregarding the fact that India is not a country that is composed of a homogenous set of people or cultures. Every culture has its own norms, and its own sense of morality. Within these cultures, every individual has their own beliefs, which lead them to practice what they consider to be moral behaviour. In such a situation, it is impossible to enforce a ubiquitous moral code. Doing so will only curtail the rights of citizens and create an atmosphere of suffocating vigilantism.
Ever since the Saffron wave lashed the political scene in India and took the reins of power, offshoots and allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who propagate the ideology of Hindutva, have become enforcers of what they believe is morality. Hindutva, in itself is an essentially contested concept, with its proponents attempting to define the history of the subcontinent as the history of a culturally unified nation, though religiously it may be diverse. It seeks to do this under the banner of Hinduism. Its opponents disagree, terming it as Hindu fascism, with the imposition of the Hindu religion and way of life on the entire country, a country that is clearly not constitutive of only followers of Hinduism. It is important then, to accept they ways of life of all the citizens of India and realise that they might have their own code of ethics and sense of morality. It is also important to recognise the difference between being a follower of the Hindu religion and being an Indian. Using these terms interchangeably is not only extremely offensive to citizens who practice other religions, but also excludes approximately twenty percent of our population from the dominant discourse.
Disregarding this fact, Saffronisation has brought about with it an undesirable wave of Hindu vigilantism, with people associated with Saffron parties taking the law into their own hands, often with violence. The power of fear that is wielded by such people rivals only the atmosphere which has become unbearably stifling in some cities. In Mangalore, the fear of being assaulted by these self-appointed enforcers of morality runs so deep that it is reported nobody goes to pubs and other such establishments, which in turn are instructed to ensure that the music that is being played isn’t the sort that will facilitate the process of dancing and generally having fun. In Kozhikode, after a mob of attackers, belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, vandalized a café due to news reports of suspected ‘immoral’ activities going on there, a Kiss of Love campaign was launched, which later diversified and spread to other parts of the country to protest against all such instances of moral policing. These events sought to serve as an affirmation of the peoples’ right to public spaces where they may proudly celebrate love and to express and profess it in a manner that was not tempered by right-wing outfits claiming to preserve their own brand of morality in this country.
All these instances show the deep disconnect that is present between such outfits and the people. The self-appointed moral police propounds arguments, validating these attacks and the violence or the threat of violence that is used, based on preserving ‘Indian culture’ and preventing obscenity in the streets. Due to the tacit support they receive from local administration, which is usually under pressure from the party in power, these attacks are often disregarded as minor incidents, which are not worthy of note and no legal action is initiated against them. The gaping silence on the part of our political representatives only buffers the belief of these users of violence to continue their illegal policing activities.
These instances of moral policing also present a deeply disturbing fact: that people unauthorised to prevent such activities are being allowed to rampantly impose their own moral code on the rest of the country. Displaying affection in public and indulging in activities that are deemed to be publicly obscene are two completely different issues. The latter invites penal sanction, the former does not. Section 294(a) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 states, “whoever, to the annoyance of others, does any obscene act in 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.” Since the word ‘obscene’ has not been defined in the I.P.C., its meaning becomes clear through usage in relevant judgements. In S. Khushboo v. Kanniammal and Anr. (AIR 2010 SC 3196), the Supreme Court noted that morality and criminality are not co-extensive and the law should not be used to curtail people’s rights of freedom of expression. It further clarified that non-dogmatic and unconventional morality has to be tolerated and cannot be a ground to penalise a person or invade their personal autonomy.
This deep-seated intolerance, extreme sensitivity and an unfortunate tendency to equate mythology with reality, are the basis of the problem of moral policing by Hindutva outfits. Their arguments against cultural heterogenisation are based on their beliefs that the Western part of the world is trying to impose its culture upon ours, through soft power machinations. They stand against everything they perceive to be symbols of Westernisation in India, hence the frequent attacks on bars and pubs. The intrinsic hypocrisy of their attacks should not go unnoticed however, because the ire of their intolerance to imbibing cultural values from other places is usually directed only towards women. The moral standards of society should not be measured or influenced by the ideas of morality of hypersensitive and intolerant groups.
In conclusion, it seems fairly obvious that in a democratic setup like ours, one should be free to express themselves however they wish to, as long as it doesn’t seek to cause conflict and discord. Morality is an extremely subjective concept, and an intangible one at that. In a country as diverse as this one, sensibilities will be hurt by one action or another and only those acts which are held to be against the moral standards of a reasonable person should invite penal sanction. Differences, whether of culture or otherwise, should always be kept in mind and the moral standards of the dominant political party or followers of its ideology are not the ones that should be enforced, that too through violent means. Sadly though, given the alarming rise in incidents of moral vigilantism as well as the current political discourse, it seems that the time of the intolerant Indian is here to stay.
About the Author
Shuchita is pursuing her B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) degree from National Law University, Delhi and is currently in her first year. She likes reading books dealing with Indian history and politics. To further her love for writing, she manages a blog here. She is currently interning at the National Commission for Women and Model Governance Foundation.