The Indian moral police, are at it again, and it’s revolting.
This time American actor, Buddhist and friend to India Richard Gere has been caught unawares. His “mistake?” – he made a charming gesture at an AIDS awareness event recently in New Delhi, where he swung Shilpa Shetty – of the U.K.’s Celebrity Big Brother fame in a waltz-like move and planted some innocuous kisses on her cheek. It’s something like his character did in ‘Shall We Dance’ with Jennifer Lopez and it was an impulsive action, partly done to prove, to the truck drivers attending the event, that kissing does not spread AIDS.
The moral brigade was up in arms, doing what they do best – shouting slogans, burning effigies and demanding apologies for “corrupting their culture”. Never mind that the man has established a foundation Gere Foundation India Trust, that works hard to educate Indians about AIDS, something that the country badly needs with more than five million of its people living with HIV.
These self-confessed-custodians-of-morality comprise a bunch of idle minds, unfortunately with political connections and a true gift for showing off before the television cameras, with a warped sense of righteousness and belief that all things western – Valentine’s Day, holding hands or kissing in public, wearing skirts and jeans, and even birthday parties – are depraved and bad. Everything Indian, of course, is good and moral and stands the grave risk of being sullied. Every year before Valentine’s Day, for instance, youths from the Shiv Sena – a Hindu right wing party active mostly in Mumbai, whose leader Bal Thackeray is an open admirer of Hitler– threaten to deface shops selling cards for the occasion, and warn couples not to show any affection in public or celebrate the day which they denounce as a vulgar western festival. And it’s not just Richard Gere. The actress Liz Hurley too seemed to have offended the so called guardians of Hinduism in her recent wedding trip to India.
The wrath, however, is not directed towards westerners but also towards those Indians who “ape” occidental ways of life. A lot has changed in India in the past decade, specially its urban women, who are now more modern and have a like-I-care attitude towards what people may think of their way of life. This, however, is perceived as an influence of the decadent west. The change has been too dramatic for them to stomach, and anything that reflects this change seems to get a reaction. Kissing is one such act.
Our very own former Miss World Aishwarya Rai was sued for kissing her co-star in her latest Indian film. This time the much-offended gentleman was not associated with any political party but was an advocate who disapproved of such distasteful titillation and used the law, which he is familiar with, to air his feelings.
The law, Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, often used to try and prosecute the sinners like Rai, is, quite nebulous. “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”. What, one may wonder, can be construed as an obscene act? It does not specify. It’s up to an individual to decide, which, of course, often leads to its misuse.
An example of this is the recent controversy over a popular South Indian actress’s remarks about marriage and pre-marital sex. Her comment, in her words was that “our society must free itself from expectations that brides should all be virgins.” Again, a case was filed against her and she was forced to make a public apology for her comments.
For me the biggest incongruity is that these upholders of religion and morality are all-too-absent when a real issue needs to be addressed. The start of this year saw the worst case of serial killings of children in Indian history. Close to forty innocent children, and some young women, were sexually assaulted and brutally killed, their remains dumped into bags and thrown into a drain outside the very house where this was done. Sure the media took it up and there was a big outcry, but Shiv Sena didn’t march down roads chanting slogans denouncing this behavior. Is this morally acceptable in Hinduism or the Indian culture?
The Richard Gere episode and the reaction it caused has sparked off a debate with India’s youth, and luckily, young India sees nothing wrong in his actions. Which may be why the upholders of decency and “Indian” morals are fighting so loudly; their day is passing.