The (im)moral police: Why we shouldn’t let ‘guardians’ of Indian culture take away our freedom


TNT Opinion | July 2, 2018

Name withheld on request

Over the weekend, a video made its way to news agencies across the country. The video had gone viral, as most do before their broadcast in news channels, and showed a couple, in the Nagaon district of Assam situated in Northeast India, being assaulted in the streets – the woman on her knees with her hands on her ears to resemble a punished student while the man is tied up and beaten up mercilessly by a mob.

It was learnt that the villagers of Assam's Nagaon district had confined and beaten up the couple for allegedly having an "illicit affair". They had even shaved the woman's hair. A police statement stated, "Residents of Jhumurmur village physically assaulted Devi Barua and Ubed Ullah and confined them in a house. After receiving information, a police team from the Kathiatoli outpost rushed to the spot and rescued the victims."

This is not the first case Assam has had with mob justice and moral policing. What comes to mind is an incident that took place in 2012 where a young student was assaulted by a mob of about 18 men for coming out of a bar in Guwahati. The incident took place in one of the busiest streets in the city but the woman was said to have been assaulted for 45 minutes. It took 45 minutes for all the passers-by, with phones in hand, to call the police and report the incident. In the Nagaon case too, the people filming the video showed no remorse and made no such calls to the police.  Is this because they thought she deserved it or because they simply wanted a sensational video to circulate? Was it both?

A similar incident had taken place in western Assam's Goalpara district just last week in which a couple was thrashed and made to marry by a mob following a "judgement" made by a kangaroo court. This incident came after another attack was made on a tribal woman in the same district for riding pillion with her Muslim friend.

In a region which is known, or rather romanticised, as the most female-friendly region in the country, the incident is a slap in the face. Women are not safer here or there. Neither are the men, it appears.  Incidences like these call for such reflections. While it is 2018 and a decline in arranged marriages, a rise in pre-marital sex and a more open conversation of sexuality marks some form of progress in the country, are we still going to believe that people are safer in this part of the country than elsewhere? In violent cases of moral policing, the man is tortured or killed while the woman is made to feel humiliated and guilty for what they call an 'aashiqui' culture.

In the video, as in many others, is proof that India merely boasts of being the world's largest democracy on paper. How can a country be a democracy if its citizens are not allowed to take over public places, to spend time with loved ones and dare I say express their feelings towards them? Isn't that a breach of the citizen's privacy rights and their right to expression?

The violence being unleashed on innocent men and women in the name of protecting our 'sabhyata' is maddening – that an expression of love would attract offence and trigger a mob assault. Is it because our young people are dating? That they have more freedom to choose who they want to be with? It's as though the public displays of affection that they consider to be an awful practice that has creeped into Indian society from the West that drives the fury.

'Shameless'. That's the word. Is it the concept of mutual desire in a public space that upsets them? Or is it because the simple acts of affection like holding hands or God forbid, standing close to one another, are being translated as pornographic and sexual? Is that why we're supposed to be full of shame? When did hanging out with the opposite sex become shameless? I say 'hanging out' because even if two people are lovers, they don't need to be 'doing' anything. Just being in close proximity to each other is enough provocation to trigger an attack.

We know the violence stems out of anger. The question is: why do the same people become cowardly and silent when a woman is being harassed on the streets but become so enraged and start raising their voices when quiet couples are spending time and minding their own business?

It shouldn't be surprising that such incidences take place in a country that is so well known for its honour killings, its fear of sexual impurity, of BnBs that hang or advertise "married couples only" on their doors and websites. From Valentine's Day vandalisms to love jihad to a mere self-righteous comment that shames, the moral police comes in an array of forms and has existed for ages.

We can go into all the reasons why we do not condone such an attitude: our freedoms, our rights, our choices, our life. It would be endless. India is drastically transitioning from traditional values to modern ones and it is the misunderstanding or the misplaced idea of culture laced with patriarchal and hypocritical elements that contributes to such behaviour.

We should not let the moral police, or more aptly, these 'goondas' beat up couples on the street, and in hotels, women who drink, smoke and go to bars and wear what they want with the impunity with which they have been doing for several years. We've got to report them instead of filming them. Call for help instead of going home in fear of repercussions. Some may say it is not as simple as a 'live and let live' principle. But it can be. It should be.


Views expressed in this article is the writer's alone