The image has gone viral: a young woman in a bright green top and a multi-coloured skirt, her back to the camera. A pair of arms, presumably that of her male companion, envelope her. In the photograph, the young couple are frozen in a desperate embrace as a group of angry middle-aged men surround them, loom over them, reach for them with raised fists and faces twisted in self-righteous anger.

Their crime? “Being too close” while on the Kolkata Metro, inviting upon themselves the wrath of the city’s “culture kakus” and “moral meshos” who abandoned the traditional Bengali weapon of mass destruction – words – and chose to use their fists instead.

That incident on Monday has since generated considerable outrage. Spontaneous protests have taken place in the city’s Dumdum Metro Station, with young protestors hugging each other and carrying posters and placards that say #hokalingan (let there be embraces, echoing the 2014 slogan #hokkolorob or let there be noise) and #freehugs. As of now, the young man and woman in the viral image have not come forward to press charges, anonymously or otherwise – we do not know of their physical and mental state of being, or whether they are sufficiently secure.

Free hugs outside Tollygunge Metro station in Kolkata. (Credit: Samir Jana / HT)

Officials of the Kolkata Metro Rail, meanwhile, have found themselves on the back foot as a fairly progressive post on their Facebook page condemning moral policing was followed up shortly by a (now deleted) comment that blamed the “year long [sic] vulgarity shown by a section of [the] young generation [on the Metro]” for the incident. The authorities claim this comment was fake, although the fact-checking website AltNews has said that numerous users captured screenshots of the post, suggesting the comment had indeed been made. In AltNews’ view, “A likely explanation is that the person handling the Kolkata Metro Page posted the comment that he was intending to post from his personal profile and deleted it on realising his mistake.”

The Metro authorities have also said that they have not started an investigation into Monday’s incident as no formal complaint has been lodged, and closed circuit camera footage from the Dumdum Metro Station and the statements of security personnel deployed there have proved inconclusive. For now, it does not seem likely that the Metro authorities will address the blatant failure of security measures in Metro premises.

Social media outrage

Social media users have been livid since the Anandabazar Patrika first reported the incident, quoting an eyewitness. They have gone as far as passing around screenshots of four Facebook profiles, alleging their involvement in the assault. The family of one alleged culprit has come forward to issue a strong statement against such harassment. Another person, Debtanu Bhattacharya, denied his involvement in the attack. He is a member of the Hindu Sanhati – a Hindu organisation that was in the news in February for staging the “ghar wapsi” of a Muslim family and assaulting journalists in Kolkata. Bhattacharya had taken to social media to express his support for the “sense of responsibility” displayed by the men who assaulted the young couple.

Much of the outrage so far has been articulated in terms of a virulent generational conflict, with a stream of abusive commentary about the predilections and perversions of middle-aged men. The self-righteous rage fuelling this commentary rivals that of the moral police it purportedly criticises. That said, leaving aside the banal futility of such commentary, it is evident that the assault has struck a nerve. It has laid bare the contradictions of a city where the police offer to protect the privacy of couples on Valentine’s Day at popular dating spots even as they slap petty cases on lovers throughout the year, a city that embraces Kiss of Love protests and harasses a young woman for wearing shorts and smoking cigarettes. Kolkata’s self-image as the liberal, tolerant “cultural capital” of the country has survived many blows – and will likely survive this one as well – but the contradictions of this idealised image have seldom seemed so glaring.

There is a grain of truth to the anguished claims of “North Indian” lynch mobs being imported to the city – though perhaps it is not merely the country’s north that can be held accountable for the impunity with which such groups have operated in India following the lynching of Mohammed Ikhlaq in 2015. The frequency and often organised nature of these lynchings are unique to this day and age, even if public life in India has always been punctuated by outbursts of mob violence. West Bengal is not immune to this. Indeed, homegrown organisations such as the Hindu Sanhati have successfully imported Hindutva hobby horses like ghar wapsi and “love jihad” to the state, with a well-orchestrated social media campaign adding fuel to fire.

The state has erupted in organised communal violence many times in the recent past. Only a month ago, an imam in Asansol whose teenaged son died in communal clashes made a heart-rending call for peace. Could it be that the atmosphere of general social unrest and the culture of impunity has emboldened Kolkata’s moral police, made them abandon their words and take recourse to fists? That is a possibility we can no longer rule out in its entirety, even as conspiracy theorists see an orchestrated effort to unleash organised moral policing groups on unsuspecting citizens.

In the name of bhadrata, sanskriti

There is, however, more to an incident like this assault on a seemingly middle-class, heterosexual couple for simply “being too close” in a public space. It betrays Kolkata’s long-held discomfort with women in public spaces, articulated in the sheer hostility women encounter every day in public. Countless women have spoken up about the wayward elbows, lecherous fingers and unwarranted encounters with male genitalia courtesy men of all ages in the city’s public places and public transport – incidents that seldom prompt a supportive response from bystanders and eyewitnesses, let alone spark large-scale outrage. Kolkata’s brand of liberalism and tolerance has comfortably co-existed with the tight control that bhadra (the word translates to polite, but it comes with particular connotations of caste and class superiority) Bengali society exercises over female sexual autonomy, amidst whispered fears of inter-caste unions or the abandonment of compulsory heterosexuality.

It should not be surprising that those defending the assault, or merely chastising the assaulters for unseeming violence while standing in support of their hurt sentiments, speak in the language of bhadrata. In this strategic use of words like sanskriti (culture) and shaleenata (propriety) that hold deep-seated resonance in Bengali society, consensual expressions of affection and desire are turned on their head, twisted into something vile and malignant. It is equally ironic that those outraged by the assault are demanding that the victims come forth to lodge a complaint, overlooking the fact that the Bengali family – that bastion of sanskriti – is not necessarily a safe refuge for young lovers, or that the assaulted youth are not obligated to satisfy the public’s collective desire for instant justice.

The Indian Penal Code’s outdated, colonial-era “obscenity” law (Section 294) does not, as judicial interpretations have shown time and again, outlaw “being too close” or similar expressions of affection in public places, no matter what the lurid imaginations of the culture kakus and the trolls who defend them might like to claim. The viral image of the young couple pushed into a desperate embrace as the guardians of Bengali sanskriti surround them, threaten them, descend upon them with raised fists, at a Metro Station of all places – for long the symbol of Kolkata’s modernity – will stay with us for a while, posing uncomfortable questions about a culture that has no place for lovers.

Swati Moitra has taught in the Universities of Delhi and Calcutta.