When the traffic light turned red, kids would dart up. Peering into the auto-rickshaw, tapping at the cab window, they offered a dozen roses for Rs 100.

“Okay, 50.. 30! Only 30, aunty!... Didi!”

Some people said the flowers are so cheap because they have been stolen from graveyards. Anyhow, it was possible to buy cheap roses on the streets of Mumbai. At a roadside florists’, wrapped in cellophane and bunched with a sprig of delphinium or myrtle, a dozen cut roses could be had for a couple of hundred rupees, but you could pay as much as Rs 500, Rs 600, Rs 700 on Valentine’s Day.

One of the odd things about the roses sold on the street was that they did not smell like a rose. They did not smell of death either. They smelt of a vacuum.

In February 2017, Mumbai’s Churchgate, a train station that reportedly serves hundreds of thousands of passengers on weekdays, had been the chosen venue for the re-branding of February 14 as “Matru Pita Pujan Divas” (Mother Father Worship Day).

Commuters were greeted with billboards with an idealised image of a family: mummy and papa sit on chairs while two teenage children kneel on the floor. Boy’s head on father’s knee, girl’s head on mother’s knee. They were careful to keep the sexes apart even within the confines of a tiny nuclear family. “Valentine’s Day”, appearing in small font in a corner, was crossed out with an “X”. For more information, we were urged to visit www.mppd.in.

Headlining this advertisement was the face of Asaram Bapu, a religious leader with millions of followers that had once included the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. Asaram – Asumal Sirumalani before he acquitted the suffix “Bapu” or father – was the “Godman” who, after the horrific Nirbhaya gangrape in Delhi in 2012, declared that the victim too had been at fault. To avoid rape, he said, we should address would-be rapists as “brother” and beg them to stop.

Asaram Bapu being taken to court in 2014. Photo credit: IANS

In 2017, Asaram was already in jail, accused of raping minors. The allegations against him left a bloody trail with witnesses dying as the cases dragged on in court. In at least one case, a teenager was raped because her parents were in the habit of obeying the religious leader without question. They allowed him to take the girl into a room alone, so he could “heal” her unobserved. Now, there was his face, at one of Mumbai’s busiest railway stations, instructing citizens to reject Valentine’s Day and to plug the love-shaped hole in our souls with worshipful obedience.

In April 2018, Asaram was convicted for the rape of a minor and sentenced to life in prison. His lawyers said they would appeal to a higher court. In September 2018, he sent a mercy petition to the governor of the state of Rajasthan.

Millions of followers were reportedly praying for him. Some prayed to him, bowing to his image as one would bow before a deity. In January, he was applying for temporary bail in another ongoing rape trial.

Weeks before, police officials in Uttar Pradesh had allowed a religious function within the Shahjahanpur jail premises, including a banner featuring Asaram’s face.

Meanwhile, Asaram’s son Narayan Sai, who also lived as a self-styled spiritual leader as his father did, was also accused of rape. In April 2019, Narayan Sai too was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. In October 2020, he was discovered to be in possession of a mobile phone inside prison. In December 2020, he was granted furlough by the Gujarat High Court.

The rise of ‘anti-Romeo squads’

Something else had happened in February 2017. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photograph appeared in a newspaper advertisement that promised the formation of “anti-Romeo” squads. The Uttar Pradesh assembly elections were around the corner and the BJP election manifesto included the promise of creating such squads that would police the presence of young men outside girls’ colleges.

Commercial outfits took their cue and shifted tone. On February 14 that year, there were commercial advertisements in the newspaper asking readers to show love to their children, rather than to their partners.

In 2017, there were reports of men affiliated with the Bajrang Dal, a religious organisation, assaulting couples in many different parts of the country. There were no further reports about whether these men had been arrested, and whether or not the state was pressing charges against them.

Bajrang Dal activists carry an effigy representing Valentine's Day in Hyderabad. Photo credit: AFP

One of India’s largest and most populous states, Uttar Pradesh voted the Bharatiya Janata Party to power. The man picked to be chief minister was a monk, Adityanath, and one of the first things he did after taking office was the “anti-Romeo” squads. Each squad would have one police officer of sub-inspector rank and four constables.

News reports quoted members of the police force as saying that they intend to “cleanse” the city. Young couples hanging out in parks and shopping malls were described as “offenders” who would be “punished”.

Some of the policemen reportedly told journalists that they could tell a “Romeo” from the look in his eyes. It was an odd sort of claim to make. No cop claims to be able to tell murderers and rapists by the look in their eyes. What look is this that betrays itself so easily? Could it be the undisguised look of love?

The evolution of Valentine’s Day in India

Much before February 14 turned into a battlefield for the heart of India, for me, the day had been truly associated with parental love. It was my mother who taught me and my brother to cut red velvet paper in the shape of hearts and make cards on February 14.

It was just one of the many creative things she did to make our lives a bit less dull. Still, even as a child, I was aware that this festival was different from religious or nationalist celebrations. You didn’t give Valentines to all and sundry; you chose the recipients of your affection.

Until the 1980s, Valentine’s Day celebrations were limited to a handful of families in India. In the 1990s, global commerce began to nudge us more insistently in the direction of chocolate, flowers, diamonds, red faux-velvet cushions, stuffed teddy bears holding red heart-shaped cushions, jewellery shaped like a golden teddy bear holding a little diamond heart.

Restaurants began to advertise date nights with special décor. By the late ’90s, political and right-wing groups began to react sharply, decrying these tokens of romance as being foreign to Indian culture. In Mumbai, the charge was led by the Shiv Sena, which had risen to power riding on nativist sentiments.

In February 2001, for the first and only time in my life, I bought flowers for a man outside my family. The office was paying. I was a cub reporter working with Mid-Day at the time and the Sena was warning against Valentine’s Day celebrations in Mumbai.

Shiv Sena activists destroy a Valentine's Day celebration boarding displayed at a hotel in 2001, after party chief Bal Thackeray ordered a halt to the celebrations in Mumbai. Photo credit: AFP

Stores and restaurants were warned against changing décor and a few shopfronts were smashed. During an editorial meeting, it was jokingly suggested that a Valentine be sent to “Balasaheb”. Bal Thackeray, Balasaheb to supporters, was the Shiv Sena supremo at the time. The editor said to me, go do it.

So there I was, buying flowers and a giant Hallmarks’ style card, which I had inscribed with messages from young people across the city. On my way to Balasaheb’s residence, I struggled to keep the nervousness off my face. I was trailed by a staff photographer, visibly more nervous than I.

We did not expect to make it past security. Half a dozen men sat clumped together at the gate and they asked what we wanted. I said, we were here to meet Balasaheb. Somehow, the men did not connect the flowers I held with Valentine’s Day. They just asked if we had an appointment. I said, no, but we would like to try our luck. They shrugged and waved us in. A member of the staff answered the door and informed me that Balasaheb was taking his afternoon siesta. I breathed a sigh of relief, handed over the flowers and card, and fled.

The next day, the newspaper published a photo of me standing outside that door alongside a story of how young people wanted to send across the message that they just want to live and love in peace. I never went back to meet Balasaheb. I was too afraid. I still am, even though he has been dead a few years. The Shiv Sena has not publicly reversed its stand on Valentine’s Day and anti-love rhetoric has since entered the political mainstream.

Over the last few years, a WhatsApp forward has been doing the rounds in India. It shows an image of Bhagat Singh, an instantly recognisable freedom fighter executed by the British colonial government in 1931, accompanied by a message saying that it was on this date he had been martyred “but all you want is to celebrate Valentine’s Day”. This was a patent falsehood. Bhagat Singh was executed on March 23, not on February 14.

I considered sending a response to the person who sent me the message, pointing out that, as per legend, Saint Valentine was also a sort of martyr: he risked his life doing what felt right in defiance of the establishment. Surely that was worth celebrating? I did not bother though. I was afraid of being dismissed as “westernised”, or worse, a “Macaulay-putri” (daughter of Macaulay). One whose mind has been colonised.

Meanwhile, Pakistan once again demonstrated that it was India’s sibling nation. In 2017, the Islamabad High Court issued a diktat against celebrating Valentine’s Day in response to a petition arguing that it is against Islamic teachings. The judges did not see fit to remind the petitioner that Islam defines marriage as a contract by mutual consent and that there is no religious injunction against the purchase of teddy bears, heart-shaped balloons, or roses.

What is so foreign about roses?

Inside the safety of my own head, I build arguments. What is so “foreign” about roses?

Heavily fragrant, blood-red desi roses are woven with jasmine into a sehra (a flowery veil worn by bridegrooms at weddings in many parts of the Indian subcontinent). Roses are woven into wedding garlands. Rose petals are strewn on the bed for a couple’s first wedded night together.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru used to wear a red rose on his jacket. Rose petals are showered over the heads of leaders during political rallies. Rose gardens exist in several Indian cities. Roses are cultivated in household gardens and potted in balconies.

Credit: Aamir Qureshi/ AFP

Nobody has got anything against chocolate either. On festivals like Diwali, Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi, even conservative families exchange boxes of chocolate in addition to Indian sweets, which are harder to prepare and more expensive. On birthdays, schoolkids distribute chocolate rather than traditional Indian sweets.

The most conservative Indian families have nothing against furry teddy toys. Diamonds are perfectly acceptable too. The objection, therefore, is not to Western cultural motifs. All the symbols associated with love, even in commercialised formats borrowed from the West, have been embraced warmly by Indian families so long as these motifs are divorced from individual love. It was, therefore, love itself that was being denounced as “foreign”.

How so? In my head, I argue: what are you going to do with the body of evidence that is ancient Indian love poetry? Ignore cultural influences brought into India by the Arabs, Turks, Persians, Mongols, Abyssinians, Portuguese, French and English, but you must contend with ancient verses in Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil.

The Sangam-era literature is full of romantic dalliance and transgression. Ancient Indian poetry describes soft, rounded bellies and breasts; eyes were likened to lotuses, rainy seasons and absent lovers; parrots and clouds carried messages to the beloved.

Why not celebrate a Kama-Rati festival?

If conservative groups are troubled by the foreignness of Valentine’s Day symbols, they should find it easy to counter. Arrows tipped with marigold flowers could be exchanged instead of greeting cards. They could write Sanskrit verses on palm-leaf stationery. They could offer paan (betel leaf rolled with sugared rose petals) instead of chocolate.

The Hindu pantheon is vast. It includes Kama Dev, the god of love and desire. His consort, Rati, is a goddess associated with beauty. Why not celebrate a Kama-Rati festival on February 14, instead of worshipful obedience to parents?

Any politician who wished to counter Western cultural influence could have put up a show of spirited defiance and initiated a Kama-Rati festival on February 14. He, or she, could invite all members of Parliament and state legislatures to join in the celebrations. If foreignness was the bogey, it was easily beaten. The true bogey, however, is the sort of love that comes with sexual consent.

Indian Lovers Party

Politicians could, if they chose to, take a leaf out of the playbook of The Indian Lovers Party, a political outfit based in Tamil Nadu. It believes in the right of citizens to marry whoever they like, and also lists global warming as one of its chief concerns.

It exhorts lovers to plant trees on February 14. The party’s manifesto includes the promise of a gold ring to babies born to “lover couples” on Valentine’s Day. The founder, Kumar Sri Sri, has said that he formed the party on February 14, 2008, with a view to remove the sufferings of 3,00,000,000 Indian lovers, though it is not clear how he arrived at this figure.

The Indian Lovers Party has never won an election though. Kumar received less than 5,000 votes in the 2014 general election and only about 3,000 votes in the state Assembly elections. The party symbol is, predictably, a heart. There is an image of the Taj Mahal, the Mughal tomb widely recognised as a monument to love, ensconced within a heart, pierced by a symbolic arrow.

At the time of writing this, the party’s website appears to be defunct. There is no word on whether or not the party intends to continue its electoral campaigns. Journalists do not seek serious commentary from the party’s founder or members on the legislation and constriction of marital choice, or on state-funded institutions interfering with Valentine’s Day celebrations.

Colleges banning celebrations

In February 2013, multiple colleges in Hubli, Karnataka, decided to ban Valentine’s Day celebrations on campus. There had been attacks by miscreants in previous years and, instead of upping security and insisting on the rights of students to express love on this day, or any other, the college administrators decided to clamp down on non-violent students.

In February 2018, Lucknow University, one of India’s largest and oldest institutions of higher learning, issued an order that students must not come to the campus on February 14. Officially, it was meant to be a holiday for Maha Shivratri, so there would be no classes, no cultural activities and no exams. However, parents were warned against sending their wards to college on the day. Students who showed up were threatened with disciplinary action.

In February 2020, female students of the Mahila Arts and Commerce College in Amravati, Maharashtra were made to take a peculiar pledge on February 14. They were made to swear that they would not have a “love marriage”.

In the course of a creative writing workshop, I had once asked students to write about something that troubled them. One young woman wrote a story about a bright, compassionate teenage couple that gets expelled from college after the security guard sees them holding hands.

In co-educational schools, it is not uncommon to have boys and girls sit on separate sides of a classroom. Some high schools impose rules like asking boys and girls to use separate sets of staircases. One of my workshop students told me of a school that had installed a glass partition in the classroom with boys seated on one side, girls on the other. No touching, not even by accident.

The student who wrote a story about the kids expelled for falling in love resolved the conflict through suicide. She was not being dramatic. It was perfectly logical, given the lived experiences of millions of young people.

Of the reported suicides in India, the single largest cause is the amorphous term “family problems” (32.4%), while “marriage related issues” (5.5%) and “love affairs” (4.5%) are other major factors. These numbers suggest that far more people kill themselves for the lack of love, or an inability to look forward to a joyful family life, than on account of poverty, unemployment or indebtedness. Girls under 18 and young women under 30 years of age figure in higher numbers than older women and “housewives” comprise the largest group that died by suicide, followed by “students”.

Honour killing

Hundreds of young people are killed if they do not obey their families in matrimonial matters, though there is considerable underreporting of such crimes. While 356 cases were documented as “honour” killings between 2014-’16, only 30 such murders were recorded in 2018 and 24 cases in 2019.

However, there is no record of murder if neither family reports it to the police. Consider the case of the high school student strangled allegedly by her family in Bihar in April 2017.

She had been trying to run away with a schoolmate when they caught her. Her killers were going to set her body on fire and were prevented from doing so only because the police showed up just in time. Once the body was destroyed, all evidence of crime would go up in smoke. It was unlikely her family would even have reported her as missing.

Each week brings fresh accounts of such murders. In December 2020 alone, three suspected cases were reported in the newspapers. A young man of 27 was hacked to death in Kerala. He had married a young woman against her family’s wishes. Reports suggested the couple had been in love as schoolmates and had finally decided to get their marriage registered in September. They were both Hindu, but of different castes.

In another case, a woman of 24 was shot dead, allegedly by her own family members in Uttar Pradesh. Same religion, different castes. Reports said, her family did not agree to the match even though their relationship had lasted eight years. In June, the couple married at a temple. By December, she was dead. In the third instance, in Bihar, a boy of 16 was reportedly hacked to death and his body dumped in a river. He had been in love with a girl of another caste.

Such murders are reported from all over the country, usually as brief items on the inside pages of the newspaper. The reports offer sketchy details such as the ages of the victims and their community affiliations. In many instances, there is murder even before young citizens have made a definitive choice.

In April 2017, a boy of 19 was beaten to death in Jharkhand simply because he seemed to be interested in a girl of 15. It was not clear that they were romantically involved or whether they simply wanted to get to know each other. Reports said that it was the girl who had called, asking the boy to come and meet her. The boy was Muslim, the girl was not.

In another such case from Uttar Pradesh, in July 2016, a boy of 14 years (or 16 years, depending on the newspaper you read) was killed for developing a relationship with a neighbour’s daughter. Different religions. The parents made no allowances for natural affinity and empathy and a childhood spent in friendship.

One does not need to fall in love across religious lines to attract violence. In October 2016, a boy of 20 years and a girl of 16 years were found hanging from a tree in the state of Odisha. He was Hindu, reportedly backward caste. She belonged to one of the Scheduled Tribes, which are broadly accepted as being within the Hindu fold, though their religious practices are different. The boy’s father insisted that it was not a double suicide, as was suggested in the early days of the investigation.

Some killings are neither about religion nor endogamy but complex exogamy rules. In 2020, a young woman was killed for marrying a man of the same gotra. Reports said the parents drove 80 km with her body in the rear seat of their car, before dumping her unceremoniously into a canal.

Other killings are on account of regional or linguistic differences. In May 2017, a young woman’s parents entered her home with a stranger who shot her husband dead. She was Hindu, North Indian. Her husband was Hindu, South Indian. The daughter had already signed away all claims to wealth that she may have inherited. Yet, her family could not bear to let her go and seek her own happiness.

What all these cases have in common is the parents’ disrespect for the sexual choices made by their children. However, if elders do not violently prevent a match, they themselves are at risk of being killed. In 2017, an elderly couple in Bihar was lynched by a mob after their grandson eloped with a girl from another caste.

A protest against mob lynching in Mumbai in July 2017. Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Often, young lovers lose hope when faced with unending disapproval and the prospect of a forced separation. In February 2018, young lovers from Jalna, a small town in Maharashtra, who had gone missing on Valentine’s Day were found dead a few days later, with a bottle of poison and a note affirming their love. The parents of the girl, who was 17, had filed a kidnapping case against the young man. In Assam, another couple reportedly killed themselves after celebrating Valentine’s Day together. Both were 26-year-old.

In February 2017, a young couple in Kerala was harassed and filmed when they were out on a beach on Valentine’s Day. The mob humiliated the young woman and assaulted the young man when he tried to stand up for her. A few days later, he killed himself.

Kerala does better than most Indian states on most human development indices. It has a 99.5% female literacy rate, the highest in the country, and only 0.9% of girls under 18 are already married in the state.

However, Kerala is also where young couples were caned by political activists in the presence of the police and journalists. The man who led the attack was 57-year-old and had reportedly been arrested before for molesting a disabled woman.

In November 2014, a “Kiss of Love” protest was initiated in Kerala to push back against several instances of “moral policing”, or more accurately, the harassment of men and women who happened to be out in public, either displaying some sign of affection, or taking a walk together, or even riding pillion on a bike. In once such incident, in 2013, a boy of 19 years was killed in an accident after being chased by a mob of men, while his girlfriend rode pillion behind him.

Both religious and political outfits in Kerala were threatening to physically prevent people from kissing or hugging during this protest march. The state police responded by arresting the advocates of love.

Kerala was also where a student organisation initiated a website for inter-caste and inter-faith marriage: www.secularmarriage.com. It was launched in 2014 and was hacked within hours of the launch.

Interfaith marriages and ‘love jihad’

Kerala is also where a girl of 21 years was detained by the cops on charges of child abuse. Her boyfriend was 17-year-old and she had moved in with him. His mom complained that her son was being sexually assaulted since he was under the legal age for marriage, which is 21 years for boys in India.

Kerala is where a student of homoeopathy converted to Islam. Akhila chose to become Hadiya and she went looking for love. She found it in Shefin Jahan, a Muslim man and all hell broke loose. Her parents accused her husband of having links with the dreaded terrorist organisation, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They said she was brainwashed and did not know what she was doing.

The National Investigative Agency was involved. The matter went first to the High Court and then the Supreme Court. The Kerala High Court annulled her marriage and awarded custody to her father. She was 25 years old at this time.

Hadiya's parents had accused her husband of having links with the ISIS. Photo credit: Vipin Kumar/HT

The case was appealed and state investigators argued before the highest court in the land that this young woman was a victim of “psychological kidnapping”. She fought legally to recover her personhood and, in March 2018, the Supreme Court restored her marriage. However, in the interim, it also advised her to return to her hostel rather than her husband’s home.

At one point, her father had asked members of Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre, a Hindu organisation, to prevail upon her. Hadiya accused them of “torturing” her and trying to convert her back to Hinduism against her will. Akhila/Hadiya’s father claims to be an atheist.

In recent years, there have been blatant attempts by certain groups to prevent inter-faith marriages where the groom is a Muslim man by keeping tabs on marriage notices posted at the registration office, and sharing private information on social media while inciting people to forcibly separate couples.

In March 2020, the Kerala state government announced that it would open “safe houses” for interfaith couples and when one such couple was threatened after announcing their declaration to marry under the Special Marriage Act, as is currently required by law, the state decided to stop a public display of such announcements.

At the time of writing this, www.secularmarriage.com was up for sale. The domain owner was offering it up for $997.

The Indian Constitution is supposed to have sought inspiration from the constitutions of various modern democracies. It allows us many fundamental rights and freedoms but it does not speak of the pursuit of happiness.

It is not uncommon to hear elders in an Indian family say: what is this nonsense about happiness? You think you can be happy? The purpose of marriage, they are likely to say, is not happiness, it is the perpetuation of the self, with all its privilege and prejudice intact.

Clans decide: who is chosen, how s/he should behave, how much money must be spent on the wedding, under what circumstances can the union be dissolved. Negotiations between clans are controlled by a complex schema of socio-economic hierarchy. Every group has been assigned a fixed place and nobody must attempt to rise above their place by mingling with their social superiors.

In such a social environment, love is a four-letter word. It is the freak gene in the body of the nation. A tic that cannot be controlled. It will not do as Papa wants. It will not kneel to Mamma’s wishes. Maternal love and paternal love are lauded but these relationships do not entail mutual respect and equal rights.

Love for the homeland is tolerated as long as its manifestation is limited to observances such as standing up for the national anthem or saluting the armed forces. To ask citizens to think about what true love entails can be construed as treachery.

Riot is another four-letter word, often triggered by rumours that a girl was harassed by one or more boys of the other community. Young people are often dissuaded from loving relationships through threats that their union would lead to communal riots. It is understood that innocents get murdered and raped during riots.

The few who dare to dream of consensual sexual relationships run grave risks. There is the ever-present threat of murder of course, but there is also the threat of rape with no legal recourse.

An increasing number of Hindu vigilante groups have taken it upon themselves to prevent legal marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men. They do this by setting up a network of informers in the courts where such marriages can be registered, as well as through infiltrating young people’s social groups to spy on them.

There is no remorse and with new legal ordinances in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh against religious conversions for or on account of marriages, they have been emboldened to not only prevent inter-faith marriages but to actively hunt down couples and report them to the police.

Reports suggest that volunteers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have “intervened” and “picked up” women who go to courts to get their marriages registered. They proudly declare that they intervene in similar ways every other day. One volunteer claimed that after forcibly separating the couple, they “get the woman married off to a Hindu from our own group”. He freely admits to using force, and that the girl did not consent.

Marital rape

The opposite of sexual consent is another four-letter word. Rape is a crime in law, except when the perpetrator is married to the victim. The 2015 National Family Health Survey reports that at least 9% of married women between the ages of 15 years and 49 years had faced sexual violence and in this category, 90% had been assaulted by a current or former spouse.

Some reports even suggest that more women end up in hospitals with injuries suggesting sexual assault during India’s wedding season.

Rape is also a legal trick used by clans against consenting lovers. A significant proportion of rape and abduction cases have been discovered to be filed by parents of girls and women who elope and want to get married to men of their own choosing.

In such a climate, that there should be a group called Love Commandos is the hurrah of life. A volunteer-led group, Love Commandos offers support to couples who want to marry for love. They offer emergency phone contact and temporary shelter.

Their website – www.lovecommandos.org – says that they do not intervene with parents. They place their faith in the Constitution and the law courts. They also make it clear that they do not cater to minors or unemployed youths. Which is to say, you cannot be clothed and housed and fed indefinitely.

What happens to young lovers who do not yet have jobs, as indeed most do not, when they are between 18-year and 21-year-old? How long can they hope to keep their bodies intact, without the help of their own families or clan networks?

Representational image. Photo credit: Ashish Kushwaha/via Pixabay (licensed under CCO)

Arranged marriages

Much of India, therefore, sticks to cautious marriages where sex can be taken for granted (only by men) and affection is a chancy bonus. It prefers marriages that are hard to walk out of, with the shadows of two extended clans and millions of caste members standing at the door, not to mention the weight of jewels, houses and cars extracted as dowries.

The Lok Foundation-Oxford University multi-year youth survey suggests that 93% of urban Indians have had arranged marriages. Only 3% of the respondents said they had a “love marriage” while a lucky 2% had a “love-cum-arranged” match, that is, they fell in love with the person their parents chose for them.

Growing urbanisation and new technologies have not changed social norms significantly. The rates of “arranged” marriage remained over 90%, regardless of whether the respondents are in their 80s or their 20s, and the overwhelming majority marry within their own caste.

What is more, an overwhelming number of young people do not appear to be striving for change. A survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung suggests that 24% of Indians between the ages of 15 years and 34 years are “extremely patriarchal”, that 53% disapprove of dating and 45% disapprove of the interreligious marriage.

Another study, conducted by the University of Maryland, found that 74% of Indian women need permission from parents, husbands or in-laws to go somewhere, even if it is just to see a doctor, and 58% need permission to go to the grocery store. Only 5% of Indian women surveyed felt they had any real control over who they married.

According to the National Family and Health Survey of 2016, about 27% of Indian women between the ages of 20 years and 24 years were not yet 18-year-old when they married. Even among those who were not legally underage, the question of choice was fraught.

The new mean age of marriage for Indian women (Sample Registration Survey 2018) is about 22 years. This data suggests that girls are marrying later, perhaps gaining at least a school education if not a college degree. However, there is significant pushback on the question of choosing who to love.

In May 2018, one of India’s elected representatives more or less advocated child marriage, saying that more young people are straying and there are “accidents like Love Jihad” because they are not married whilst they are still too young to decide.

The state of Madhya Pradesh is now contemplating new laws to raise the minimum age of marriage for women to 21. In theory, this makes for a more egalitarian system, since it removes the legal age difference between the sexes. However, there is no law in this state, or elsewhere in India, which specifically gives girls and young women the right to live separate from their parents and to shun their guardianship in the event that they choose to form romantic or sexual partnerships before marriage.

Moral policing

A few years ago, I was out for a late-night stroll on a promenade with a group of visiting writers in Mumbai. They drifted off one by one until there was just me and one other, a man. There was a police station across the road, so I had assumed that this was a safe spot. A group of policemen was parked just a few feet away, enjoying the sea breeze and drinking cups of lukewarm tea brought by vendors who went about on bicycles well past midnight.

As we strolled past, the cops asked me to go home. I asked, “Why?” They said, “You should not be out this late. If something bad happens to you, you will blame us.”

I did not ask why something bad would happen to me when the police station was right there, in plain sight and uniformed men sworn to protect me parked just a few feet away. I went home without argument.

Credit: AFP

Another writer friend told me about the time she was kissing a young man and was confronted by cops in a Delhi park. They accused her of obscene behaviour. The phrase “chumma-chaati” was used. Literally, it means kissing-licking and is used with a note of disparagement. It happened years ago and she could laugh when she told the story. The truth is, she knew that she barely escaped being detained.

An enquiry or suspension of cops in one district does not deter cops elsewhere. No government is willing to take a clear stand on the question of citizens’ right to public spaces, and the right to experience and express love. There is a broad, ill-defined law against “obscenity” that can be stretched all the way from kissing to hugging to holding hands or eating an ice-cream on the promenade. The police and elected governments take their cues from what the majority chooses to punish.

In May 2018, a couple was beaten up by their co-passengers in the Kolkata metro rail for either “standing too close” or hugging. There were no further reports about the attackers, or about whether or not the state police prosecuted them for assault.

Also in May 2018, a Christian youth was killed in Kerala and his body tossed into a canal. He had married just a few days before. The girl was also Christian but from an upper-caste family. The girl was a legal adult, yet she was summoned to the police station where her family tried to forcibly take her back home, in the presence of the police.

Reports do not tell us that the police prosecuted the parents for trying to interfere with an adult citizen’s marital choices.

Lack of free will and consent

The state never talks of consent. There is no talk of seeking, and giving, sexual consent in schools and colleges. There is no talk of sexual consent in religious discourse. It is as if our leadership – not just politicians but leaders in faith, in education, even in business – finds the idea of female consent to be a dangerous one.

Instead, elected representatives talk of keeping women safe by “parking them at home” as if they were cars. They blame rape on Chinese food or women for adopting “Western” clothes. Most recently, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh even suggested that all “working” women, that is, those who have paid jobs to go to, register themselves with the police so that they can be tracked wherever they go.

Where the state cannot control women’s choices legally, it allows extra-legal forms of control to flourish. It used to be that one could escape the stranglehold of the orthodoxy in rural areas by moving to cosmopolitan cities.

That was one reason why Dr BR Ambedkar had urged Dalits to move into cities, to escape the stranglehold of local caste networks. However, there are reports of landlords refusing to lease out homes based on religion, caste, diet and marital choices. Singles, quaintly described as bachelors or bachelor ladies, are unwelcome too.

Some real estate rentals spell it out clearly: “families only”, which translates to married heterosexual couples, ideally with kids. Family is thus understood to be a unit where you are not free to choose the person you live with.

It is a unit where you can be labelled appropriately. This is a form of housing discrimination that targets multiple groups, including sexual minorities, singles, people who choose to walk out of unhappy or abusive marriages, or couples who do not believe in legalising their status.

There are other forms of indirect control over young people’s sexual choices. If you were a jobless young lover, your best bet of safety lay in a city where you could live independent of parental control. However, you would have to live in a slum, and even that could turn out to be a costly affair.

There is no unemployment dole in lieu of a minimum wage, no social security that can be de-linked from your family, no council housing that allows you to live without family support. You would have no clean water, no guarantee of electricity, no easy access to a toilet. You might die of cholera or dengue before your own clan hunted you down.

A tiny fraction of the population feels free to marry who it will. The rest focus their energies on not letting anybody get above themselves in the social order. Even this tiny fraction barricades itself against the threat of disruptions of class via love. Clothes, address, furniture, accent, leisure habits, food choices give us away.

Within the educated middle class, we hear barely disguised cries of outrage when a “pretender” surfaces: someone who dresses better than her job ought to allow, someone who uses an ambiguous surname that does not immediately betray his religion or caste origins.

When the discovery is made, those higher up on the ladder feel wounded. As if poverty or social ambition were evidence that the beloved had no feelings, to begin with, as if no true love was possible between those who belong to different social strata. As if the very opposite were not true: those who look for surnames and house addresses that betray social origin are handicapped for love.

One is not supposed to say things like this among friends. One raises a brow when one hears of affairs that involve the giving up of privilege, the giving up of inherited wealth, the giving up everything except the beloved. I have never heard such choices being lauded in public discourse or in private conversations.

Representational image. Photo credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/ AFP

Threats, assault and lynching

Now, the country finds itself at a pass where not only are couples targeted for marrying someone their families disapprove of but hanging out with friends across community lines can lead assault, lynching or arrest.

In 2015, a bunch of students posing for a photograph led to a violent attack. In the photo, a young man sprawls playfully across the laps of four girls. One of the other boys who also appears in the picture, sitting nearby, was Muslim. He was hunted down by a gang in Mangalore, driven to an isolated location and badly beaten, although there was no indication that he was involved with any of those girls.

In May 2018, another Muslim youth came within inches of his life when he went to meet a girl in Uttarakhand. He was saved from a potential lynching by a mob because a police officer stepped in.

The Sikh cop turned into an overnight celebrity. He appeared as a last spark of hope. His name and image were circulated on social media as representative of the best among us. The photograph that went “viral” showed the young man with his skinny arms wrapped around the cop.

In February 2020, a Dalit youth in Rajasthan was allegedly beaten up and his head partly tonsured when he went to meet a female friend from an upper-caste family.

By the end of the year, a 17-year-old boy was first attacked by a group of people, then arrested under the new Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion ordinance. He had simply been walking a female friend home. He remains in jail, despite the teenage girl and her mother’s protests that she was neither abducted, nor allured, nor had there been any intention to elope.

What are these young citizens’ thoughts on Valentine’s Day? Do they quake and crouch in terror? Drained of all hopes of love, do their beings fill up with the great rush of worshipful obedience?

The rhetoric against Valentine’s Day is kept alive by one group or the other. In 2020, “warnings” were issued by the Hindu Sena in Coimbatore and Delhi. The Bajrang Dal has continued to issue warnings against Valentine’s Day celebrations and continued to harass citizens in 2018 and 2020. In 2018, the Hindu Kalyan Mahasabha had organised a “lathh puja” or a symbolic worship of sticks, as a warning against Valentine’s Day.

The same year, the Bharat Hindu Front “married” a dog to a donkey, with some of the group’s members claiming that this sort of union was equivalent to people marrying across caste or religious lines. It was as bald a claim as could be that they do not see members of different castes or faiths as fully human or members of the same species. There was no response from the state, asserting anything to the contrary.

A protest in Ahmedabad in 2018. Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP

There is not one cabinet minister or leading politician from any national political party who has declared unequivocally that women are free to love whoever they choose, that those who defy their families deserve respect and protection, and that parents and clans will just have to lump it, else they will be punished severely. Our political leadership does not say to us that love is necessary, that life can be painful for the lack of it. Nobody stands up for the right to be out celebrating on Valentine’s Day.

The nation’s women continue to be exposed to furtive touch, irresponsible touch, unwanted and violent touch. They are never told that they must insist on consensual touch, always. They are never reassured that, for all its thorns, life can also bring roses. They are never promised fragrance and sweetness. Not even on one day of the year.

Annie Zaidi is the author most recently of Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation.