Couples Arrested, Books Banned: Is Moral Policing In India A Cause For Worry?

Posted on September 14, 2015 in Society

By Uzma Shamim:

We often cringe when we see couples kissing or showing affection on the roads. We often tend to get uncomfortable seeing such sights in parks or theatres, or any other kind of public space. Many of us are not comfortable with showing affection even towards our loved ones in public. However, does your averseness for public display of love give you the right to accuse them of indecent behaviour, mar their image and put them behind bars? Moral policing, as we all know has become too common and predominant to neglect, and the manifold increase in arrests of couples, involved in a show of physical love, is just one aspect of it. In April this year, a youth in Thrissur district of Kerala was beaten to death by an agitated mob for just being found in the house of a woman he knew well.

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Those who support moral policing often state that the so called modern approach and western influences has made moral policing an obligation, for those who wish to preserve the tradition and culture of India. However, if we trace the history of such incidents, it goes as back as the early 1990’s. Right from Muslim vigilante groups that threatened women to cover their faces, to when members of Shiv Sena barged in a pub in Mangalore and beat up a group of men and women, the trend over the years has just worsened. The most shocking manifestation being the one in August 2015, when the Mumbai Police raided hotels and guest houses near Aksa Beach and Madh Island, and detained about 40 couples.

However, the legal back up for the idea of moral policing stands on very unstable grounds. The couples arrested on the charge of moral policing are booked under Section 110 (indecent behaviour in public) of the Bombay Police Act. However nowhere has it been specified what constitutes indecent behaviour in public. This gives certain police authorities and even right wing groups leeway to impose their opinion on society.

Moral policing exists also in the domain of cinema, with certain films being denounced as prejudiced in favour of a particular religion or philosophy by groups which do not propagate similar ones. There have been many movies which have gained political acclaim but haven’t seen the light of day in India like Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Deepa Mehta’s Fire and many more. Filmmakers have also accused the Cinematograph Act of 1952 being utilised in a wrongful way to curb the creative freedom of filmmakers with just one body, namely the Censor Board, unilaterally taking all decisions in the name of protecting ‘public good’. There was recent trouble in this area, in February this year, with the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) bringing out a list of words which were henceforth banned from being used in films. The practice has made its presence felt in the literary world too. So called morality enforcement groups also keep a tab on literary activity in the nation with regular demands for books to be banned, and threats to the authors and publishing houses. This includes books like The Ramayana as told by Aubrey Menen or Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim.

Contrary to popular opinion, moral policing is not just the restraint placed by the authorities on the display of love in the public space. It is the curtailment of any kind of action, individual or collective based on the ground of moral principles. The seriousness of the issue has been augmenting because the idea of moral policing has become so ingrained in the minds of the public that even without realising, we impose it on ourselves. We are often apprehensive about expressing ourselves in public because of the fear of being judged, based on our moral standards, by the society. This is because we know that the moment we digress a bit from the conventionally held norms, we shall be labelled as heretics.

What’s wrong with moral policing, is that it goes against the most basic premise of a democracy, that is, personal autonomy and freedom. Who has the right to decide which actions are decent or obscene for the public? Why such hullabaloo against sex within confined doors, when consensual sex even without marriage is not a crime in India? Isn’t it sheer hypocrisy and sexism to classify drinking in the public for men to be appropriate while women are defamed for the same? Why the need to superimpose one’s opinions on the other? What constitutes morality and who has the authority to impose it are two questions we, as an independent nation, need to urgently address.

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