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February 19, 2015

By Sai Sachin R and Priyanka Shankar

Bengaluru used to have a reputation as India’s air-conditioned city. Temperatures were mild and so were manners. Once considered liberal and tolerant, the city once known as Bangalore is acquiring a reputation of narrow mindedness, say activists who accuse city authorities of “moral policing,” even over something as universally human as a kiss.

Last Saturday, on Valentine’s Day, a group called the “Coalition Against Immoral Policing” (CAIP) held a demonstration in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park. Sixty people, mostly couples, protested what they see as a culture of offense – people who take offense when they see other people displaying affection publicly. The couples included those who married outside their religion, something frowned upon in many parts of India.

The protesters argued with officials after being prevented from carrying out the march, which police thought to be an offshoot of the “Kiss of Love” protests – mass displays of affection in which people kiss openly in defiance of more accepted, chaste public behaviour. The demonstrators were eventually allowed to march in small groups from Cubbon Park through MG Road, a shopping and pub district in the city, holding uplacards.

“Immoral police want to control who we look at, who we sit with, who we talk with, who we touch, who we grow with, and what our sexuality is,” read the flyer that CAIP demonstrators distributed to passersby. The gathering also included one young couple who were nearly expelled from college after a security guard took offence when he saw the young man’s hand around the woman’s shoulder.

“It’s becoming very hard for us to even have a small gathering in Bangalore,” said Anthony Peter Sylvester, an activist who was part of Saturday’s demonstration. Sylvester also took part in Bengaluru’s Gay Pride March last December.

In November, authorities in the city banned an attempt to hold the “Kiss of Love” event, citing security concerns, while similar events in other Indian cities from Kochi to Kolkata have drawn large crowds. Vijayan Kallil, one of the people behind Bengaluru’s foiled mass-kiss campaign, bemoans the lack of an activist culture in a city that is home to “techies” from across India. Voter turnout, at 56 percent, was much lower in the 2014 general election than in other cities.

Police in the city have also denied permission or made it difficult for organizers to get permission for similar events like Bengaluru’s version of the SlutWalk, an international movement against the idea that women deserve sexual harassment depending on how they dress.

Dhillan Mowli, 29, the main organizer of the attempted 2011 SlutWalk, said the city’s reputation as a liberal place is changing. “Certain regressive and aggressive conservatives are finding more public expression,” he said, referring to the threats faced by organisers.

Such events have drawn the ire of conservative groups who see public display of affection as a threat to Indian culture. V.S. Hegde, a Bangalore-based advocate, called them “immoral”, “vulgar”, and a bad influence on the young.

“The tradition of Valentine’s Day isn’t ours,” said Chander Prakash Kaushik, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (All India Hindu Assembly) political party.DSC_0565_1

For historian Ramachandra Guha who lives in Bengaluru, campaigns like the “Kiss of Love” are helpful because they try to set up obstacles to “a general culture of patriarchal backlash against women’s independence”.

Bengaluru has had a dismal record of women’s safety in recent years. Official statistics paint a picture of rising crime against women — the city ranked among the worst three Indian cities from 2011 to 2013, the last three years for which statistics are available.

In the past, the city’s “cosmopolitanism” meant it was relatively safe for women, but as economic migrants flocked to the city to catch a piece of the IT boom, crime has risen, Guha said.

Bengaluru’s population was 9.6 million in 2011. Ten years earlier, it was just 5.7 million.
“Overall, it’s currently a city that’s struggling to accommodate an expanded identity,” said Mowli.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan and David Lalmalsawma | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)