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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Moral policing: 6 recent incidents that prove Indian society’s narrow & judgmental psyche

Here comes another important issue that the mainstream media is ignoring a big time. The issue is all about individual freedom, identity and respect. It is about the basic right of every human being to live with the dignity that has been mentioned in our constitution. Among hundreds of social, political and economic menaces, one big factor that is earning a bad name for in India is MORAL POLICING. Certainly, it is not a new enemy to all those free-thinking, rational and educated Indians who try to live their lives based on education and broadmindedness instead of narrow judgmental beliefs.

It seems that the Indian government just does not like us to have fun and personal choices. From the various bans on beef to a strong dislike of public displays of affection (PDA), the written and unwritten code of moral policing is growing long. These bizarre bans are in “public interest”, but who is to decide what is in public interest? In this article, we shall highlight six major and shameful moral policing incidents of India that help us realize that our country’s general conscience is far from recovering from its narrow-mindedness and judgmental attitude.

Moral policing: 6 recent incidents that prove Indian society’s narrow psyche

1. Attack on OTT platforms

In July, commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal asked the entertainment industry to self-regulate their programs on OTT platforms, claiming that many of them portray India and Indian society poorly. If the minister was really concerned, there are hundreds of other real events taking place across the country which really portray Indian society as still living in a medieval era. But matters have quickly gathered steam since then. Recently, after hearing a petition filed in public interest to regulate OTT platforms, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). And last week, a gazette notification brought all streaming platforms under the ambit of the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B), sparking fears of a  new censorship regime. In particular, the ministry may try to justify that the existing laws to cope with objectionable content (particularly, under Section 67 of the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code) are not adequate.

The government had been pushing for self-regulation of the sector for two years, but sparring OTT firms were unable to agree to a common code. Eventually, they signed one under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), creating a framework for age classification, appropriate content description and access control. However, this was rejected by the I&B ministry, which hinted at an independent complaints redressal mechanism, and enumeration of prohibited content. But our question is can the state dictate what its citizens will watch or not? And can a government define the terms like “public interest”, “obscene content” and the like?

2.Atmanirbhar sex toys?

Here comes another example of moral policing. For a country renowned the world over as the historic land of Kamasutra and Khajuraho, India chooses to remain awfully secretive about its sex culture that is, at all times, nothing but thriving. But it thrives in the dark underbelly of its people’s warped perceptions of tradition and morality. It’s like contraband: always high in demand, exchanged clandestinely, but never ever to be spoken about. To be treated as if it doesn’t exist and never will. So naturally, sex and everything around it, from smooches to sex toys, is all a big hush-hush affair. And when it comes to women, it’s straight-up taboo, no two ways about it. Which is why female pleasure, and self-pleasure, has always been attached to notions of shame. And to use a sex toy to stimulate said pleasure? Almost sinful. India still has a dichotomous love-hate relationship with sexual pleasure. Socially, sexual wellness is still seen as a subject to be broached behind closed hospital or bedroom doors. Women, especially, are discreetly conditioned from early ages that sex as a pleasure concept is the domain of men, and women who exercise sexual agency of their own volition are “dirty,” “characterless,” “loose.” If this isn’t moral policing then what is it? And yet, in 2018, the sexual wellness industry in India stood at Rs 2000 crore, with a projected growth of Rs 8,700 crore by 2020. Deep patriarchal beliefs and subjugation of women in the societal system are primary reasons behind this. But on the other hand, Made-in-India sex toys are coming soon, hail Atmanirbhar Bharat.

3. Love Jihad law

One of the prime examples of India’s moral policing. The spectre of “love jihad” is haunting India again. The last time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took this up as a political plank wholeheartedly, it resulted in the killing of 62 people, and displacement of more than 50,000 Muslims in the days following the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh.

In the months preceding the riots that left all of western UP polarised along religious lines, the BJP unit of the state experimented with the ‘love jihad’ campaign and successfully shattered the region’s social harmony. Jats and Muslims, who had come together as one agricultural community under the leadership of former Prime Minister Charan Singh since the 1970s, became sworn enemies. The resultant social fragmentation is still bearing fruit for the saffron party.

BJP workers and others affiliated with the Sangh parivar triggered distrust among Jats against Muslims. They visited villages and held meetings with elders in the Jat community, with the intention to exploit orthodoxy among older people and their traditional opposition to romantic liaisons of any type. Now UP CM Yogi Adityanath is hell-bent on drafting a law over love jihad and prevent inter-religion marriages. Does anyone care to know about individual wishes and choices?

4. Obscenity politics on Milind Soman photo

Model and actor Milind Soman was booked by the Goa Police on November 6 for obscenity, days after he posted a photograph of himself running nude on a beach in the state. He is not the first celebrity in trouble with Goa Police for ‘obscenity’ this week — actor Poonam Pandey and her husband faced arrest for a controversial photoshoot, a video of which went viral online. Two high-profile cases on ‘obscenity’ in the same week come as no surprise, though. India has had a colourful history of prosecuting people for obscene conduct, obscene content and even obscene language.  Soman’s matter escalated when Pooja Bedi, extended her support by tweeting, “Absolutely nothing obscene about Milind Soman’s aesthetic pic. The obscenity lies in the minds of a viewer imagining more!… If nudity is a crime all naga babas should be arrested. Smearing ash can’t make it acceptable!” However, her comments drew flak from a certain segment of citizens for being insensitive leading to the question, whether it is fair to compare nudity and vulgarity of a film artist to the tradition of Naga ascetics? Can the court decide a framework to compare religion with art in a society like ours.

The words ‘obscene’ and ‘obscenity’ are not defined clearly in the IPC. Section 292 of IPC only states that if any material taken as a whole, is lascivious or appeals to prurient interest and tends to deprave and corrupts the persons who read, see or hear the matter contained will come under the ambit of obscenity. Further, Section 294 of IPC punishes a person for committing an obscene act in public. The Information and Technology Act also gives provisions to prohibit obscene content in electronic form. Section 67 of IT Act gives punishment for publishing obscene material in electronic form. It is to be noted that any obscenity in electronic form can only be tried under the IT Act and not under IPC.

This only shows that the right to freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. Article 19 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the right also provides for reasonable restrictions on various grounds, including that of decency and morality. This means that free speech has to be balanced against the contemporary community standards of morality when it comes to penalising obscene acts or content.

5. Kerala couple trolled

In yet another case of moral policing, a couple from Kerala has been widely trolled and bullied online for an intimate, romantic post-wedding photoshoot shared online. Rishi Karthikeyan and Lakshmi got married on September 16, but due to the lockdown and the COVID-19 situation, celebrations did not go as planned and remained subdued. So in order to celebrate the occasion, the couple came up with a unique idea of theme-based post-wedding photoshoot. They hired a photographer who also happened to be their friend and set off for the extremely beautiful Idukki’s tea gardens.

Absolutely unaware of what will happen next, the couple shared their intimate post-wedding photoshoot on social media and became victims of cyberbullying. Social media users slammed the couple with abuse and vulgar comments for posting pictures that were allegedly indecent and inappropriate. The photoshoot was an idea to celebrate Rishi and Lakshmi’s relationship in a funfilled yet intimate manner. So who gives us the right to comment about a couple’s privacy? Even though the photos were posted on social media, is it even people’s subject of trolling or judgment? We wonder.

6. Attack on Hindu-Muslim duo kissing scene

An Indian state on Sunday asked police to investigate after a member of the country’s ruling party objected to scenes in the Netflix series A Suitable Boy, in which a Hindu girl kisses a Muslim boy against the backdrop of a Hindu temple. The series is based on an English novel by one of India’s leading writers Vikram Seth and follows a young girl’s quest for a husband. It is directed by celebrated Indian filmmaker Mira Nair.

Indian moral policing
A Suitable Boy. Photo credit: BBC

Gaurav Tiwari, a leader of the youth wing of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also governs Madhya Pradesh, has filed a separate complaint against Netflix and warned of street protests by Hindus if the series is not taken off the platform. A Netflix India spokesman declined comment on the police complaint. Social media commentators say the scope for creative freedom is narrowing in India, especially when it involves any depiction of Hindu-Muslim relations.

The list doesn’t end here, as the examples of moral policing are multiple around us. All we hope for is that India comes out of these cliches and focus on serious issues like unemployment, poor economy, health, education among others.

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