Indians Divided on Kissing A Cultural Taboo Goodbye

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 20, 2007

NEW DELHI -- On a scorching afternoon, Javed Khan, 24, and his fiancee were cuddling under a leafy tree at one of the city's many ancient tombs, a rare nook of privacy in a country with a billion people, arranged marriages and a deeply held taboo against public displays of affection.

They held hands and whispered to each other. They kissed. Then they kissed some more, just feet away from dozens of other canoodling couples in India's tamer version of the backseat make-out session.

All was well, until Khan's romantic moment was interrupted by a park guard, who started harassing him and his 21-year-old fiancee over their snuggling.

"Things shouldn't still be like this in India," Khan said, recalling the recent incident as he once again cuddled with his shy and thin fiancee, Ashna, this time at a different tomb. "India is supposed to be more modern and free."

Few issues symbolize India's contrasts and divisions more than the debate over public displays of affection, which touches on issues related to family values, politics and just how much and how fast India should mirror the West.

A decade after the once-chaste Bollywood film industry got away with its first on-screen kiss on the lips, the proliferation of sexual displays in music videos, film and literature has angered a small but vociferous minority of Hindu conservatives, who say they want to preserve India's vaunted and ancient heritage from what they see as the vapid values that come with globalization.

The issue of public amorousness was brought into sharp focus last month when Richard Gere, the enduring Hollywood heartthrob, swept Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty into a scandalous embrace at a public event and kissed her a few times, garnering headlines across the globe and leading to fiery protests. The cover story earlier this month in India Today, the country's prominent newsmagazine, was "The Kiss of Death. Can a kiss kill a civilization?" Newspapers called it "the kiss that became a kissa," Hindi for drama or story.

The much-ballyhooed kisses-- all on the cheek -- came as social conservatives, many of them from Hindu nationalist parties, are pushing back against what they see as the corruption of their culture by the West.

"Moral police," sometimes organized by regional Hindu nationalist parties and sometimes just vigilantes with a point of view, have been increasingly on the prowl recently. Last month, Hindu extremist mobs attacked Star TV offices in Mumbai, the cultural capital of the country, for airing a story on an interfaith couple who had eloped.

In the past year, members of a conservative Hindu nationalist party have attacked stores carrying Valentine's Day cards, and a government-appointed committee has banned a channel called Fashion TV. Sex education books have been blacklisted in some state schools.

Also in Mumbai, more than 100 necking couples have been rounded up at a seaside promenade in recent weeks, detained and charged with obscene behavior.

"India cannot be overrun. We have to have a mechanism in place for tackling this onslaught," Ram Madhav, spokesperson for the Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said in an interview. "The soft face of globalization entered India in the form of Mickey Mouse and Barbie. Today it has grown into Richard Gere. This is the latest face of what a cultural attack can be. We should have the right to say no to a few things."

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