A youth festival dedicated to the freedom to love. Not organised by any radical group, but by the government. Not some abstract concept of divine love, but actual love between young adults.
Given the way authorities across India try their best to suppress spontaneous love between young people, the Delhi government’s just-concluded six-day youth festival on the theme “Let Love Live’’, was no less than a miracle.
Consider this. Both the states bordering Delhi are notorious for crushing any expression of love between consenting youth. On Republic Day, the Uttar Pradesh government thought it fit to include in its achievements, the work of its anti-Romeo squads. These special police squads have been filing six cases a day since they were set up nine months back.
As for Delhi’s other neighbour: as if its khap panchayats weren’t enough to crush the spirit of youngsters in love, Haryana saw the setting up of ‘Durga Vahini squads’ inspired by Adityanath’s brainchild.
It may well be that a majority of the 3,003 persons against whom 1,706 FIRs have been filed by UP’s anti-Romeo squads, and the over nine lakh who have been warned (according to the state government’s figures), were actually caught harassing girls.
But who can forget that in the first few weeks of their formation, these squads, flush with moral zeal, went around humiliating any couple found together in public? Even a brother and sister were not spared, nor were groups of boys and girls studying together in parks. A police force that believed that loitering was an offence, and that the test to judge a couple’s bonafides was to check whether their parents knew what they were doing, could not have behaved otherwise.
Public anger forced the chief minister to order these squads to leave consenting youth alone. But for such a deep shift in their mindset to take place, they needed training. They were trained, first by a women’s group, then by IIM Lucknow. Did these spells of training help?
Judging by the goings on in UP on this year’s Valentine’s Day, young love continues to be frowned upon in the state which can boast of, to use a cliché, the ultimate monument to love. Lucknow University declared a holiday on February 14 for Mahashivratri, and warned students not to loiter on its premises, adding that ‘Western culture’ was influencing the youth to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
In Muzaffarnagar, the eve of Valentine’s Day saw the Shiv Sena actually worshipping lathis, and then vowing to wield them against couples as well as establishments hosting Valentine’s Day events. One searched in vain for reports about the UP police coming down hard on people who were openly announcing plans to wreak violence in public places. Other fringe organisations issued similar threats in Hyderabad, while in Ahmedabad, they wielded lathis against couples. Warnings were issued in Coimbatore too, by Hindutva outfits.
Spread across the country, these warnings mean that despite the odds, young Indians continue to express their love in public places. Not just that, news reports reveal that they often risk their lives to marry across religious and caste boundaries. The only institution standing up for them is the judiciary, though the Kerala High Court recently went against that fine tradition by annulling an adult woman’s marriage despite her testimony that it was voluntary.
Given all this, for a deputy chief minister to say that “Hate must be countered by love and we must celebrate the freedom to love’’ is extraordinary. In his inaugural remarks at the Delhi youth festival, Aam Aadmi Party’s Manish Sisodia left no one in doubt about what he was referring to. “The unfortunate killing of a young man by the family of his lover has shaken the conscience of the people of Delhi. This is not the culture or ethos of our city or our country,’’ he said.
Indeed it isn’t. Reports filed from Raghubir Nagar—where Ankit Saxena, the “young man’’ referred to by Sisodia, lived, loved and was killed— show that this lower middle class area abounds in Hindu-Muslim couples. All of them got married despite the fierce disapproval of their parents. These are not highly educated intellectuals, living in impenetrable cocoons of academia or class privilege. These are ordinary young men and women, who risked their lives by their marriage choices, and yet, instead of fleeing the area they grew up in, as most such couples have to, they continue living there.
These young DJs, drivers, call centre employees, practise their faith the way Gandhiji had advocated: by respecting the other’s faith. Hardly any of them have imposed their faith on their spouse; practically none plans to do so on their children. They celebrate festivals of both faiths and continue to worship their own gods. Most of these couples have eventually been accepted by their parents.
Despite the lynchings in North India, the inflammatory utterances made regularly by BJP leaders across the country, and the continuous attempts at dividing voters during election campaigns, these Hindu-Muslim marriages in just one locality show that not all youngsters have been swayed. Add to that Ankit Saxena’s father’s refusal to communalise his only son’s killing, despite the urgings of politicians and some TV channels, and there seems enough ground for hope.
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai