Tuesday, December 27, 2005

No parking zones

No parking zones
The Hindu

Bangalore hasn't seen incidents of the Meerut magnitude. But young couples in a park in the city are rarely left alone

Wildly protesting parents, gun-toting villains, wide chasms of caste, community and nationality... When boy meets girl in an Indian film, none of this will come in the way of true love. And how we lap it up when Anarkali looks mighty Akbar straight in the eye and sings: "Pyar kiya koyi chori nahin ki, chup chup ke ahe bharna kya, aji pyar kiya to darna kya... " Characters, situations and locations have changed greatly, but the basic mould of the scene has been going strong for a good century on the Indian screen.

Cut to real life and the scene that unfolds is drastically different: when a boy and a girl take a stroll in a park, a police platoon descends on them, roughs them up, harangues them on morality and herds them into a police van.

The eager camera, though, is a common denominator in the two contrasting scenes. The real-life scene from Meerut too had an eager television crew beaming to the nation faces of the stunned and humiliated girls who were desperately trying to cover their faces. And it helped the voyeuristic cameras that a burly policewoman forcibly tore the palms off the terrified faces to ensure better view. The television channels' righteous instincts came alive only the day after when the incident drew condemnation from all quarters, including the Parliament.

This grand act of moral policing, in a land that has held Laila and Majnu as the greatest icons of love, was christened Operation Majnu!

Confused morality

We, in fact, have never failed to get all mixed up when confronted with questions of morality. After all we did love Khushboo's wet sari scenes in films but hated her when she did some plain speaking on premarital sex!

"We have failed as a culture to handle sexuality in open ways," says Sudha Sitaraman, lecturer in Sociology in Government Arts and Science College. "There was a time when people were married off by puberty. That system has changed, but there isn't an alternative structure in place that allows youngsters to express their emotional and physical needs as they grow into adulthood."

Among her own students she finds an enormous peer pressure to have a girlfriend or boyfriend even as the internalised sense of guilt and shame and the conservative values they have grown up with refuse to go away. "It's a crisis when a culture does not accept what is `natural' as `moral' or even `normal'."

This crisis creates very confusing and claustrophobic situations for the young, ranging from larger questions of cultural identity to a more concrete one of how to find a "safe" space to so much as hold your loved one's hand and go for an evening walk.

In Bangalore we may not have had incidents of the magnitude of Meerut, but many youngsters will tell you tales on how frustrating it is for a couple to find a peaceful moment together if it hasn't been "sanctioned" by marriage. It's not surprising that couples try to steal a moment together on the unlikeliest of places such as an isolated stairway in a busy shopping mall. Our police may have no grand record for stopping rapes and murders in the city, but youngsters in Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh are routinely "interrogated" after nightfall in the name of preventing "illicit" activities. And most terrified couples prefer to just pay the cop some money and get away to avoid the "shame" that the police station and court routine will bring with it. This even when they believe they have committed nothing that can be construed as "offence".

Bono Venture, a call centre employee, was once stopped by a policeman in the parking lot near Safina Plaza a little after eight in the night. "He randomly stopped me and asked me who I was. When I produced my ID, he asked my girlfriend for hers. She didn't have one and that was reason for him to start harassing." But Bono decided not to buckle. He sent the girl home in an auto and went to the police station. "I wanted to lodge a complaint for harassment. But they wouldn't take it." Bono took the incident to the press. "But all that the cop finally got by way of punishment was a reprimand."

Lawrence Liang of Alternative Law Forum points out that the right to privacy isn't really a fundamental right enumerated by our Constitution. "But there has been a Supreme Court order that reads this right into Article 21 that talks about Right to Life and Personal Liberty." He says the Meerut incident really compels us to define "privacy" to include more than enclosed spaces such as one's home but also see it in relation to the "bodily autonomy" of an individual.

Larger questions

Lawrence, like Sudha, believes that the Meerut incident raises questions that are larger than those of framing and interpreting laws: what are the spaces our society creates for any kind of intimacy? How do notions of morality and immortality get framed in a society that, on the one hand, is eagerly embracing all things "free" — from economy to lifestyle — and on the other wants to keep its tradition safe under lock and key? A classic acting out of this contradiction is the willingness of the Indian economy to transplant a Valentine's Day into our culture and exploit its marketability to the hilt and the insistence of the fundamentalist forces to break every shop window that has huge, red hearts on display.

The scenes from Meerut, yet again, bring these inherent contradictions into sharp focus.


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