It is not surprising that the right-wing ruling class is usurping Valentine’s Day and stigmatising the celebration of love by Hindu-ising the day. The Directorate of Public Education of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Chhattisgarh government has issued notices to schools, directing that February 14 be marked as “Matru-Pitru Diwas” (Mother-Father Day) to inculcate “bharatiya sanskriti”, or “Indian culture”.
This is not the first time a day meant to commemorate an idea has been changed to signify another, more “Indian”, referent. Since 2015, December 25 — Christmas for most of the world — is officially recognised as “Good Governance Day” in India. This was meant as an homage to veteran BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee on his birthday. It is no coincidence that December 6 — Ambedkar Mahaparinirvanam Diwas, observed by millions of Indians as a day to pay homage to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar — was the day chosen by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to demolish the Babri Masjid in 1992. In past years we have witnessed organisations like the Shiv Sena, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Students Islamic Organisation of India and others indulging in moral policing, often violently, against couples found in public spaces on Valentine’s Day. This year we see the beginning of a different trend. The attack on this secular day of celebration comes from the ruling government, and through a government institution, the Directorate of Public Education, in the name of Matru-Pitru Diwas.
Last February, some national newspapers reported that the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena would not indulge in the usual violence and moral policing on Valentine’s Day. Lalmani Verma's report stated that the “Bajrang Dal’s convener for UP and Uttarakhand, Surendra Mishra, said that the 'acts that couples indulge in' on roads and at public places on Valentine’s Day is 'similar to nature of animals' and interfering with them is useless. 'It has been decided at the top level of the organisation that our workers will not disturb any couple any more,' Mishra said. Bajrang Dal’s Awadh region convener, Rakesh Verma said the organisation was against western culture and hence the workers’ protest will remain confined to torching Valentine’s Day cards only 'but there will be no misbehaviour with any couple.'"
In 2015, just a year prior to these statements, the Bajrang Dal had announced that it would solemnise the marriage of boys and girls found together in public places on Valentine’s Day. As for the couples who refused, the Bajrang Dal karyakartas (workers) would make them leave the area after giving them images of Shiva and Parvathi, as well as Krishna and Radha, and advising them to express their love as these gods did. Even the Shiv Sena had taken a similar decision not to misbehave with couples last year: "'National head of Shiv Sena’s youth wing, Aditya Thackeray, has issued strict directions to not misbehave with any boy or girl on Valentine’s Day. He does not want assault or misbehaviour with youths. Shiv Sena is against western culture and we have communicated our message during past years. We are not going to assault any couple. If any worker will misbehave or assault any couple, he will be expelled from the party', said Anil Singh, UP head of Shiv Sena.” Not only has no leader of the RSS or any other right-wing group made any controversial statements regarding Valentine’s Day this year, the newspapers too, quite surprisingly, are devoid of the usual heteronormative patriarchal advertisements surrounding this day. Like all other festivals, Valentine’s Day has long been a means to make big profits for the markets, and sexist commercials have lured the public into indulging in consumption. Have the cultural right and the economic right come to a consensus to wipe out Valentine’s Day celebrations from India?
While, on the one hand, it is the right wing of this country that invites finance capital into India through neo-liberal policies, on the other hand, the clash between the cultural and economic right wings is most acute on the question of Valentine's Day. While the market wants to make a profit using this day of celebration, for the cultural right the celebration of love stands in the way of constructing a Hindu Rashtra. In past years, it has taken the form of direct attacks. The Shiv Sena, for example, has attacked shops selling Valentine’s Day cards, obstructing their profit-making. The popular mainstream media has stepped back from raising funds from its pages with long advertisements marked with red and pink to mark Valentine's Day. Instead, the newspapers are now printing expressions we can all tell our parents on Matru-Pitru Diwas. Here is a sample: "Without you there would be no me. It's as simple as that! I love you with all my heart. Happy Valentine's Day!" and "As my Mom and Dad… as my friend… as a Valentine… you're the best!" Maybe next year Prime Minister Modi will ask us to take selfies with our parents and post them on Twitter!
It's true that the habit of displaying affection publicly is not common among Indians. Valentine’s Day is an enabler — one that offers a yearly opportunity and vocabulary through which one can express feelings of affection and attraction. Instead, Valentine’s Day has been made the scapegoat for our disturbingly regressive attitudes towards consensual adult relationships outside the narrow bounds of social permissibility. Moral guardians are always ready to stand as gatekeepers of culture. This day of romance, celebrating individualistic, mutually respectful love, is attacked by those who wish to maintain the status quo. The question is, when do we fight for, and when do we celebrate, equality between the sexes?
Sruti M.D. is part of the Indian Cultural Forum editorial collective.