Kochi was the flashpoint, charged with rebellion after a violent police crackdown. Since then, Kiss of Love has danced, hugged, walked, sung, shouted, held hands, cheek-pecked, kissed and french-kissed in solidarity protests that have reverberated through many Indian cities in diverse locations, from around or on university campuses to streets outside RSS headquarters and places between. What Next? is the question already fermenting in protestors’ minds, perspicaciously enough. It’s a vital question for us to stop and think about, especially because the protesting must not, cannot stop – even while the fear of a wider movement congealing and de-fusing, through repetitive motions of protest, looms greyly on the horizon. However, such timely and pertinent self-questioning may be poised to be tripped up by what in football parlance is known, I believe, as ‘own goals’, losses conceded by one’s own team members that threaten to woefully undermine, if not willfully derail, the larger – and yes, dare I say it, political – impetus of the current chain of protest ‘events’.
Hurdles are being placed along these already-always-treacherous paths of nascent youthful insurgencies not just by rabid ‘rightists’ (which we all expect, and know by now to field) but by the wise and the cautious and the skeptical in the very broad spectrum of ‘the Left’, all of whom one would have hoped were allies. This is the place, of course, where the Left has repeatedly begun to fail itself – and the reason why right-wingers will sit back and rub their hands in glee and wait for the opposition to self-destruct while they consolidate and close ranks in a frightening, calm repressiveness. And the broad Left has been consistently displaying a remarkable ability to self-destruct, splitting political and philosophical hairs ad nauseam and seemingly unperturbed about throwing out baby, bathwater as well as bathtub all in a single swing of the arm, perhaps content for having nuanced the argument sufficiently in the process. How does one alert one’s fellow-team-travellers to the urgent need of the hour: a huge, diverse, potent, sustained and ‘terrible’ coalition against the Right – one that will strike terror, not amusement, within their closed ranks –and lure one’s friends away from the dubious pleasure of being endlessly-argumentative Indians, chasing their own tails while the enemy watches, waiting to pounce?
We have recently witnessed a round of this with Ranabir Samaddar’s critiques of the Hokkolorob protests at Jadavpur University, in which he dismisses the student protestors as the “articulate [read elite] class” who will remain irrelevant to the masses in West Bengal, comparing the present unrest unfavourably with student participation in the Naxal movement of the 1960s and 70s. Even as many (articulate) challenges to Samaddar’s left-conservative formulations have just been successful in decimating much of his contentions, a wave of strident evaluations of the Kiss of Love protests is clearly beginning to rumble and heave around our shores – in which the parameters of analysis are perhaps different but the upshot remains the same: this is not revolution, for revolution is something else, revolution is elsewhere – and of course, revolution is forever ‘to come’ even while revolution is desired now, today, this minute. In fact it is intriguing to seethe last kind, those invested in hastening a chiliastic, apocalyptic moment, worry about the spontaneous and morphing nature of movements and contribute toward a certain deferral on the grounds of preserving the purity of a movement.Of course we may well take constructive heed of some of the criticisms leveled against the Kiss of Love events. Leaders and participants of the protests are themselves reflecting and questioning and revising and planning; they are not unthinking players in a series of dumb rituals.
But what we must consider now is the moot debate, which is double-pronged.First, that it is not about a divergence between the seriousness of issues of labour/class and the frivolity of the sexual transgression of public kissing, it is about how one may deploy a diverse range of political, social, cultural and aesthetic strategies in the long, arduous battle we have to wage now in the current censorious regime and climate. And second, since a pattern of protesting has begun to be adopted by a growing range of actors and the frequency of protests has increased, we must take into cognizance the scholarly evaluation that such protests are under threat of moving out of the sole purview of social movements and becoming ‘mainstream’, a part of everyday politics – because none of us would want the edge of rebellion to be blunted. We know that protest politics must not become the politics of ritual. But the point remains this: that while we should all put our heads together to devise new and fresh strategies of resisting the onslaught of the moral police, we must not self-flagellate or accuse each other of failing the ‘true’ test of revolutionary politics – because politics and its measures may be as diverse as its triggers, and responses must be variously sharp and immediate, contingent and rapid, passionate and sustained; they can, and perhaps should, twist and turn and morph daily but they must not fade or fall or fail until the task is done. The goalposts must not be allowed to be shifted.
Yes, it is time now to ask some tough questions of ourselves. The Facebook page for the Delhi Kiss of Love protest outside RSS headquarters near the Jhandewalan metro station is instructive, both about the aggressive antagonism and condemnation from ‘the Sanghis’ and the continual strategizing, visualizing and implementation of plans by the protest’s organizers and supporters. The page is suffused as much by a sense of embattlement as by uncertainty, excitement, conviction, doubt – which is how it should be. A post-protest update by one of its organisers congratulates those who came to protest and reaffirms solidarity but cautions that the fight has merely begun as the oppressions start closing in. There is there, if I am not reading it incorrectly, a note of reflection, the What Next? question juxtaposed with a reassertion of commitment to an ongoing fight. I am yet to see either complacency or frivolity in the protestors anywhere, from Kochi to Kolkata and beyond. I am also a little baffled by the confidence with which critics of these varied student and youth movements assert that the collectives are always homogenously elite and completely unaware of social issues and pressures. A comment I read on an article analyzing Kiss of Love today suggests that in order to make the protests socially-conscious they should invite students at universities to kiss labourers, cleaners, rickshaw-pullers and the like, and also ‘promote same-sex kissing’. It apparently does not seem possible to this social-do-gooder that that would be happening anyway whether at protests or elsewhere – kissing across classes and castes and within sexes – but the rule of exception as we all know will not solve the social problems we have. Yes, social mingling of that nature is not pervasive across the nation and fights are on, but this notion of protest cannot be taken literally. It is a mode, a typology of protest. The tactical aspect is significant. But besides that, the crassness of the avowedly-socially-conscious on social media is entertaining, to say the least.
There is a bottom-line now that we must all begin our discussions from: that we are no longer living in a left-liberal or even centrist-liberal country but are caught in the vice-grip of an acute capitalist culturally-right-wing government whose supporters are coming out of the woodwork in astonishing numbers. Once we take this as given, and if we are agreed that the repression is unjustified, we ought to perceive the dire need for micro-mobilization processes that up the protest ante, if in multiple, diverse, dispersed forms. In fact, perhaps a reorientation of political reservations about that which is not-political-enough may yield new ways in which such dispersals and diversities can be harnessed to greater effect, as it is imperative that protests do not cease but gather momentum instead. It is instructive, I think, to trace the route which the chain of protests has followed starting from the Hokkolorob at Jadavpur University – the seed of which was a sexual harassment allegation that was ignored by the administration – to the Kiss of Love at Kochi and its resultant spin-offs in different cities after a violent crackdown at the original site. Successive (and mostly successful) measures of censoring, repressing and intimidating by the state, administrative powers and rightwing aficionados have resulted in sparking spontaneous protests elsewhere almost like the proverbial string of Christmas or Diwali crackers. Instead of denying of the significance of these small and big explosions of resistance, surely we ought to work together to fan and further them?
This is, of course, speaking to the converted – to those who believe that resistance is necessary in the current political climate. If we are agreed on this, we know also that protests are of various kinds and work themselves out at varied levels of investment and insurgency, both traditional and innovative. The baseline traditional method has always been that of the petition (the exact obverse of violence in spectrum of modes of protest), signatures amassed in a show of strength, its literalness providing its legitimacy.
Book-ended between quasi-legal petitioning and strategic violence there lie various possibilities. The economic boycott, for example, was often revived in the wake of sit-in demonstrations as a means of intensifying pressure. Marches with protesters singing songs, carrying banners and dressed in chosen colours (black, for instance) have all been a part of traditional ways of registering one’s anger against systems of oppression. Another traditional method has been the path to a certain kind of martyrdom, impelled by spiritual or ethical codes, which range from mass-based secular prayers, ‘satyagraha’ and hunger-strikes to self-inflicted suffering like self-mutilation and self-immolation.
The third kind is a random amalgamation of trouble-making tactics which are intended to violate normative behavior, moving away from what may be deemed good manners and breaching expectations of maintaining certain protocol at public gatherings. A spectacular range of marches, demonstrations, boycotts, protests, vigils (extended demonstrations), strikes, haunting (following one’s opponent for long periods), renouncing honours, hartals (having large masses of people stay at home, a sort of spiritual variation of a general strike), fasts, and interjections in the media all add up to this general deployment of destabilizing actions in the public domain as a collective – sometimes imitative – activity. Art, music, and impromptu or practised performances as much as shouting, screaming, cursing may constitute, or contribute to the protest.What the trouble-makers are able to do with every public action is create a commotion and undermine the status quo of the street, the campus, the home and the state. At best, they may generate conscience, discomfort, and guilt in the oppressors and an esprit de corps among the oppressed. This tactic, more than any others, demonstrates the effects of changing social and legal definitions of behavior, lying in a gray area between the violation of normative behavior and the violation of the law.Jadavpur University’s Hokkolorob splendidly used the arts – from singing through all-night vigils to art installations and murals – to kick demoralized spirits into gear and keep the protesting fires aflame. Kiss of Love has equally innovatively deployed the idea of public kissing to rebel against increasing moral policing of public and institutional spaces. This has been a slap in the face not just of the ‘Sanghis’ but of institutional powers and seniors who have supported CCTVs on university campuses for example. Much of these protests elicit negative responses from the squeamish and the stern among our fellow-travellers: those who are uncomfortable with the sexually-transgressive as a politics, and those who consider the symbolic and the aesthetic as too soft a political resistance. As we know, many shades of the left suffer these afflictions – and so we should not be surprised when they harangue such protests are never being revolutionary enough.
Kiss of Love, so far, has been a success by most counts, especially if it is to be measured by media coverage – yes, indeed, sex sells; why not sell it to resist censorship of the intimacies of love and sex?The turnouts at the different gatherings have varied but the intent and the investment has been the same, passionate and rebellious and joyous and resistant and energized. The reactions from the right wing and the state police have also been the same, roguish intimidation and hatred and sarcasm and punishment. The impact of the Kiss of Love protests, however, may begin to wane slowly – even while the media still fans it for salacious value. Apparently someone from the media at the Delhi Jhandewalan gathering shouted impatiently at protesters who were holding hands and shouting slogans, ‘Do what you have come here to do!’ This was bound to happen; passion cannot be planned and the shock of the new pales into the familiar.
So then one has to think with the organizers and the resistant public at large, What Next? The protests and the shows of solidarity must go on; it is imperative in the climate we are in now. How can they be renewed and reinvented so as not to become predictable, to lose effect and thereby the interest of new potential supporters? Can there be a re-imagination of what one can do to keep the protests alive? Might it be possible, for example, to think of a chain of flashpoints across the country, sudden, surprising, each one connected with Kiss of Love, but random rather than repetitive events where neither the anti-Kiss population nor the state will know what to expect? The young have been unbelievably energized, proactive and politically conscious in taking to the corridors on campuses and to the corners of streets and parks to mark their rage at an increasingly oppressive and moralistic age. We must think with them to find new ways and old ways of renewing and intensifying these resistances. Some of the traditional methods of protest can be revived and melded with newer ones like lip-locking. Art can be deployed in surprise eruptions across cities and on campuses – murals and graffiti on stretches of walls emerging overnight, street theatre outside classrooms and metro-stations, sing-ins and sing-alongs, overnight flash-vigils on campuses. Flyers and pamphlets with cartoons and caricatures can fly around in cyberspace and real space. Social media has continually been used well and imaginatively, much more can surely happen where even the sky is not the limit. Most important is the axiom, keep them guessing and generate shock and awe – sudden eruptions, unexpectedly dispersed and random variations of gatherings, a mix of strategies and tactics for protesting, an amalgam of tested ways and new innovations, where the principle must remain a broad coalition of like-minded politics. It is imperative that the protests cut across sectarianisms in the Left if the left-thinking are not to be decimated by the Right in the foreseeable future.
This comes then, in solidarity with our youthful protesters everywhere, who are showing us, every day, new ways of being political.
Brinda Bose teaches in the Department of English, Delhi University.