The day I turned 22, my boyfriend at the time had decided to take me out for dinner. Fledgling apprentices in our respective first jobs back then, we couldn’t afford a fancy dinner, so we went to a fast food joint post work instead. We spent hours talking after we had finished our meal. When it was ten o’clock in the evening, my boyfriend offered to drop me home. En route, we passed a police barricade. As my boyfriend slowed the car down, a quartet of cops appeared from behind the barricade and indicated that we should pull up.
Once the car came to a halt, my boyfriend rolled down the window and politely asked the cops what the matter was. The one with handlebar mustache, stood before my boyfriend authoritatively with folded arms. He asked us what we were doing out late at night (mind you, it was 10:30 pm at that time). To which my boyfriend replied that he was dropping me home. The cop then looked at me and asked, “Do your parents know that you’re out with him?” He was smirking now; his tone was almost sinister. There was an awkward silence between us for a few seconds. The cop continued, “You shouldn’t be out with a boy at night. Give me your phone. I’d like to speak to your parents.” Affronted, I was about to lunge and roar back at the strange man in uniform who demanded my phone, but my boyfriend, in the hope of not escalating the situation further, pressed his palm on my knee.
Almost immediately, a pot-bellied cop stepped up from behind our inquirer. He splayed his arms intimidatingly across the car’s window sill, looking my boyfriend in the eye. “Look,” he told us. “I’m sure you kids don’t want any trouble. I can convince my partner to back down if you can give me something to calm him down.” They were playing the classic Good Cop-Bad Cop shtick. Under the veneer of moral policing, they wanted a bribe. Under a muffled sigh, my boyfriend handed over five crisp hundred rupee notes, after which we were allowed to proceed home.
It’s been years since this incident occurred. At that time, if Facebook Live was around, I would have used it to publicly shame the policemen, holding them accountable for extortion.
Things now of course, are different. Last week, a couple in Kerala were accosted by two female cops because the man, Vishnu Vichu had put his arm around his girlfriend. Appearing as a grumpy, cantankerous unit, the cops first confirmed whether the couple was married. On being told that the two weren’t, the cops remarked that Vishnu and his girlfriend’s close proximity was “vulgar” and illegal. Vichu went ahead and documented this intimidation via Facebook Live. Within moments the video received multiple shares and went viral. In the video, the cops are seen asking the woman whether she had parents at home – to which the woman responded that she did, but she was an adult who could make her own decisions. The couple was later booked under Section 290. Since the live-streaming of the video, the police authorities have been lampooned.
Moral policing is a disconcerting contemporary issue in India. Today, it was reported that a man who was morally policed and bullied in Kerala on Valentine’s Day, committed suicide (http://bit.ly/2lR5IHC).
Just to be clear, there isn’t any law in place that states that exhibiting affection in public is illegal. In certain parts of the country however, the police carries a sense of entitlement, presuming that it is allowed to instruct citizens about moral behaviour – men and women holding hands is wrong. Hugging is inappropriate. Kissing? Sacrilege. In public spaces, the longevity of our romantic gestures is heavily dependent on the whim of the self-righteous, often cranky, cops. They define what is right and what is ‘non-Indian’. Principally, these are systematic tactics to bully unsuspecting couples into extortion.
On another note, this incident marks a new chapter in the field of journalism in India. Not only does Facebook Live function as a distress signal for people, but by default, Vichu also assumed the role of a reporter – a citizen journalist, who was giving an unedited, unvarnished account of what was going on. The power of Facebook Live, a unique platform that give ordinary people a strong agency, was recognized and implemented first in the United States, when Diamond Reynolds streamed a live video of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s last moments, who had been fatally shot by a cop. It provided real-time broadcast of a horrific incident. At that moment, the power of social media and the strength of live-streaming, ostensibly, became palpable.
Live-streaming an unjustified act by authorities works at multiple levels. First, the real-time media transmission can be used to shame and humiliate the authorities. Second, it can be used as evidence to lodge complaints. Third, real-time videos function as incontestable evidence that cannot be challenged or diluted by police authorities, nor can it be reported inaccurately by the media. Fourth, it has the propensity to draw the support of a massive audience, which in turn pushes the authorities to take action.
Vichu and his girlfriend’s incident attests that our society needs to be far more tolerant. Hopefully, the incident and its aftermath will trigger some change.