Valentine’s Day is a tough cookie in India — a byword for a controversial buzz — in the days leading up to it. Dependably, Bajrang Dal has been out on the streets today protesting this annual ‘western onslaught’ on Indian values and terrorising couples. The annual homage to romance, named after an early Christian saint-martyr, gained a lot of international popularity in the last many years. But concurrently, there have been plenty of backlashes against it in the more conservative parts of the globe.
This year, Pakistan is making international news with the Islamabad High Court issuing an order on February 13 banning the celebration of V-day all over the country with immediate effect. The court is also to issue regulations which will proscribe ‘promotion’ of the day in print, electronic and television media, which it asserted, have been presenting the day as if it were a part of the local culture. In other words, the day of love is officially illegal next door.
Meanwhile, Iran has also banned Valentine’s Day celebrations in a crackdown on “decadent Western culture” and the police have warned shop owners against allowing any manifestation of it. Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim state – and Malaysia, a Muslim majority country, have also seen major protests and warnings leading up to today. Dozens of school students in Indonesian cities recently took out rallies to raise awareness that Valentine’s day is not a part of Muslim culture and could “lead to forbidden sexual relations”. “Say no to Valentine!” they, who were aged between 13 and 15, chanted.
Anti-Valentine’s Day campaigns by Muslim youth groups in Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur have been schooling Muslim women on social media to avoid certain behaviors like wearing fragrances, making their voices sound sweet and using ’emoticons’ in digital communication with men that can be potentially married.
The reasoning is familiar and similar across the board – the occasion is unilaterally labeled as a Christian and ‘western’ encroachment upon Islamic values, one that encourages ‘sin’ and ‘vice’ and ‘promotes zina or (illicit) sex outside wedlock’. It is perceived in direct conflict with the faith and values of Islam. Saudi Arabia too, unsurprisingly, strictly prohibits any V-day merchandise in stores — which in turn created a black market supply chain for them. Islamic countries are however not the only ones as even Russian authorities ban V-day celebrations, by calling it inherently non-Russian and a promoter of poor moral values among Russian youth.
Of course, none of the above are functioning, full democracies.
At home, one doesn’t have to strain memories to recall that the day of love attracts a lot of hate from extremist political groups, usually Hindu fundamentalists like Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and Hindu Mahasabha, who are not simply vocal but also threaten violence against couples ‘spotted’ engaging in PDA and vandalism against events and decors honoring the day. In the past, Mahasabha threatened to marry the couples on the spot and phone their parents if boyfriend and girlfriend were caught together on Valentine’s Day (unless of course, if they turned out to be of different faiths). The ‘day of love’ is not targeted alone, but fits into a series of other ‘objections’ that their spokespersons and miscreants have against what they call ‘attacks on ‘Indian/Hindu culture” — like ‘love-jihad’, women’s consumption of alcohol and women’s clothing, to name a few. Culture, however, is dynamic and not the preserve of a few groups and their dated beliefs.
Going out as a couple for a V-day celebration is fraught with some risk – but it is done anyway. Is celebrating it a good thing? The answer depends on who you are. Some believe that the expression of love doesn’t need a marked day — true, but then there is no harm, so why not? Sure, the red heartsy insignia can get overpowering and irritating but for many young people, it is just another day to pass or one to celebrate with a significant other, good thoughts and loves ones.
Valentine’s day does serve as a bonanza merchandising opportunity for card and candy outlets as well as for other brands and businesses. Some thus have a fair critique that the primary beneficiaries of the event are capitalism and consumption – but such a charge of commercialisation can be leveled against most festivals since gift-giving has gone mainstream.
The history and the origin of the day are less important to its symbolic acknowledgement. Ultimately, the landscape of relationships, love and marriages is unmistakably changing in a globalized, technologically enabled, more educated India. And it is gathering pace. Whether a marked day to celebrate romantic, potentially unmarried love exists or not, the tide is irreversible. The claimed right to choose one’s own partner(s) and to show that love and affection in public (a choice seen as personal), will remain.