In the days before Valentine’s Day 2009, members of a group called the Sri Ram Sena dragged several young women out of a pub in Mangalore, a city in southwest India, and beat them. According to the group, whose members lobby, sometimes violently, for the religious and cultural dominance of Hinduism in Indian society, the women had violated the country’s traditional values by hanging out in a bar with men. Two of the women were hospitalized for their injuries.
On Valentine’s Day that year, other Hindu far-right groups continued the moral policing, smearing black powder on the faces of supposed lovers or beating them in the street. A policeman was caught on video spinning a woman around by her hair as punishment for her supposed “immoral activities.”
What compels the Hindu right’s volcanic reaction to Valentine’s Day? Some of its members have protested that the holiday is the product of a “rotten imported culture” from the West. Others have claimed that people tend to buy more contraceptives on Valentine’s Day, which “leads to a rise in incidents of rapes and other atrocities.” Yet others have tried to force unmarried couples to marry, or advocated for violence against them.
The issue, they say, isn’t that couples are having sex, but that they are having sex outside of marriage. Prominent Indian journalist Lakshmi Chaudhry said these attacks on expressions of love are really attacks against the idea of a sexually liberated woman. “Modern love—by this I mean dating, romance, premarital sex —strikes at the very heart of traditional patriarchy, which relies on the policing of women’s bodies,” Chaudhry wrote to me. “This is less about policing men—who remain free to harass, assault and rape women with relative impunity—than controlling women, who are increasingly asserting their sexual and personal freedom.”