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Moral Policing/Vigilantism is a term used to describe vigilante groups which act to enforce a code of morality in India without legal authority. It is the ugly truth of modern India. Some of India’s laws, some actions of police forces and the government are also considered to be instances of moral policing. The target of moral policing is any activity that is deemed to be immoral or against Indian culture. The term morality in this time and age has different meanings for different persons and therefore moral policing has different consequences for different persons.
Who are the perpetrators?
Vigilante groups, religious, organisations, and unaffiliated citizens:
(1) In 2005, National Congress Party (NCP) workers stormed a pub in Pune, Maharashtra, broke window panes, and damaged furniture claiming to protect the Indian culture.
(2) In 2005, a fatwa was issued against tennis player Sania Mirza by a cleric of the Sunni Ulema Board citing her attire on tennis court and advertisements were un-Islamic.
(3) In 2008, the Kangleipak Communist Party (Military Council) went too far rig an explosion near Imphal in Manipur, where people had gathered to play a traditional gambling game, killing several people. The party claimed that the game affects Manipuri culture adversely.
(1) In 2005, police raided a public park in Meerut, accompanied by TV camera crews, and they attacked couples sitting in the park in front of cameras. The Police claimed that the purpose was to check sexual harassment.
(2) In 2011, the Ghaziabad police launched “Operation Majnu” and caught couples in parks and made the men do sit-ups in front of TV cameras. Here, the police claimed that the operation was to prevent innocent girls being trapped by boys with evil motives.
(3) In 2014, the police in Gokarna attacked a party of about 200 foreigners with sticks. The Police claimed that the party was going on after the established time limit. The victims alleged that initially, the police had demanded bribes to let the party continue.
Central and State Governments:
(1) The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has been accused of moral policing by some filmmakers. Directors alleged that, even if the board certify the film, it is often not allowed a release in some states due to protests from local political parties or moral police.
(2) Throughout India, restrictions have been imposed by some state governments on timings in pubs, bars and other establishments that sell liquor.
(3) Some states including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Karnataka had opposed sex education program designed by Ministry of Human Resource Development and National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) to implement the policies of the National AIDS Control Programme II (NACP II).
What are the reasons behind Moral Policing in India?
Family: Indian parents have a reputation to be strict and controlling about morality and attitude of their children. The children, who later on in their lives, emulate those values in the society in the form of moral policing. Rising Western Culture: India has several vigilante groups that claim to protect the Indian culture. Further, they would resist and oppose cultural concepts that deem to have been imported from the western culture such as food, dress, products, behaviours etc.
Patriarchal Mindset: People with a patriarchal mindset views the security of women as their duty, for they are perceived as weaker sex and gullible. So they would impose restrictions on women in terms of speech, attitude, clothing, public behaviour etc. and also would attack or abuse those women in the name of up-keeping the morality.
Laws: (1) The Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized materials like books and paintings if it is deemed to be obscene. But police personnel use Section 292 to file cases against film posters and advertisement hoardings that are deemed to be obscene. Section 293 deals with the sale of obscene material to people under 20. It also deals with “obscene acts and songs” to the annoyance of others shall be punished with imprisonment or fine or with both. Both police and vigilantes use loopholes in such laws to punish others in the form of moral policing and escape with impunity. (2) Section 377 of the IPC criminalizes sexual activities against the order of nature, including homosexual sexual activities. It is used by police and vigilantes to oppress and curb the rights of LGBT community. (3) The Immoral traffic (prevention) act (PITA) was originally passed to prevent human trafficking. But it has been used by police to raid hotels if they suspect a sex racket being run there even without proper evidence, thus embarrassing legal couples and young people.
Police: Police is a distinct public organisation as it is given extraordinary powers to use force. Their role is to ensure law and order by acting as guardian of social harmony. But they aggravate traditional patriarchal values because of lack of sensitivity training and awareness about constitutional values, lack of patrolling, work against marginalized and disadvantaged groups, turning blind eye to crimes such as honour killings, domestic violence and failing to register cases against vigilantes. In fact, police themselves perpetrate moral policing by raiding public parks, pubs, hotels and embarrassing young people.
Judiciary: Judicial process being costly, favours only rich and affluent, hence poor people resort to moral policing to avoid perceived dishonour leading to blaming of victims especially against women. The long delays in the formal judicial system to attain justice in contrast to immediate atonement that moral policing seeks to provide is also responsible for even the educated persons to support moral policing.
When is moral policing wrong?
• Some people think that moral policing should be done for the betterment of the society as it will stop physical assaults done on the women such as rape or sexual abuse. Hence, they attack and abuse women, whose activities and dress sense might lead them to crimes such as rape or sexual assaults. But it is not right to punish for a crime which is not yet happened and therefore it is not right to punish those who may not be involved in any crime.
• Some groups consider women drinking liquor as immoral and they abuse or hit her to teach her a lesson. But when they see a man drinking they do not have any problem with that. And some vigilantes themselves drink liquor but consider women drinking as immoral. By drinking, the person is not committing any crime against any person. So moral policing is not the way.
• There are many times when moral policing hinders the basic fundamental rights of the citizen enshrined in the constitution such as the right to freedom of speech & expression, right to privacy, right to live with dignity etc. In this case, LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual) community faces extreme consequences and their basic right to life and liberty has been threatened. Thus moral policing threatens democracy in the long run.
• Moral Policing in extreme cases causes violence, killings, and damage to property which threaten marginalised communities. For example, Hindu religious fanatics propagate violence and threaten the minority in the name of protection of cows. And also, forced conversion programmes being carried out to strengthen one’s own community at the cost of marginalizing others.
• Honour killings are one of the extreme cases of moral policing which supposedly curtail western influences by encroaching on Individual freedom.
• Moral policing also hinder the artistic creativity and innovations through censorship in movies, books etc. curtailing the artists’ freedom of expression.
• Some vigilantes discriminate and attack people from other regions with the perceived notion that they are different from them in terms of behaviour and morality just because they look different from them. It is particularly true for the people of the North-East region, some of the southern states and even foreign nationals such as Africans. Hence, moral policing threatens the country’s value of ‘Unity in Diversity’.
• Moral policing also hinders the education of children by means of Curriculum changes which promote specific narratives, omitting facts, compulsory languages etc. Such moral policing is meant to promote religious ideologies and curtail pluralism, which will lead to religious fanaticism among young people.
• Hence, moral policing which affect Individuals’ fundamental rights and act against the constitution and laws of the country is wrong.
When is Moral Policing right?
Some moral policing is right in the sense that it will lead to the betterment of society. For example, there is a gang known as ‘Gulabi gang’, which is not an actual gang in the sense, but rather a team of women activists working towards justice for oppressed and abused women. There is no discrimination based on gender since the gang not only focuses on male domination over women but also on human rights and male oppression. Moral policing also involves actions against kissing in public. Even the law does not allow kissing in public. But the youth think otherwise. Kissing itself is not a crime but some decency should be maintained in public places. But even then, moral policing is not the way and the vigilantes, instead of taking the matter in their hands, should approach police or judiciary for the matter. Hence, moral policing which seeks to improve the society, which does not interfere with individual freedom, and which does not cause a public disturbance is right and should be encouraged.
What should be done?
Archaic laws should be revoked or reformed to curb moral police who use the loopholes of various laws to attack the freedom of others. Police reforms should be carried out with sensitivity training and awareness about constitutional values. And also there should be adequate patrolling, especially, on particular occasions and in public places. Local Intelligence gathering, filing FIR and investigations against moral policing should also be promoted. The judicial system needs a complete overhaul for giving access to people with affordable, inclusive and speedy justice. In addition to police reforms and judiciary overhaul, awareness generation and education can also help people to dissuade from aggressive stances. Public discussion and debates should be promoted in schools and colleges to create awareness and sensitization towards different moral policing. People should avoid getting distracted by religious polarisation and cherish and uphold the constitutional value of secularism. Voting is the biggest weapon and people should elect only the candidates who themselves are secular, tolerant and respect the diversity of the nation.
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What are some of the initiatives taken by the Government?
• Supreme Court in 2016, declared Khap panchayats illegal, which often decree or encourage honour killings or other institutionalised atrocities against boys and girls of different castes and religions who wish to get married or have married.
• Supreme Court in 2017, in its landmark judgement, held that Right to Privacy is a fundamental right protected under Article 21 of the constitution and this move would secure freedom from intrusion into one’s home, the right to choice of food, etc. This move would curb the moral policing such as mob lynching against eating cow meat. This judgement also lays the ground-work for section 377 of the IPC to be struck down, thus securing the rights of LGBT community.
• Karnataka Government in 2017 issued cultural policy that secures artists’ liberty and creative freedom, in a move to remove the fear of artists from offending certain sections of the society.
• Bengaluru city police have launched “Pink Hoysalas” police patrol vehicles for women safety.
• These are some of the initiatives taken by the Government against moral policing.
In the words of Richard Dawkins, “Most thoughtful people would agree that morality in the absence of policing is somehow more truly moral than the kind of false morality that vanishes as soon as the police go on strike or the spy camera is switched off”. Therefore, as long as a person, consciously intends on being morally policed is fine, but when vigilante groups consisting of hypocritical people themselves turn to free the society from the shackles of immoral behaviour, that’s where the problem starts and should be curtailed.