young couple visiting Independence Square were chased away by a security guard recently. This is routine procedure at this venue, but there was a spirited reaction this time and a group of young protesters voiced a strong reaction called ‘Occupy the Square’ soon after.
Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva arrived during the demo and questioned the two guards, who had chased away the couple. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has ordered the Cultural Affairs Ministry to cancel the contract of the private security firm guarding the site and its director of operations has been fired.
All this might look like a great leap forward in relaxing the stifling straitjacket which stifles personal freedom of expression when it comes to intimacy in our culture. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go deeper than finding an obvious scapegoat without addressing the core issue.
The more vocal of the two security guards told the deputy minister that he evicted the couple because they were not a family; hence they had no right to be present at the place where we gained our independence in 1948.
The deputy minister asked the guard as to who had issued such an order. The guard could not name anyone. Clearly, such guidelines, if not an exact order, had been issued long ago. From my own experience, I’d say it was done somewhere during the past two decades. The guard is not to blame. He thought he was doing the right thing. He has been taught right along that ‘couples’ are an aberration which would be corrected once people get married, have children and become families. This is the code of honour which operates not just at Independence Square but in our work places, clubs, social gatherings and elsewhere. Do some research and find out just how many bachelors have risen to be presidents of the Bar Association or the Lions Club, or how many single women (divorced or otherwise) have risen to important positions in our banks or administrative sector.
But this ‘cultural policing’ regarding the code of behaviour at public places, including women’s dress code, is a relatively recent phenomenon which has its roots in the 1980s but really got its pseudo-legal status only in the new millennium. Without analyzing the problem of this cultural police (which includes our politicians, monks, three wheeler drivers and the general public, and not just people in uniform), punishing scapegoats is a pointless exercise, which benefits the prevailing official mood of the moment. It has no lasting value because, the moment a pair of young people step out of line by doing more than just sitting and talking there, the same old ‘families only’ line will be back with a vengeance. Let’s not forget that Cultural Affairs Minister S. B. Nawinna said ‘lewd behaviour’ would not be allowed at this venue because it was a public place.
Lewd behavior is not allowed in public places all over the world. Much depends on your definition of what ‘lewd’ means. By this yardstick, even holding hands could be lewd. Kissing would be a capital crime. Removing one’s clothes and engaging in public sex is lewd behaviour anywhere in the world and an offence even in more permissive societies. But the idea that kissing or holding hands is lewd is anachronistic.
All over the world, some couples or individuals will misbehave in public. But In societies with broader parameters of personal freedom, only those offenders are warned or prosecuted. What we do is to impose a straitjacket on the entire society, which is not permissible if we want to call ourselves a democracy. These arbitrary rules are not limited to gestures of intimacy alone.
During the previous regime when Gotabaya Rajapaksa pretty much told every citizen of Colombo what they could or could not do, I remember one woman journalist, the daughter of a reputed poet, writing that she was prevented from using a laptop computer by a guard at the same venue because of ‘Defence Ministry orders,’ (this was four years after the war ended). My daughter went there with a school friend, a boy, for a chat and was asked to leave by a security guard because they were a ‘couple’.
This was during the odious Rajapaksa regime’s final months. The difference now is that people can protest. The ‘Occupy the Square’ protest would have been unthinkable back then (everyone would have been too worried about sinister ‘white vans’) or Gotabaya himself would have arrived to chase the crowd away with a number of choice expletives. We should give this government credit for at least that much. But the problem doesn’t end there. It’s still festering even if a new company will be handling security there now with orders not to harass visitors who do not look like families (i.e. with children). It’s just a plaster.
The Independence Square is ‘sacred’ because of historical connotations. Independence is hallowed, despite attempts by successive governments to curb freedom of expression and political rights. It is modelled after a building in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth complex in Kandy. In other words, it is treated like a temple. But even in temples, one can see couples sitting quietly near the bo tree or around the stupa. Law makers who think that independence is even more hallowed than religion should stop enforcing laws and start respecting the constitutional rights of citizens.
The second of two articles by me regarding morality and sexuality in Sri Lanka was published just a few days before this incident. In those articles, an analysis of the difference between intimacy and ‘lewd behaviour’ was made. But such finer points have always escaped the cultural police who believe that enforcing arbitrary and often ridiculous laws is the best way to protect each new generation from moral decadence and corruption.
For example, television censorship puts on screen kissing, drinking and smoking in the same category. This ridiculous attitude can be seen on those TV programmes (including American shows) which come to us via Indian satellite networks, as well as our own homegrown stuff. Those areas of the screen where the unspeakable acts are carried out are blurred with digital squares.
Drinking and smoking kills thousands every year, but no case of anyone dying from kissing has been recorded to my knowledge. Even AIDS cannot be transmitted by kissing on the mouth. (HIV cannot be transmitted by saliva. It has to get into the bloodstream and that will happen if there is a bleeding sore in the mouth). Parents who will shy away from kissing in front of their children will openly drink and smoke. They will even boast about how much they can drink. But television censors use the same moral yardstick to judge these three widely differing phenomena. One at least differs from the other two, which are marketed, manufactured devices and hence have nothing to do with the emotions of love and intimacy conveyed by kissing.
In any case, this cultural policing is laughable when political and business corruption has run through our societal structure like a cancer. Is holding hands in public a greater sin than taking bribes, building offshore black money accounts, trading influence for sex or killing activists and political opponents? This is a society highly confused about its priorities.