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Indian extremist group targets Valentine's Day

Police are on alert after Hindu radicals who earlier attacked women at a pub vow to round up any young couples celebrating the holiday, which they say is offensive to Indian culture.

February 14, 2009|Mark Magnier and Pavitra Ramaswamy

NEW DELHI — A card, chocolate and roses, an affectionate evening with your sweetheart -- what's not to like about Valentine's Day?

Plenty, if you're one of the extremist groups in India that see in Cupid's pointed arrow a lance aimed at the heart of Indian culture.

Fringe groups, most notably the Hindu extremist Shri Ram Sena, or Lord Ram's Army, have threatened to make their displeasure known by attacking couples who show affection in public and disrupting businesses that sell Valentine's Day gifts and cards.

Their condemnation of heart-shaped balloons, purple prose and fluffy teddy bears as Western pollution has been supported in years past by other hard-line Hindu and Muslim groups.

Shri Ram Sena vowed this year to march any couples found canoodling straight to the temple, forcing them to marry on the spot. When the legality of their heavy-handed idea was questioned, the group shifted, threatening to remand those who offended them to parents or sympathetic police.

It has also vowed to set up a help line on Valentine's Day for girls harassed by boys and warned women against wearing "noodle straps" or tight jeans.

"Westerners are trying to break up the Indian family system," said Pramod Muthalik, the group's head, who was arrested briefly after his group attacked women at a Mangalore pub last month. "Giving flowers on the streets, showing affection in public, showering kisses in full public view is wrong. What is the difference between us and animals?"

Valentine's Day was virtually unknown in India until the 1990s but has become increasingly popular among young, middle-class celebrants with growing income.

Though the campaign against it seems rather absurd and amusing, religious, ethnic and sectarian divisions run deep. And Shri Ram Sena has a following among some members of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Not willing to take any chances, authorities said Friday that Muthalik was put under "preventative custody" through today's holiday to avoid trouble.

Delhi Police Chief Y.S. Dadwal, federal Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury and other officials have warned extremists not to break laws.

"Muthalik is not married; that's why he doesn't respect women," Chowdhury said.

Delhi police have been advised to position plainclothes officers in shopping centers to prevent Valentine's violence, and members of the Jammu and Kashmir state National Panthers Party said they would throw red chiles at any troublemakers who play at being morality police.

"If my parents don't disapprove of V-Day, why do political parties have a problem?" said Salman Noor, 22, a student drinking coffee at the Mrs. Kaur's Crepes & More eatery in Delhi, near freshly baked heart-shaped cookies. "What culture are they talking about? We lost our Indian culture way back. . . . In ancient times our culture was the Kama Sutra -- why didn't anyone stop it back then?"

Outraged by the right-wing tactics, feature writer Nisha Susan recently launched a campaign on the Facebook social networking site, dubbing it the "Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women." Its plan: to shame the extremists by, in part, getting women to send Muthalik pink underwear. Women can also drop off underwear and the group will express mail it to Sri Ram Sena on Valentine's Day.

Faced with an onslaught of pink panties, Muthalik said his group would send a pink sari to everyone who sends underwear.

This year's threats by extremists are the latest in a series. Groups attacked college students and threatened pubs and hotels last year, and black-veiled women rummaged shops and burned Valentine's Day cards in 2006 in Srinagar, the summer capital of troubled Jammu and Kashmir.

Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi Sangathan, a women's rights and pro-democracy group, said some criticism of the holiday is valid. "It's not very pleasant when you go to a beach and see people climbing all over each other," she said. "But affection in public is better than violence in public."

That point of view wasn't universal.

Asiya Andrabi, head of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or Daughters of the Nation, an extreme Muslim group in Jammu and Kashmir, said she supports Shri Ram Sena's campaign.

"This will act as a deterrent and people will be scared," she said. "Sometimes there is no option but to use the stick out of sheer love."

--

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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