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Will You Be My Bal-entine?

Rohan Oberoi works as a software engineer for an I.T. consulting firm in London, U.K. He has also worked in Boston, MA, studied in Ithaca, NY, and lived in New Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay. His writing has appeared in the online newsmagazines Chowk and Parabaas, and in The Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury.

The Satya Circle, Mar. 4, 2001

Photo: Rohan Oberoi

Unfortunately, Valentine's Day is over, so I will have to wait a year to make this gesture, but it will be worth it.

You see, I have already decided who gets my Valentine's Day card next year. It will be addressed to: Bal Thackeray, Sena Pramukh, Sena Bhavan, Mumbai. I will even be happy to misspell Bombay on the card to make sure it arrives.

I've never liked Balls Thackeray and the gang of Marathi chauvinists, Hindu xenophobes and criminal thugs that he calls the Shiv Sena. He is an ugly little gang lord, and his Shiv Sena hooligans would be in jail if Bombay had any kind of rule of law. But this year, Thackeray has made his way into my good books with his campaign against Valentine's Day; hence the card.

'This shameless festival has been celebrated by our young people for the last 10 years,' Thackeray wrote in his vituperative Marathi newspaper Saamna, which plays Voelkischer Beobachter to his Weltanschauung. 'But it is totally contrary to our culture.'

These weren't just idle words. Thackeray and the Shiv Sena backed them with action. They formed 'youth squads,' their euphemism for bands of ruffians, to disrupt Valentine's Day celebrations. The Sena even has a 'Northern India Chief,' one Jai Bhagwan Goyal, who told the press the Sena had formed 25 'squads' of 50 'youths' each to disrupt what they called 'part of a Western conspiracy to mislead Indian youth.'

Eventually 17 of them were arrested all over the city, and released on bail. That may seem like a pretty small number considering the kind of hooliganism the Sena got up to - this included breaking into a newspaper office to protest a Valentine's Day article, and burning some newspapers - but remember that this is probably 17 more arrests than the Bombay police managed to make in 1992-1993, when the Sena killed Muslims all over the city in broad daylight; so it is progress, of a kind.

'We received a very good response from the youth,' said Bal's son Uddhav, to the press. He advised Bombay's lovebirds to 'observe privacy and not publicize their love-affairs on the streets of Mumbai.'

The Shiv Sena, allying itself with like-minded gentlemen like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (which feels that Valentine's Day is a 'western conspiracy aimed at converting Hindu youth into Christianity'), the Hindu Jagran Manch and the Bajrang Dal, has moved out of its Marathi-speaking home base and has spread over North India.

I read with delight the details of this rampage across the country. In Bareilly, eight people were injured, shops closed, cars and windows smashed, and Valentine's cards burned. In Varanasi, several young men celebrating the day had their hair forcibly chopped off in echoes of current practice in Kabul. In Kanpur, an effigy of St. Valentine was burned. In Bhopal, 18 people were injured, including 6 policemen, in violent clashes. There were protests in Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi; shops were threatened and banners were burned. The police briefly detained 14 demonstrators.

A customer in an Archie's Gallery, a popular greeting card store chain, told reporters how 'ruffians swooped down on him and assaulted the staff, damaged the cash box and dumped the computer on the floor. They even snatched cards and Valentine gifts from customers.'

Personally, I consider Valentine's Day the product of the unhappy confluence of two extremely boring phenomena. One, people deficient in the imagination to devise their own special ways of expressing their love need formalized ways of doing it; else they wouldn't do it at all. Two, people who want to make money can make a lot of it by filling this idea void with cards, chocolates, flowers and Valentine-Millennium collections of jewelry.

But, I don't go around smashing shop windows to show my displeasure; I merely sneer to myself. That way I don't attract the hostility of the lovestruck masses as they trot home with their plastic bags bulging with chocolate.

Thackeray and his friends in the Hindu nationalist business, on the other hand, have placed themselves squarely in confrontation with the lovestruck masses, to the extent that this Valentine's Day saw police and paramilitary forces specially deployed all over Uttar Pradesh to prevent clashes between them and pro-Valentine's punters.

That's why I'm so happy. This St. Valentine's Day will be remembered as the day Thackeray and the Hindu nationalists, like Hitler on the morning of June 2, 1941, when he invaded Russia, made his fatal mistake, the one that would be his final undoing.

So far, the man has gone from strength to strength, always by playing to popular prejudices. He began by beating up South Indians in Bombay, claiming they were taking jobs away from Maharashtrians. That made him a political success in Maharashtra. Then he went on to pogroms against Muslims in Bombay, killing several hundreds in less than a few weeks. That made him a hero to Hindus who have never much liked Muslims.

But now he has ranged himself squarely against Youth; and, though he may now be able to severely inconvenience them and their childish Valentine's Day celebrations, it is a battle he cannot win. Every year will find the cootchie-coo brigades stronger; every year will find Thackeray's haggard thugs more greatly outnumbered by the kids who have made cards, flowers and chocolates into a Rs. 100 crore business from practically nothing ten years ago.

It would have been nice if India had risen against Thackeray back when he threatened to 'throw Muslims out' of India; nicer still if India could have been the sort of place where someone could have silenced a fascist like Thackeray as Welch did McCarthy, with nothing more than the words 'Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?'

But, if the road to Thackeray's Stalingrad is to be paved instead with flowers, chocolates, and dove-shaped Swarovsky crystal tattoos, who am I to complain?