October 29, 2014 By Shameer KS

Storm in the Coffee Cup


The recent victory for the Baratiya Janata Party in the assembly constituencies of Maharashtra and Hariyana, following the landslide it had in the Indian Parliamentary election, has boosted not only the morale of various Sangh Parivar elements, but their hubris as well. Recently, there was what appeared to be cultural vigilantism by Youva Moracha, a youth fraction of the ultra-nationalist party, in the form of attacking a coffee shop in Calicut, a northern district in the state of Kerala.

Downtown is one of the newly sprung cup espresso huts in the district (one of six or seven in the Calicut downtown itself). Its customers mainly constitute the upwardly mobile younger generation especially from the Muslim community. They belong to the middle class, or upper middle class, going by the fact that it is relatively expensive to buy coffee from there. The coffee shops here are more spaces for socialization and interactions-chiefly used as spots for pre-marital ‘seeing’ and interactions of prospective couples (kind of Indian dating)-kind of a cultural safety value, given that pre-marital interactions in Indian families are rigidly monitored and supervised as if the prospective couples were writing civil service exams.

Of all the coffee shops, Downtown has become instantly successful, despite its inferior coffee (according to this writer) and, perhaps, because of the ambience (not glaringly solemn as Coffee Day and always reverberated with thunderous youngish celebrations). It is better to read a book at Coffee Day, to plan your business at Coffee Beans and to watch a soccer match at downtown. Downtown is run by some youngsters in the Muslim community and is one of the examples of industriousness in the community.

One day this month, the Congress Party-run TV channel Jaihind aired video clips about a boy and girl having lip lock kiss in the shop. (The clips were later proved to be morphed). A group of Yuva Morcha activists stormed into the coffee shop, stopped business, broke glass panes and chairs. Later the activists held a press conference at Calicut, saying that they were protesting against the glaring immorality in the shop.

Besides the fact that the images were morphed and cooked up to tarnish the image of the shop, the shop is such an open space that whatever happens inside will be visible in the outside. Should two people decide to have sex, they might as well seek better options than going to a coffee shop. Also, who gave power to the brigade to stop the alleged indecency is question to be asked. There are legal provisions in the state which prevent coffee shops, internet cafes, game studios and massage parlors from turning sex hubs.Complaints regarding the same should be dealt with law-enforcing authorities, not cultural vigilantes.

Fortuitously, the incident became a backhanded advertisement for Downtown. Its customers increased; graphs in the social networking sites soared high; its relatively gaudy coffee instantly forgotten and forgiven. Downtown has soon become a rallying point against cultural vigilantism and fascism. Some activist groups in Kochi decided to protest against the attack by staging a public kissing ceremony. But lost in this counter narrative is the fact that morality policing (incorrectly used as moral policing) is just a tip of the iceberg. The fact that the image used to tarnish the coffee shop was morphed proves that the target was hardly indecency and immorality (there are reportedly many public spaces in the district where hashish is distributed to youngsters, where sexual predators frequent to get it on with under age teens-boys and girls-which go on uninterrupted and in full swing. Many recent sex scandals in the district involve teens, that went on for many years uninterrupted and unreported)

So to restrict the protest to ‘moral policing’ is to restrict the whole issue to pretexts and not to see wider xenophobic and fascist angles in it. Yuva Morcha seems to have no truck with public kissing or nude protests (which occurred in Kochi some months back). This move is glaringly against the socialization of minority communities and minority businesses. The argument that it makes a dip in the business of nearby shops also carries water. This is somewhat similar to what ZiauddinSardar wrote seven years back (http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2007/06/shisha-culture-britain-smoking) about the ban against Shisha (hookah) cafes in Britian: “Shisha cafes are also one of the few places where Muslim youths meet non-Muslims and have a jolly good natter about multicultural Britain. Most non-Muslims who frequent these cafes have returned from travel in the Middle East or south Asia. Many are attracted by the hangover-free party atmosphere, Muslim music and exotic food.

Shisha cafes, then, had a lot going for them besides fragrant tobacco bubbles. Alas, they are about to disappear. The impact on Muslim youth culture would be equivalent to the effect of closing all the pubs in Britain.”

Likewise, for the customers who frequent coffee shops and the proprietors who run them, what matters is not coffee, but what ‘happens over a cup of coffee’ (interactions and sharing among youngsters from diverse communities; a space for diversity. What happens over the coffee, not merely kissing, is what the fascist brigades fear.

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