Indian protesters condemn an invasion of hearts and flowers

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The Independent Online

Slanging matches are raging. Shops have been raided. Ancient symbols have been ritualistically burnt. Such is the mood that the police have increased security nationwide.

Slanging matches are raging. Shops have been raided. Ancient symbols have been ritualistically burnt. Such is the mood that the police have increased security nationwide.

Just when you thought the world had quite enough to argue about, skirmishing has begun over a celebration supposed to represent the opposite of hatred and violence.

It is Valentine's Day tomorrow and some people in India are very angry about it. Insults are flying faster than Cupid's arrows. Some want the day banned. Others are arguing for "free love zones", to protect canoodling couples from harassment.

Metropolitan, Western- leaning middle-class India has been celebrating Valentine's Day with growing enthusiasm in recent years even though the unspoken message – the right to a partner of your choice and to engage in courtship and dating – does not square with the tradition of arranged marriage.

Yet the bulk of the country remains conservative. Stories emerge with alarming regularity of rural couples in love committing suicide because their families will not allow them to wed. The resourceful retailers of Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay have seized on the occasion as a source of profit. They have filled their shelves with glittering, Valentine's cards; floral bouquets; heart-shaped boxes of chocolates; and heart-spangled fluffy toys.

Declaring that "love is in the air", Today, a small afternoon newspaper in Delhi, encouraged its readers to turn up to "the ultimate festival to celebrate your love" at a shopping plaza. The purchase of one Coca-Cola would buy you, it promised, a free romantic tattoo, a love tarot-card session or the right to croon seductively into a karaoke machine.

The forces of intolerance and tradition are not pleased. Chanting "Down with Valentine's Day", Hindu nationalist activists set fire yesterday to batches of Valentine cards that showed couples kissing or sitting close to one another.

It was the second day of a protests mounted by the Shiv Sena party – a hardline element in the ruling coalition – in the name of saving India's youth from the corrupting influences of the West. The party wants Valentine's Day banned. On Tuesday, Bhavnaben Chikalia, the Tourism Minister, declared that discos in government-owned five-star hotels would be shut because they advanced the cultural invasion of India by the West. She condemned Valentine's Day for the same reason.

This is one of the few topics on which Hindu and Islamic conservatives agree. Hardline elements in Pakistan have held similar protests. Khalid Waqas Chamkani, the student leader of a fundamentalist party, denounced it as "a shameful day" in which "people in the West are just fulfilling and satisfying their sex thirst".

The opponents of this view feel equally strongly. Rupak Manush is head of a pressure group called Love – Lovers' Organisation for Voluntary Exhibition – in Calcutta. It is campaigning for zones to protect courting couples from harassment from police and Hindu nationalist thugs.

"These could be anywhere," he said. "They could be in parks or on the banks of rivers, somewhere where there is no harassment from the police and no rowdies ... People need to have real and proper love. Many people haven't known any love in their lives. It drives some people to suicide."

Mr Manush, a Brahmin, married for love. His relatives were so upset that they cut him off and ostracised his wife, who is of a lower caste. "India is still a deeply conservative country," he said, sitting in his dingy bungalow beneath a poster reading "Love is the fuel of life – secure it."

He continued: "The police here constantly try to hamper relationships by harassing couples in parks and arresting them under morality laws. We are just not giving proper honour to love relationships."

Mr Manush represents the country's social liberals. Yet the gap between his views and those of the West still yawns wide. Asked whether gays and lesbians could use his free love zones, he shook his head energetically. Clearly, that subject is still taboo.