January 27, 2022

Morality and Law:A Critical Evaluation

The present piece of work deals with the conception of moral policing with respect to law. For the past few years, there has been emerging a new group of people, known as ‘moral police’. These groups tend to categorise certain activities as “western” or “pashchatya sabhyata”, meaning, the culture which has come from west and then bully or carry out violent marches against people who they find as being part of that culture. The aim of this article is to provide a clear picture of effect of such moral policing and its implication in law. Also, can law be used to enforce morality? If yes, the extent of such use has been discussed.


The culture of India is as ancient as time. India’s glorious past lies with its ancient tradition and culture as the most ancient civilization flourished in this land. This land has witnessed the diverse forms of traditions and ethnicities and somehow the blend of all of them. Although, this culture is known for being dynamic with the trends and settings of the modern world, this doesn’t mean losing authenticity but shows its tendency to bend with changing minds and needs of people. However, there are some vigilante groups of people who do not favour this change. According to them, change is ‘obscene’ and thus can destroy the chastity of Indian culture.

They especially oppose those trends that have western influence. As such, it is important to remember that somebody having a different opinion does not automatically become wrong. In a country like ours, there is no shortage of people who think showing everyone the “right path” as their prime duty. Never mind if it is truly right or not, never mind if “showing” translates to “forcibly imposing”. For a country that is quickly developing, eager to carry the progressive tag, we perhaps need to leave a few outdated ideas in the past.

What is Moral Policing?

As mentioned earlier, vigilante group of persons who are deemed to be the torch bearers of society, often tries to show the right path, or to be more precise the moral path. We often come across instances of couples being attacked in parks and cafes, lathi charges and violent demonstrations on Valentine’s Day, attacks on bars, pubs and liquor shops, etc. Two persons attacked a woman and her brother in a suspected case of moral policing at Engapuzha in Kozhikode district.[1] In a horrifying case of moral policing in Kerala’s Kollam district, a 34-year-old woman was accosted, attacked and brutally injured by a gang of 4 men in Pathanapuram. The victim has been identified as Shalini, a widow, a domestic worker and mother of 2 children from Pathanapuram.[2]

Often these instances are carried out by police officers also.[3] The target of moral policing is to stop or prevent any such activity that vigilante groups, the government or police deem to be “immoral” and/or “against Indian culture”. They resist and oppose cultural concepts that they deem to have been imported from the Western culture.

Morality and Law: The Regulators Of Conduct

Both law and morality serve to channel our behaviour. Law accomplishes this through threat of sanctions and morality through the incentives of virtue and praise. The establishment of legal rules is not very expensive process as it requires a law making body and that the rule is properly implemented. On the other hand, establishment of moral rules is comparatively expensive as it occurs through socialization and inculcation. The enforcement of moral rules is highly effected through both internal (the guilt of not doing so) and external incentives (feeling of shame and disapprobation). Thus, morality can be understood as something inherent and virtuous. It cannot be imposed by threat, punishment or violence. It can only be inculcated through the holistic development of an individual and ultimately of a society as a whole.

Necessity of Law to Enforce Morality

It is true that morality can neither be taught nor can be learned, through the sanctions and punishment. However, it is equally true that morality and law cannot be separated. If we sought to achieve a moral society without the protection of law it is more likely that the basic rights of an individual may get abridged. Morality does not has any yardstick to measure, that what conduct of an individual is wrong and what is right, as what is right for one can be wrong for another. Law lays down such measurements in which particular conduct can be termed as wrong. For example, spitting in public area is wrong morally and also it is made wrong in the eyes of law. This view can differ for individuals but law has made it uniformly applicable to all. Similarly, obscenity is made an offence under the law which is also a moral wrong.[4] The dilemma is, it has not been furnished with a precise definition and as such this term has been made subject to multiple interpretations. Moral policing is one such consequence of this vague interpretation.

Public morality and decency is both a moral norm and legal rule, the moral police uses these norms to impose their own ethics and ideologies to public at large. But, as said above, what is wrong for one is not necessarily wrong for the other. Thus, a precise and unambiguous code of conduct should be decided by the law so that the morality cannot be used to serve the vices of any group or individual. It can become a weapon to exploit and violate the rights of whom they think do not fit to their morals.

Can Law Be Used to Enforce Morality?

Now lets us encounter to this question which can sum up this entire discussion. Morality comes through inculcation and socialisation. It is a moral appeal that comes from within, that a particular act or omission is correct or not and also the incentives of appreciation and criticism compels one to do or not to do anything. Hence, morality cannot be imposed by law.

But, enforcement of law can establish morality. If a sound administrative and legal system works at every level to ensure that the every wrong has been punished and every right is appreciated then there cannot be any moral policing or like. From the police officials to the supreme guardians of rights, i.e., the Judiciary should be equally responsible for recognising law and its implications. Any vague conduct or response by them can destroy the very essence of democracy and thus the soul of the country, which ensures right to freedom to every citizen.

Politics How Far Responsible

The Sri Ram Sene (SRS), or ‘Lord Rama’s Army’, created headlines in January after its members chased, slapped and kicked young women drinking at a bar in Mangalore, Karnataka. Two couples were stopped by Shiv Sena activists and forced to “marry” on the spot by exchanging flower garlands. Shiv Sena city unit chief Nana Wadekar said, “Shiv Sena is against Valentine’s day because it encourages obscene and vulgar acts.[5]

Any discussion on the rights in India must take into account that how power and politics perpetuate poor law enforcement and legitimise unresponsive institutions (including the police) and turn democracy into majoritarian rule. We need to accept the importance of the political economy of policing in understanding why our police officers fail to protect the laws of the land.

In 2013, as per the data collected by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), almost 80% of superintendents of police (SPs) in districts across the country got transferred within two years of their tenure in a district. More than 50% got transferred in less than a year. Since postings and transfers take place according to the whims and fancies of the ruling dispensation of the day despite the Supreme Court directives in Prakash Singh case[6], it is only logical that police officers will go out of their way to accommodate the illegal political and economic demands of their political masters based on vote bank politics.


India is home of multiple and diverse tradition and ethnicities. Being a dynamic culture, it is flexible enough to stretch its boundaries to include the modern trends and cults. As such it will be wrong to interpret as something wrong or absurd just because it is western or modern and does not resembles with the ancient and orthodox trends of Indian culture. In such a set up each group interprets ‘public indecency’, ‘public obscenity’ and ‘morality, through their own moral compass hence it’s more than obvious that an act it going to end up offending one or the other section of the society.

Therefore, it can be articulated that moral policing is an evil to a sound society as imposing one’s self moral norms on the other is not correct and can even devastate the essential liberties of other. Also, a law itself cannot enforce morality but an efficient system of law enforcement will ultimately establish morality.

For more notes on Jurisprudence, click here.


[1]. Staff Reporter, Moral Policing Two Booked, Kozhikode, August 17, 2019 23:26 IST https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kozhikode/moral-policing-two-booked/article29121752.ece

[2]. Sreedevi Jayarajan, Moral Policing Goons Assault Kerela Widow for Talking to a Man, Friday, February 14, 2020 – 09:33 https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/moral-policing-goons-assault-kerala-widow-talking-man-118144.

[3]. Cops didn’t trip, lovers were target – Operation Majnu: crackdown on couples, not eve-teasers, Lucknow, December 21, 2020, https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/cops-didn-t-trip-lovers-were-target-operation-majnu-crackdown-on-couples-not-eve-teasers/cid/831756.

[4]. Section 292-294, Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[5] Basant Rath, Valentine’s Day Vandalism and the Political Economy of Policing in India, 12/Feb/2018, https://thewire.in/government/valentines-day-vandalism-policing-india

[6]. Prakash Singh v. Union of India, Writ Petition (civil) 310 of 1996.

Contributed by: Aditi Sharma (Govt. New Law College, Indore)

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