The crisp lawns, water fountain and new walking path of Lohia park attract people of all ages. Middle-aged women wearing tracksuit trousers paired with traditional tops walk the trails with strollers. Frisbees and kites fly in the air, and almost every day couples embrace under a tree or on the grass, oblivious to all around them.
Priyanka Shivharee, 22, and Rohit Chaudhary, 25, are in the park because in the northern Indian city of Lucknow it is one of the few places where they can get some privacy.
“Actually, the park is a silent place,” said Chaudhary, who studies at a local engineering college along with his girlfriend of three years. “We can talk to each other and exchange emotions. So peaceful. That’s why we come here.”
Couples may not always tell their families or friends where they are going, but it is no secret that parks such as Lohia are romantic hideaways. Greater female mobility, more open media, which include sexual imagery in movies and advertisements, the decline of arranged marriages and a rise in premarital sex all indicate India is becoming more progressive.
However, such change has not gone unopposed.
The recriminalization of gay sex in December last year and the gang-rape of a woman in a village in West Bengal in January to punish her for an illicit relationship were just two of a series of incidents that showed a conservative reaction that some say is hardening.
Some Indians worry that a victory for the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party in the election could signal more conservative trends in India.
On Valentine’s Day, a local petitioner in Lucknow requested the deployment of security personnel in the parks to prevent so-called “obscene activities.”
Luckily for the park’s frequenters, the high court dismissed the request, but such “moral policing” has caused controversy across much of India.
“It just happens randomly, the police just come and round up the couples there, even if they’re just sitting and talking,” said Aditi Gupta, 22, who now prefers dates in cafes or cinemas.
Lakshmi Chaudhry, a journalist at the Indian Web site Firstpost, said private bedrooms were a luxury for many Indian couples who share crowded homes with extended families.
“One of the great unseen things is that the police pretend this is immoral, these unmarried couples, but a lot of them are married couples,” Chaudhry said.
“Women in public always have to have a sense of purposefulness,” said Sameera Khan, an author and expert on gender in India. “It’s when women want to access public space for pleasure, to wander around, sit on a bench and read or hang out with a boyfriend, or as we say, to loiter — that is when Indian society is not OK with it.”
Faramerz Dabhoiwala, a historian at the University of Oxford and the author of The Origins of Sex, said religious liberty was the most important predictor of sexual freedom.
“You can’t have moral freedom without religious freedom,” Dabhoiwala said.