NEW DELHI – It was hardly a Hallmark moment.
As a Valentine's Day card smoldered, more than 100 members of the Hindu extremist group Shiv Sena gathered in central New Delhi chanted "Death to Valentine's Day" and "People who celebrate Valentine's Day should be pelted with shoes!"
Valentine's Day has in the past two decades made strong inroads in India as the country has slowly opened itself up to the outside world — its economic boom bringing in not just foreign investment, but also aspects of Western culture virtually unknown here a quarter-century ago.
Across the country, stores stocked heart-shaped balloons and chocolates, restaurants offered Valentine's Day specials and young lovers found refuge from prying eyes in the parks.
It's a state of affairs that enrages Hindu and Muslim hard-liners, who on Wednesday vented just as they do every Valentine's Day — burning cards, holding rallies and even threatening to beat couples caught canoodling in public, a strict no-no for those who claim to defend traditional Indian values.
"This is a conspiracy to misguide the young people of our country," said Jai Bhagwan Goel, chief of the Shiv Sena's north India branch.
In his hand the card, with its image of a Victorian couple pictured in a tepid peck under a parasol, went up in flames.
"We have come to know that in America, even unmarried girls as young as 11 or 12 years have become mothers ... and every second man there is divorced," Goel told reporters after reducing several greeting cards to a small pile of ash. "This is their culture— it cannot be accepted here."
Goel and his indignant followers left soon after when about 60 riot police stopped them from advancing on nearby restaurants offering Valentine's Day specials.
For the day, the Hindu hard-liners found themselves, unusually, on the same side as Islamic separatist groups in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region in the Himalayas.
About 40 protesters, calling themselves the Forum Against Social Evil, marched on a popular restaurant area in Srinagar, the region's main city, calling on shop owners to refuse to serve couples and refrain from un-Islamic practices on Wednesday.
"The government is promoting such obscenities," said Asiya Andrabi, the leader of Kashmir's only women's separatist group, Dukhtaran-e-Millat, before police ordered them away, too.
Kashmir's separatists want independence from predominantly Hindu India or a union with Muslim Pakistan, which controls the other part of the divided region.
Weather intervened to stop Hindu extremists in the northern city of Lucknow from carrying out their threats to beat couples found kissing, hugging or even holding hands in public. With torrential rains pouring down, young lovers stayed out of the parks where the usually seek privacy.
Still, even if some lovers stayed out of sight, they made their desires known, placing ads on special Valentine's Day pages in newspapers.
"My heart is like a cabbage," declared a man named Manoj to some lucky lady. "Divided into two; the leaves are for others and the heart for you."