By Sabah Kochhar
11.12.13- This is not just a sequence of numbers; for an estimated 100 million Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) people living in India that number signifies the date of a landmark event in the fall of the dignity and unquestionable fairness of India’s Supreme Court. That day, on 11 December 2013, the nation’s supreme protector of human rights upheld the validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively re-criminalizing consensual homosexuality in this country.
This ruling was not only a huge blow to the hopes of millions of individuals, but it effectively reduced an already discriminated community to being ‘criminals’- all because of being who they are. To make matters worse, not only did our reputation and Human Rights record take a beating the world over, but within India this judgement served to entrench existing opposition to the LGBT community and further jeopardized their safety and security.
While the Congress made welcome statements on taking necessary action against the ruling if elected to power, the Aam Aadmi Party has gone a step ahead and has the likes of openly gay filmmaker Onir and activist Harrish Iyer rooting for the fledgling new party on the block.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the BJP and its parent-body RSS have taken an unsurprisingly Victorian, conservative and regressive stand on the issue by declaring that they fully endorse and support the Supreme Court ruling, and that homosexuality was unnatural and Section 377 should continue being imposed. Coming from a party whose poster boy is none other than the most favoured Prime Ministerial candidate in this election, the conservative and alienating stance of the BJP should not be taken lightly.
The LGBT population of India has long been denied their rights and choices, being treated as second class citizens- facing verbal and physical abuse from peers and colleagues and harassment from the police. The arguments employed by our politicians- about how homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, or how it goes against ‘Indian culture‘ and is a Western import- are both unscientific and ahistorical. It is high time that all political parties, from the left to the right of the spectrum, sit up and take notice. The verdict on homosexual rights in India goes against not just equality, humanity, and compassion, but also goes against the tide of our own history.
For all its empty rhetoric, parties like the BJP must remember that ‘culture’ is neither singular nor monolithic, nor is it static and unchanging. One’s own fantasies of cultural Puritanism cannot become excuses to ignore the plight of citizens, or be reasons to deny them their constitutional rights. Turning a blind eye to this issue only creates an atmosphere of hostility and resentment.
But the aftermath of this judgement has also triggered talk about the LGBT vote, through which LGBT individuals can collectively participate in electoral politics and lobby for their welfare. The LGBT community surely has the potential to be kingmakers, if estimates of the number of Indians in the closet are anything to go by. Moreover, LGBT individuals are aplenty in influential and powerful positions. This community’s recognition of its political potential is perhaps the silver lining of the Supreme Court verdict. One cannot make promises of development if it is merely at a superficial and economic level, and comes at the cost of living under a veil of ignorance and being inconsiderate to our minorities.
It is high time that political parties open up to the reality of LGBT people in India, because progress is not just tackling corruption and infrastructural reforms, but also involves a complex and multi-layered approach towards social and moral reform. The message is clear: reform or perish. If there is anything that has been an eternal part of Indian culture then it is our belief in tolerance and acceptance- the very basis of our rich cultural heritage and diversity.
Dear Mr Narendra Modi, LGBT rights are also human rights, and 2014 is your chance to prove that maybe, for once, you care. Are you listening?