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India: The Regressive Attitude of State on Homosexuality

by, 13 June 2009

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The Telegraph, June 13, 2009


Never Ready For It

In India, the State now speaks in many tongues on homosexuality. Different ministries have come up with bafflingly different positions on the matter. So far, on the ’reading down’ of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (the archaic law that ends up criminalizing adult consensual homosexuality in India), the courts have sounded progressive, the health ministry encouraging, and the law and home ministries regressive. The regressiveness is alarming, not only because of the astonishing ignorance, indeed blindness, of its "India is not ready for it yet" position, but also because of the schizophrenic divide regarding sex and sexuality within the State that shows up when the health ministry’s view is compared with those of the law and home ministries. Yet the health ministry’s ’positive’ stance is founded on fear and caution rather than principled thinking — on the same sort of logic that underlies action against swine ’flu or SARS: if the law is not changed, then it will be difficult to stop people from dying of AIDS. So when the law minister makes vague public noises to the effect that some bits of the IPC "may be" outdated, and Section 377 "could be" one of these bits, then it really does not amount to very much. But by now, hanging on to every word that the State lets fall on the matter, and then trying to make sense of them, have become part of the entire struggle for legal and social change that the movement against Section 377 has become in India.

This movement remains largely confined, though, to those who are victimized by Section 377 — that is, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, mostly among urban (and sometimes provincial), middle-class Indians. Annual parades and candle-lit vigils, again mostly in the big cities and often (though not always) associated with HIV/AIDS, are when this community is given some visibility in the media, although of a stereotypically colourful kind. Or when big-budget Bollywood indulges in a bit of innocuous same-sex fun, people talk about it for a while, usually with light-hearted titters, as if chatting about exotic lifestyle options. But with food, weddings, cricket and elections being the nation’s chief obsessions, the closet rather than the courtroom is where the matter is invariably laid to rest.

Why does it remain virtually impossible to figure out what the nation’s leaders think about men having sex with men, or women having sex with women? Does the Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Prime Minister’s Office have a view on homosexuality? Would the Gandhis, particularly the younger ones, speak up for it? What does Agatha Sangma, the Lok Sabha’s youngest minister, think about it? How does Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee feel about the sexual orientation of his beloved Proust? All these right-thinking people would not think twice before speaking up against untouchability, apartheid or female circumcision. So why this silence, or slipperiness, about this other, universally acknowledged, form of discrimination?