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A country cannot just boast of economic liberalization if it must get itself counted among truly liberal nations. Social liberty is equally if not more important in the pursuit of such a labelling. Human rights and guarantees of dignity, equality and freedom make a people liberal after all. Union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s comments on gay rights two days back at the Times Literature festival in New Delhi stamp this idea which is universally accepted but has never seen a consummate realization in India. We are liberal but only in parts—fundamentally conflicted on so many issues that we are a neither-here-nor-there people.
So it was indeed a good morning on Sunday as a bunch of newspapers led their front pages with Jaitley’s comments and those of parliamentarian P. Chidambaram, former holder of the same ministerial portfolio, on why the Supreme Court should reconsider its decision to criminalize gay sex. “When you have millions of people involved in this (gay sex) you can’t nudge them off,” said Jaitley, invoking the evolving global jurisprudence around homosexuality. His matter-of-fact words spoken at a literature festival may make them appear non-political yet they essentially argue against conservatism. Anti-conservatism may stem from personal beliefs but once voiced, becomes political, even when it is not argued by a professional politician.
Coming from a Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) biggie, even if the remarks were made in his personal capacity or stem from his vision as an (economic) liberalist, they suggest some thought. Jaitley has chosen gay rights from the basket of (non-liberal) issues that face the country today waiting to be addressed by the ruling political party. What does that make Article 377? A “safe” issue to lead an anti-conservative debate on, or the starting point of a discourse where politicians will stand outside their party’s collective stand to speak up their own mind?
This is not the first time Jaitley has spoken about homosexual rights. A few months after the Supreme Court upheld Article 377 that criminalizes gay sex, he told a television channel in early 2014 that he supported its decriminalization. All the same, the BJP never displayed a clear stand on the issue. While spokesperson Shaina N.C. told news channels that they “can’t have blinkers on and believe there is no LGBT community in our country,” the party never filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court supporting decriminalization. In fact, Rajnath Singh, then the party president and now the home minister, said in his interviews that the party will support Article 377 if an all-party meeting was called.
The BJP’s ambiguity which translates into an absence of real commitment reflects in what the LGBT community thinks about the party. There were posters at the LGBT Queer Pride in Delhi on Sunday which said “Homos Hate BJP”.
All the more reason why Jaitley’s remarks raise valid questions. I am a staunch supporter of LGBT rights like all other human rights, yet not a political writer or analyst. Even so, it is easy to deduce that standing by the LGBT community or arguing for the constitutional and social equality of any group can never just be about a one-time public statement. The deeper the wound, the numerous the incidents that have scarred homosexuals with the insults and discriminations handed out to them, the firmer and consistent must be the voice which seeks to turn the tide.
Is the finance minister ready to be that voice? Will he allow his beliefs to guide his future steps, where a conviction finds a trajectory that moves from the personal to the professional? Such a movement can become powerful helmed by a politician of his stature. Jaitley can make a difference, so will he support the tabling of a bill in this regard or convince his party to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court? That would mean real support. The passionate argumentator that he is, will he someday address a cultural or literary festival focused solely around the LGBT community? Will he grace the wedding of an adoptive child of a transgender person?
As someone who has dozens of gay acquaintances, some very close friends, I have often felt helpless if not ashamed of being a powerless spectator while their intimate lives are viewed as criminal in our land. When I talk about love and longing with a gay friend, I cringe at the moral defeat encoded in such conversations—knowing they are lopsided and discriminatory at a broader level.
That’s why I repose optimism in Mr. Jaitley who, if he chooses to, can fire his liberal views with consistency of approach and action. It is up to him to make this a one-off rhetorical and literary device that raises hope or make it a loud tolling bell.