My orientation is different and that is no crime: Navtej Singh Johar
Petitioner against IPC section 377 on why the law has no place in modern India
Navtej Singh Johar, a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, is a renowned dancer and yoga instructor. On Wednesday, another aspect of his life came to light—the 57-year-old moved the Supreme Court along with four other persons, including his partner of 25 years, to challenge Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Johar, who identifies as gay and his co-petitioners who belong to the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community argued in the petition that the section violates their right to life and personal liberty, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian constitution. Journalist Sunil Mehra (Johar’s partner), well-known chef and hotelier Ritu Dalmia, Neemrana chain of hotels co-founder Aman Nath and business executive Ayesha Kapur came forward as aggrieved parties—people actually affected by the colonial-era law which criminalizes consensual same sex intercourse between adults. On Wednesday their petition was referred to the Chief Justice of India T.S Thakur, who will decide whether to tag this petition with an already existing set of curatives that challenge the constitutional validity of Section 377.
We caught up with Johar, who is currently in Berlin on a fellowship at the International Research Centre of Freie University, over an email interview:
What was your impetus to be one of the petitioners at the Supreme Court to challenge Section 377?
I am making this petition because as a normal gay man, who considers himself to be a responsible and a worthy citizen of this country, Section 377 makes no sense. My orientation is different, that is all, and that is no crime. So I have taken this initiative to move the court and seek the repeal of a law that is archaic. It has no place in a modern state like India. Equality is my constitutional right. Some people are differently-abled, some have different (skin) colour, and some of us are differently-oriented. And difference does not mean (we are) unequal.
What are you concerns at this point, given that the legal battle for Section 377 has been going on for over a decade?
More than that (the matter of section) 377 opens a deeper, more academic question. Examining (section) 377 offers India an opportunity to shed Victorian morality that was designed to subjugate us in the 19th century, which it did and perhaps even beyond the designs of the colonizers. We have so deeply internalized it that we are still clinging to it while they (England) dropped it long ago (from their statute books). Section 377 and the morality that it represents is both an imposed and an acquired morality. It is foreign, Western, and archaic. Shedding it would perhaps be like flicking the last straw out of our psyches, it would really mean decolonizing our minds. It would mean autonomy and emancipation for us in the real sense.
Tell us a bit about the petition.
This petition is in line with other such petitions made earlier. It is part of the drive that requires persistence. Different people have stepped forward for the cause over the last decade, it is our turn now. And we are very hopeful because we have faith in our just and progressive judiciary; and we trust that India stands for emancipation and equality; and we share India’s dream of being a modern state.
Do you think that the social mindset has changed in any way?
Talking about shift in mindsets, first of all I don’t really think if Indians are generally homophobic, we might find it odd, peculiar, even amusing, but I don’t really feel that we have a culture of phobia around homosexuality. I personally have not encountered it, I don’t remember the last time when I may have even been made self-conscious for being different. When I came out to my mother in my early 20s, her first and major concern was that I would be alone, that I won’t have a life partner. I am not saying that others have not experienced abuse or family pressure to get married, that is huge in our culture; am sure we can find many stories of abuse, but I have to state my reality which is also a reflection on us as a people. And secondly, over the last decade or so, India has become far more relaxed about sexuality. I see us as a very liberal people.
What do you think of the celebrity tag that has being given to the petitioners?
I guess when people with some visibility step forward for a cause it has an impact— that is why corporations have brand ambassadors. We are people who have contributed significantly to society in our own rights and are now stepping forward for our personal cause. Putting a face to the cause helps, it de-mystifies it in a way. And in a way that is all homosexuality requires in India, a de-mystification.
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