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Just four months ago, they had been called “a minuscule minority" by the Supreme Court and subjected to an archaic law that criminalizes them for expressing the most ancient, acknowledged, and innocuous impulse in human history: the desire to engage in consensual sex with a partner of one’s choice. Ahead of the general election though, political parties are giving them major attention.

The demand for the right of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and all other queer people to exist as free citizens has never before stood a chance against the buzzwords of electoral campaigns in India: “development", “economic growth", “corruption", with “inclusiveness" thrown in to appease “vote banks" divided along communal and caste lines. But things seems to be changing, at long last.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, was the first political party to include queer rights in its manifesto for 2014, an example that was followed by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Congress and the Communist Party of India, or CPI.

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Brinda Karat. Photo: Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times

On 23 March, a group of AAP workers in New Delhi met members of Engendered, a cultural organization focusing on transnational arts and human rights founded along with Onir, for an interaction, during which topics from racism to mohalla politics were raised.

“I did not approach them; they came to me," says Onir. He is glad that AAP’s will be a growing manifesto, with new issues being added from time to time. “AAP has also agreed to work towards sensitizing its own members on various aspects of gender and sexuality," adds Onir. On Sunday, the queer community in Mumbai will meet AAP candidates Sundar Balakrishnan (Mumbai South-Central) and Phiroze Palkiwala (Mumbai North-Central) at Bandra (West) for a conversation about the issues facing the community—for “a political reimagining" (for details, visit www.gaysifamily.com)

Delhi-based queer rights activist Lesley Esteves agrees. “This is a huge milestone for our movement," she says, adding that she also applauds the positions taken by prominent Congress leaders, especially Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, after last year’s ruling. “It’s not often we see political parties and politicians in India take such principled stands," she says, refusing to see this as opportunism.

On 11 December, a two-member bench of the apex court had overruled a 2009 judgement by the Delhi high court which had deemed Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional. A relic from the era of British rule, Section 377 condemns “carnal intercourse against the order of nature" and can be used to persecute queer people.

Historically, the United Progressive Alliance government, led by the Congress, has been supportive of queer rights. After last year’s verdict, the party filed a review petition in the Supreme Court which was rejected. Procedurally, Section 377 can now be read down only if a motion is passed in Parliament and wins a majority vote.

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Onir

The CPM, for one, has consistently opposed Section 377 for its violation of the right to life and freedom of expression.

“It has always been a civil liberties issue for us," says Brinda Karat, a member of the party’s politburo. “We believe the state has no business interfering in a choice made by two consenting adults." Karat had also backed the appeal made by Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO working on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, for the removal of Section 377, as far back as 2003-04. Then general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (Aidwa), she had written to Arun Jaitley, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician who was then law minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by his party, objecting to the NDA’s justification for continuing with Section 377.

The BJP, which is now riding an anti-incumbency wave, remains steadfastly opposed to removing the section. The party and its affiliates, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), maintain homosexuality is unnatural and cannot be supported, though they have tried to define a humane and socially conservative position.

After last year’s court verdict, spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a poster-boy for Hindutva politics, refused to label homosexuality as a criminal act. A few moderates within the BJP, such as Jaitley, distanced themselves from the party line.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has been silent on the subject. Recently, his campaign managers made a gaffe when an advertisement appeared on Grindr, a dating app for gay men, urging users to vote for the BJP. “The BJP certainly cannot count on the votes of India’s LGBT people, no matter how opportunistically they advertise on websites used by our community," says Esteves.

Noor Enayat, a public relations professional belonging to the queer community, believes “the liberal world will end" if Modi comes to power. She is helping NOMOre 2014, a campaign to dissuade people from voting Modi to power. “I have more faith in the Left lending its support to the queer movement," she says. “The CPM has a tradition of standing by us." AAP, Enayat says, is only interested in tapping a younger demographic. “The day the verdict on Section 377 was announced last year and we went to the Jantar Mantar in Delhi to protest against it, there was an AAP gathering right across the street," she says. “Why did nobody from the party join us that day?"

But lending support to queer rights does not necessarily pander to a “vote bank" or translate into easy votes.

Even if homosexuality were to be decriminalized, many still may not be willing to come out. Groups like MSM, or men who have sex with men but do not identify as either gay or bisexual, complicate attempts at quantifying a porous population like the queer community. Then there are many heterosexual people who believe in equal rights for all irrespective of sexual identities. There is, as a result, no numerically quantifiable vote bank when it comes to the queer vote.

“Only transgender people have been recorded in official censuses so far, though such documents are by no means complete," says Pawan Dhall, who runs a gender and sexuality initiative called Varta, based in Kolkata. “If anything works out after the elections, it may benefit the transgender community more than anyone else, since it is the most visible face among queer people," he adds.

In some states like Tamil Nadu, transgender people have been given education, employment and electoral opportunities, though their fight for equality is far from over. In Gujarat, a state run by Modi, schemes have been running, under politicians from the BJP, to facilitate sex-change operations and promote public awareness of sexual health. But running medical initiatives does not mean an endorsement, least of all legitimization, of sexual acts that the party considers “unnatural".

“I find the BJP’s support of the recriminalization of homosexuality threatening," says Gourab Ghosh, a student leader at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Ghosh, who is openly gay, contested in student elections at JNU last year as a member of the Left-leaning Students Federation of India (SFI), and lost.

Even JNU’s reputation as a bastion of liberal ideas seems to be waning. Recently, Ghosh wanted to organize a queer film festival on campus, only to be told by the administration that such an event will “encourage abnormal elements". “We could go ahead with the festival only if we kept it a closed-door event for a few students," says Ghosh. As a supporter of the Left, he feels the queer movement will not gain momentum as long as it remains restricted to urban centres.

“Governments in India in the foreseeable future will be coalition governments," says Esteves. “Even if a supportive party leads the coalition after the elections, there is not yet a wide enough political consensus to read down Section 377." The silver lining is in the hope that some of the people’s representatives elected to the next Lok Sabha may have a chance to represent, openly and unequivocally, the voices of a people who have been ignored or disdained by parliamentarians for much of independent India’s existence.

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