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Many Indians have fallen in love with people of their own gender since the beginning of time. The law criminalizing same-sex relationships was colonial Britain’s gift to India in the 19th century. They left, but the law remained, hardening societal attitudes towards such relationships. Puritanical elders forced many young men and women to marry people of the opposite sex against their orientation and will, ruining their lives. Some were routinely harassed by the police. Some died by suicide. And many found their schools or workplaces hostile. They simmered, swallowing daily humiliations and bullying, sometimes even beatings.

This context is important as I join the thousands who may have never met Gaurav Probir Pramanik (I hadn’t), but who mourn his passing. Gaurav, whose name means ‘pride’, a word resonant with meaning in the LGBTQI+ community, died of cancer on Monday.

From 2013 to 2016, he worked at Tech Mahindra, a leading Indian software company. Unknown to the senior management, he was subject to repeated harassment from a senior manager who criticized his ‘effeminate’ ways and made homophobic remarks. Gaurav stoically braved those barbs.

He waited for India to change. The Delhi high court decriminalized same-sex relationships in 2009, when justices A.P. Shah and S. Muralidhar ruled, in Naz Foundation vs Government of NCT of Delhi, that dignity and privacy were part of the right to life. But the joy was short-lived. In 2013, justices G.S. Singhvi and S.J. Mukhopadhyaya of the Supreme Court overturned the judgement, saying that the LGBTQI+ community was “only a minuscule fraction" of the population, and the high court was wrong in upholding their “so-called rights". In 2017, curative petitions were filed to challenge the retrogressive ruling, and a year later, in Navtej Singh Johar and Others vs the Union of India, a five-judge Supreme Court bench overturned the court’s earlier judgement, reaffirming the Shah-Muralidhar ruling.

Gaurav’s story coincided with this transition—that twilight when you could see light on the horizon, but weren’t sure if it heralded dawn or darkness. On 9 September 2018, three days after the Johar judgement, Gaurav wrote to the manager: “This might come to you as a surprise… but… I had promised to write to you the day IPC Section 377 was scrapped and being a homosexual in a country as great as India was legal." In a firm yet compassionate tone, he reminded the manager (a senior executive in the diversity and inclusion team, ironically) of a 2015 staff meeting where she ridiculed a colleague who had left the organization; he had cried, Gaurav said, and she wondered aloud if this was because of his sexual orientation.

“Do only gay men cry, and even if he was gay how would that be any problem for you until he let it affect his work?" Gaurav asked. He cited other pejorative terms the manager had used that many in the room found offensive, and showed these were not isolated occurrences.

As Gaurav did not receive a reply, he released snapshots of the email on social media. Top company officials reached out to him, calling his experience “disturbing". Group chairperson Anand Mahindra wrote to him: “I can categorically assure you that we celebrate diversity in our workplace. Our code of conduct is explicit… fairness & dignity of the individual is enshrined in our core values. (We are) investigating these allegations, and appropriate action will follow."A week later, the company announced: “The concerned employee has been separated from the employment of the company with immediate effect," and reiterated the company’s condemnation of discrimination of any kind in the workplace.

Gaurav was surprised; he had not expected such a response. In standing up to bullying, he had set an example of courage. Tech Mahindra too showed that it meant what it said, by acting when it noticed something had gone wrong. Too often, companies get defensive and act stubborn. This one demonstrated to those within and outside the firm that it would uphold its standards.

Gaurav remained active on social media, reaching out with kindness to many who felt low, and celebrating his mother’s recipes. The writer and food critic Vir Sanghvi wanted to sample his pickles. “They use the Nepali counterpart of Sichuan pepper," Sanghvi wrote, “and can make your mouth tingle and pucker up. I am dying to try them out given how much praise he has received."

As Gaurav struggled with cancer, his Twitter account became his diary. He wrote of coping with pain, and delighted in the virtual hugs he received. On 7 March, on the eve of International Women’s Day, he posted his mother’s photos, saying, “Everyday is Women’s Day for me because of this woman here. There is no one like her and will be no one like her. The Mother Pramanik." The next day, he posted images from aboard an aircraft of IndiGo (where he had worked till 2019), where the flight attendants gave him specially-inscribed gloves and signed a card for him.

Social media is cacophonous and often vitriolic, where short-tempered ripostes pass for conversation. Gaurav showed it was possible to be kind and caring while holding up values that affirm equality and oppose bigotry.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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