Thursday, February 4, 2016

Will reading down 377 cure all evil?

It has been an interesting few days.

First there was the storm of “hopeful” messages and articles shared on social media. It seemed like the entire community was pinning all its hopes on one petition in the apex court. Parts of the media went nuts and started publishing doomsday articles with catch phrases like “last chance” in the title. As if, magically, all queer activism, all LGBTQIHKA spaces and people and movements and collectives would just disappear overnight if the court dismissed the petition without agreeing to hear it. At the same time, the more positive articles just waxed super eloquent about what wonderful things would happen, again – magically, overnight – if only the court would accept the curative petition, and hear arguments.

I had hopes, sure, more like wild desires with not much real chance of fulfilment actually … of the court reexamining the RE criminalization of consensual adult sexual activity – both same sex as well as heterosexual – under 377 on 11.12.2013. However, I have been a part of queer organizing (how OLAVA began and some of the things I do now are more about community building and support activities) and queer activism (what OLAVA became, and a lot of things I do now, definitely fall under that heading) in India for almost 20 years now. So, I am more wary, more cautious to hope too much, than the 20-something generation Y friends who surround me. Maybe I am just jaded and cynical, but in all the conversation we had before the D-Day, I found myself being the dampener, the voice of caution against pinning too much hope on one event, the spoil sport, the mood wrecker, the party pooper.

Well, things went better than I secretly expected. For all my sharing of optimistic articles and discussions on what India could expect from the court, and whether or not it is time for INDIA to do away with this legal remnant of Victorian colonial prudery, etc etc, I really expected the petition to be thrown out of court. So, when it wasn’t, it was a very pleasant surprise to say the least. The 3 judge bench referred the petition to a 5 judge “judicial bench” instead, to be heard “at the earliest”, after a mere 5 minute hearing.

And then the jubilation began. Some of it seemed seriously over the top to my jaded sensibilities, considering that this wasn’t any victory of any sort. All the 3-j bench did was to say… we won’t make a decision on this matter, so we will pass the buck to 5 of our colleagues. Essentially… the community and its lawyers now have to convince FIVE people instead of three of the need to de – criminalize adult consensual sexual activity. Easier? I don’t think so! The whole process begins again… with 2 additional minds to convince.

And let’s say we do all that. And 377 is read down again. Maybe scrapped altogether. How much difference is it going to make on the ground? How much is it going to change the day to day lived realities of hundreds of thousands of LGBTQIHKA individuals?

Over the last decade or so, queer movements in India seem to have become exclusively centered on 377, just as internationally they have coalesced around marriage equality. And as tends to happen, when movements begin to focus too hard on legal change, sometimes other things backslide. Not to mention the fact that 377 has a big caveat of “privacy” which excludes a large chunk of the community, who for numerous reasons do not have access to privacy for their sexual activity, and therefore remain vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. And that “not all gays” wish to be co-opted into the patriarchal-capitalist frameworks of marriage and family.  

To many, in a country that is facing increasing intolerance, sharply rising crime against different marginalized communities, and so much more, how is it possible to imagine that scrapping 377 is the only important thing, or that it will miraculously make all our lives better? In the gap years when 377 had been read down by Delhi High Court and the Re-criminalisation by the Supreme Court, how much of a real difference did the community see in everyday society? Did the “average” parent or sibling or friend, let alone the religious fanatic, suddenly accept the queer family member with open arms? Did queer people stop losing jobs, homes, families, loved ones, and lives for being who they are? Not that I know of.

This excess of jubilation is seriously misplaced in my opinion. There is a long road to travel and a lot of things to be done. There are alliances to be made and space to be given over – to those who don’t have privacy, to hose who don't want to get married, to those who do not want a politics of “conformism” of “just like you, to those who do not want to be a part of the mainstream. Maybe it is time to start thinking of larger systemic changes, of weaving all possible marginal positions together to make a strong fabric of resistance. Of collectivizing across gender, sexuality, caste, class, and start discussions to dismantle the patriarchy-capitalism nexus that oppresses so much of humanity.

Yes, this is a positive development. But let us curb our enthusiasm and remember that thiss is just a small step on a long journey we still have ahead of us, a long battle to engage in, before a truly equal and just world can be arrived at, if ever. So yes, celebrate a little, but also…. And this is very important…

Keep calm and carry on!

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