Section 377: A long way to go
Decriminalising homosexuality on paper is great, but we also should think about the millions among us yet to taste freedom
Social media platforms exploded with expressions of joy this week, a rarity in a country that increasingly wakes up to horror and acts of betrayal by those elected to power. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was finally struck down, a few hundred years after the Buggery Act of 1533 that inspired it came into being.
Hundreds of columns have since been written about the criminalisation of sexual activities, whether or not consensual sex between adults is unconstitutional, and how the right to privacy continues to be a fundamental right that was violated. There continue to be naysayers, of course, bigots among us who refuse to acknowledge the rights of others and believe the government should have a say on what we do in our bedrooms the way it has started to have a say on what we cook in our kitchens.
Think about how long it took for our LGBT countrymen to feel free, and how they were compelled to fight not just successive governments that refused to grant them equality, but colleagues, family and friends who chose to deny them that freedom as well. According to figures released by the Ministry of Home Affairs, approximately 600 people were arrested under Section 377 in 2014, linked to an increase in the blackmail of LGBT people, while 1,491 were arrested a year later. It was used to harass and intimidate homosexuals as well as sex workers, and these statistics don't include the thousands who lost their lives in a struggle to simply experience what the rest of us have long taken for granted.
What bothers me is the gap between what the law recommends and how the rest of us comply. How are sexual minorities, particularly transsexuals, treated among us? How do they make a living in a society that refuses to acknowledge their existence, let alone their right to buy property, get an education or function in an office the way millions of us do? Why are they compelled to constantly live on the margins because of our collective inability and refusal to accommodate them among us?
It took the United Nations to point out that continuing to criminalise private, consensual same-sex sexual conduct represented a blow for human rights. That statement made me think about the millions of other disenfranchised Indians who are simply ignored, not just by the law but by the rest of us, because they don't enjoy the kind of representation or activism that some groups do.
I can, at the top of my head, think of all kinds of Indians who have yet to experience the kind of freedom a majority of people reading this column were born into. It can be argued that the fundamental rights of manual scavengers, scheduled castes and tribes, the disabled, women living below the poverty line, and child labourers are violated on a regular basis, but none of these groups attract the kind of attention they ought to, presumably because their lives so rarely intersect with ours.
I try and make it a habit to visit the Human Rights Watch website every once in a while, just to get a sense of how the world looks at India. I do this because I suspect most of us are numb to what goes on around us, distracted as we usually are by the business of living. When I logged on to the site this morning, I was pointed towards acts of violence committed against religious minorities, marginalised communities, and critics of the government, along with the failure of authorities to investigate these attacks. There were also reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, and a specific mention of how new laws and policies aimed at justice for sexual violence survivors have not ended barriers to reporting such crimes.
Section 377 is done and dusted, but I like to think of these developments as small steps towards a larger, more important one. The joy this ruling brought so many of us is a strong indication that, at heart, we respect the idea of upholding individual rights even if our elected representatives and fundamentalist bigots among us do not. We want to do what is right, and the law is on our side. We believe in an idea of an inclusive India despite the presence of communal forces that have thrived lately. What this ruling ought to be is a reminder to the rest of us that we are truly free only when every one of us is free.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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