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Shooting at rainbows

Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 17, 2016

The departed: People attend a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub, held in San Francisco, California Photo: Reuters

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Modi’s “shock” at Orlando is hypocritical; most victims would have been criminals in India

“I hate the word homophobia,” said Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman. “It is not a fear. You are not scared. You are an asshole.” You can imagine what Freeman would think of India’s parliamentarians: an overwhelming majority of India’s lawmakers continue to support the criminalisation of homosexuality, through the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In March this year, when the MP Shashi Tharoor moved a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to amend the section, 58 of the 73 members present voted against any amendment. In other words, most of India’s policymakers subscribe to the same bigoted views on gays that was held by the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. The remaining 470 members did not even bother to turn up. Apathy beats discrimination when it comes to LGBT rights in India. Together, this apathy and discrimination is killing India’s homosexuals, slowly and more painfully than Mateen’s bullets.

“Shocked at the shootout in Orlando, USA,” tweeted PM Narendra Modi soon after the incident. “My thoughts & prayers are with the bereaved families and the injured.” In his country though, most of the victims would have been counted as criminals. Their families would have been living in ignorance or social hell over their children’s status in a country that still rampantly discriminates over whom we love and how. Till Modi shows a genuine commitment to stop anti-LGBT discrimination in India — repealing Section 377 can only be a start — his condolences for the Orlando victims will smack of hypocrisy.

Anti-LGBT discrimination is also one of the few things that unite India’s Hindu gurus and the Islamic mullahs, who keep fighting with each other on every other issue. The World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses three decades ago; yet an MP like Subramanian Swamy and a popular “spiritual leader” like Baba Ramdev brazenly keep calling it a mental illness, and are even cheered by their supporters for doing so. Among Indian Muslims, the support for LGBT equality is even lower. Prominent Muslim liberals, who speak out on every other issue, balk at speaking up for LGBT rights. It is tough to be gay in India: but if you are Muslim and gay, it’s possibly the worst. Being a victim of stereotyping and discrimination in several places, Muslims should have better understood the plight of sexual minorities.

The flux on Section 377 is even more frustrating because repealing it would cause no political fallout for anybody. Can you imagine anyone losing an election over Section 377? Evidence also points to the fact that social opposition to homosexuality in India does not run deep. According to the Pew Research Center, about 67 per cent Indians regard homosexuality as morally unacceptable, much lower than the corresponding 82 per cent in sub-Saharan African countries, and 89 per cent in six Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries.

“The kind of organised opposition to gay rights mounted by mosques in the Middle East and sections of the church in Africa does not exist in India,” wrote Sadanand Dhume in the Wall Street Journal. “This may explain why Section 377 is rarely invoked. By one estimate, prosecutors have used it only about 200 times since it came into effect in 1861.” In the US, nearly half the population still disapproves of homosexuality, but LGBT equality and even marriage are now enshrined in many state constitutions. The data says that ordinary Indians are moving closer to the liberal view on gay sex. So in perpetuating Section 377, India’s politicians do not have their ear to the ground. And while repealing Section 377 will not lose them elections, it would not win them one either: so apathy trumps common sense, and “cultural traditions” becomes an excuse for the apathy.

Author Devdutt Pattanaik has pointed out that sexuality in ancient India was “fluid”. In his book Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You he dealt with queer themes in Hindu mythology, stories that did not get enough importance in the epics. Through research into texts, architecture and social history, he has shown that homosexual activities in ancient India was frowned upon, but not criminalised. “Though not part of the mainstream, its (homosexuality) existence was acknowledged but not approved,” wrote Pattanaik. “There was some degree of tolerance when the act expressed itself in heterosexual terms — when men ‘became women’ in their desire for other men, as the hijra legacy suggests.” This is not about reading ancient epics through modern gay pride lenses. Also, it is worthwhile to remember that the same ancient India presided over the caste system and the subjugation of women. But if you read the modern data along with the social history of homosexuality in India, you begin to see the continuance of Section 377 for what it is: a moronic law of colonial origin, with no connection to India’s history or future, now perpetuated by a bunch of ignorant, short-sighted lawmakers.

Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is the editor of The Political Indiant; @some_buddha

Published on June 17, 2016
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