Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Voices Against Institutional Homophobia in India

As happens so often in the blogosphere, I came across another blog today and realized that I had missed out on a very interesting and important piece of news. The Paris trip last week is to blame for my being out of touch with the internet, and hence news in general.
Anyways, a large number of prominent personalities led by Vikram Seth have signed an open letter to the Indian government, the judiciary and the citizens on India, decrying Section 377, the archaic law that institutionalizes homophobia, and in many ways makes homosexuality illegal. The law says "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished [by upto 10 years imprisonment]".
This law of course also makes heterosexual oral (or anal) sex illegal, but has only been used to harass homosexuals. Incomplete information (that there has to be evidence for carnal intercourse) and social paranoia of Indian homosexuals have made them easy targets for harassment and even blackmail because of this law. As I read a claim recently (I forget where, but for sure I agree), that India is the only real democracy today that criminalizes homosexuality.
The impressive list of signatories include:
Writers Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri;
Journalists/columnists/editors MJ Akbar, Dileep Padgaonkar, Kuldip Nayar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vir Sanghvi, Shobha De, Bachi Karkaria, Tarun Tejpal, Barkha Dutt;
Academics Ramachandra Guha, Ashish Nandy, Kaushik Basu, Kanti Bajpai;
Filmakers/actors Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, Amol Palekar Soha Ali Khan, Saeed Mirza, Mira Nair, Pooja Bedi, Nandita Das, Sarika, Konkana Sen Sharma;
Classical musicians Mrinalini Sarabhai, Sonal Mansingh, Shubha Mudgal, Mallika Sarabhai;
Swami Agnivesh (activist), Soli Sorabjee (former Attorney-General), Lakshmi Sahgal (freedom fighter), Satish Gujral (Artist, Sculptor), Teesta Setalvad (activist)
and many many others.
The letter states:

To build a truly democratic and plural India, we must collectively fight against laws and policies that abuse human rights and limit fundamental freedoms.

This is why we, concerned Indian citizens, support the overturning of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law dating to 1861, which punitively criminalizes romantic love and private, consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex.

In independent India, as earlier, this archaic and brutal law has served no good purpose. It has been used to systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorize sexual minorities. It has spawned public intolerance and abuse, forcing tens of millions of gay and bisexual men and women to live in fear and secrecy, at tragic cost to themselves and their families.

It is especially disgraceful that Section 377 has on several recent occasions been used by homophobic officials to suppress the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving gay and bisexual men in India even more defenceless against HIV infection.

Such human rights abuses would be cause for shame anywhere in the modern world, but they are especially so in India, which was founded on a vision of fundamental rights applying equally to all, without discrimination on any grounds. By presumptively treating as criminals those who love people of the same sex, Section 377 violates fundamental human rights, particularly the rights to equality and privacy that are enshrined in our Constitution as well as in the binding international laws that we have embraced, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Let us always remember the indisputable truth expressed in the opening articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that "All persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind."

We will move many steps closer to our goal of achieving a just, pluralistic and democratic society by the ending of Section 377, which is currently under challenge before the Delhi High Court. There should be no discrimination in India on the grounds of sexual orientation. In the name of humanity and of our Constitution, this cruel and discriminatory law should be struck down.

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate and eminent economist has added his voice with another statement in support:
I have read with much interest and agreement the open letter of Vikram Seth and others on the need to overturn section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Even though I do not, as a general rule, sign joint letters, I would like, in this case, to add my voice to those of Vikram Seth and his cosignatories. The criminalization of gay behaviour goes not only against fundamental human rights, as the open letter points out, but it also works sharply against the enhancement of human freedoms in terms of which the progress of human civilization can be judged.
There is a further consideration to which I would like to draw attention. Gay behaviour is, of course, much more widespread than the cases that are brought to trial. It is some times argued that this indicates that Section 377 does not do as much harm as we, the protesters, tend to think. What has to be borne in mind is that whenever any behaviour is identified as a penalizable crime, it gives the police and other law enforcement officers huge power to harass and victimize some people. The harm done by an unjust law like this can, therefore, be far larger than would be indicated by cases of actual prosecution.
It is surprising that independent India has not yet been able to rescind the colonial era monstrosity in the shape of Section 377, dating from 1861. That, as it happens, was the year in which the American Civil War began, which would ultimately abolish the unfreedom of slavery in America. Today, 145 years later, we surely have urgent reason to abolish in India, with our commitment to democracy and human rights, the unfreedom of arbitrary and unjust criminalization.
A very heart-felt thanks to all the signatories (particularly those who are not homosexual or bisexual) and to Amartya Sen.
Indians like big names, and so many big names together will hopefully help.
Update: Sepia Mutiny has a very nice article on this.


The Visitor said...

Nothing related to this post. I just tagged you, can you take up the tag?

Anonymous said...

Hi...It's Beth from Thoughts..

I got your comment and fixed the two issues on my blog. THANK YOU -- especially regarding the name!

I'm glad you are enjoying the story. I'll be reading your blog when I get a chance...

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for the editing service. I did a search on the blog for all the names and I think I got them all. I hope. Let me know if you see any more!

Prash said...


I regret that I am not a popular person to sign that note...


no seriously speaking, I think it is a first step !!! Bravo to those people who did it.

Hope you are doing fine.

A.S. said...

Finally done :-)

You are very welcome. I will leave a comment whenever I suspect a real name :-)

Indeed, it is a huge and very bold step... I am really gratefully to all those who signed.