Gay rights and India’s career politicians

Rajnath Singh, the president of a political party that is fully convinced it would win the next general election in 2014, is confused between individual freedom and naturalness of an act. He is also confused how what is natural to a section of humanity can also be a matter of individual freedom.

In an unequivocal position on the question of homosexuality Singh, who is the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been quoted by Radhika Ramseshan of The Telegraph newspaper as saying, “We will state (at an all-party meeting if it is called) that we support Section 377 because we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported.”

For those of you not familiar with Section 377, it is a section of the Indian Penal Code that explicitly criminalizes homosexuality to the extent of facing serious police action and jail time. That section, which was rejected by the Delhi High Court in 2009 on the grounds of discrimination, has been upheld by the country’s apex Supreme Court. In short, homosexuality remains a crime in India as defined under the British Raj in 1861. To that extent, the Raj has not been fully dismantled. But I digress.

In contrast to an unusually categorical position taken by the currently ruling Congress Party in support of decriminalizing homosexuality, the BJP as represented by its president has chosen to stick to a position that is at once politically expedient and unabashedly supportive of institutionalized cruelty. Even if we disregard for the sake argument—and we absolutely must not in any serious debate—that Singh finds homosexuality to be an “unnatural act”, we cannot accept a party seeking to reassert its claim to ruling India again to not recognize the cruel violation of human rights inherent in Section 377.

While Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the president and vice president respectively of the Congress Party, have come out in support of gay rights, Singh is offering what seems to be a highly calibrated view that keeps in mind his right-of-the-center party’s core constituency. He appears to have made the calculation that while there may not be any political downside to rejecting the rights of gay Indians for his party, there is at least a theoretical upside among the more orthodox supporters of his party to be swayed by his position.

No one should be surprised that a dyed-in-the-wool, old school and often anachronistic politician has taken a strictly political position on an issue in supporting which he sees nearly zero gain for his party. But I have a broader if somewhat speculative point to make. I am not sure that even if, by some remarkable twist, 50 percent of Singh’s constituency turned gay overnight, he would reverse his opinion about the naturalness of homosexuality and change his position about Section 377. No one can question Singh or anybody else’s right to hold on to their views and beliefs on any issue. The problem arises when those views and beliefs help keep on the statute books laws which are fundamentally violative of human rights and individual freedom. And to boot, they are not just violative but are so with cruel results.

At the very least Singh can support repeal of Section 377 even while maintaining his personal view that homosexuality is an unnatural act. There is a distinction to be made between what becomes legally enforceable and punishable and what is just a point of view, however prejudicial, intolerant and ignorant.

It is unfortunate that rights of people who fall within the definition of a minority invariably fall prey to the oppressive majoritarian calculus. It is not my case at all that the mother and son Gandhis are necessarily motivated by their conscience alone and not with an eye on possible electoral gain, however miniscule, from the position they have taken Section 377. Perhaps the real test for both Singh and the Gandhis would be in whether they maintain their respective positions irrespective of their political consequence. I have only their word for it either way.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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