Indian Supreme Court’s Ruling on Gay-Sex: Can Congress Stand Up to India’s Right-Wing?

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The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling today which once again criminalizes gay-sex, and thereby in principle homosexuality, has sparked angry protests and evoked much disappointment across the nation and in the region beyond. In 2009, in a landmark moment in Indian and South Asian history, the Delhi High Court ruled that the section of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized homosexual activity was unconstitutional. The law on ‘unnatural acts’ was made a part of the Indian Penal Code in the 1800s by the British, as in Sri Lanka, and the Delhi High Court at the time sought to assert that Indian society was a more ‘tolerant’ and inclusive society than that of its then colonizers: the morally uptight, repressive Victorians.

On that day, many felt uplifted by this assertion – not least because it finally handed agency and legitimacy to an entire group of people who had thus far been viewed as criminal and ‘unnatural’ by the law, but because it was symbolic of real progress. It felt like India was finally taking its place in the modern world, as the ‘world’s largest democracy’, the shining beacon of South Asia, a quickly developing economy. It was finally taking its rightful place as a powerful and dynamic nation that needed to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. It was a move that many felt made it clear that India was moving forward. With the Progressive party, Congress, in power, Indian liberals felt that they were witnessing an era of change.

However, things have been going downhill for Congress since then. Today’s Supreme Court ruling comes amidst serious concerns that India is now moving in entirely the wrong direction. Discussion about India being a seriously regressive, oppressive nation has probably never been more alight in its post-Independence history than it is today. This ruling falls neatly into place in a very frightening pattern: sexual violence against women, both urban and rural, horrifyingly highlighted in last year’s Delhi gang-rape case, has seemingly increased, both in number as well as in the sheer impunity with which these acts are now committed. Daily, one hears accounts of Members of Parliament and those holding very high office making remarks about women that are positively stone-age. Extremist Hindutva groups such as the Shri Ram Sena and the Shiv Sena, of which there seems to be a sudden proliferation, and their ‘supporters’, have been strictly moral policing India’s youth, once again with increasing impunity and brute-force – there have been violent attacks on young women exiting pubs and bars, as well as attacks on young couples. And still, in a larger scheme of things, even these are only a part of the problem when you take into account the monumental total of two executions which were carried out last year, in rather quick succession, after years of having none: Ajmal Kasab in  November 2012 and Afzal Guru in February 2013. 

Yes, India is, underneath the surface, in complete chaos. There is a tangible and discernible dissatisfaction with the way things are going. Liberal, progressive Indians are severely disheartened and filled with doubt. Young people in particular, and India has a lot of those, with 65% of its population being under the age of 35, are restless and angry; they want to live very differently than they are being allowed, they want to belong to a very different kind of society. They are tired of being constantly watched, judged. Young women are tired of constantly looking over their shoulders. Gays are tired of averting their gaze, putting up with sexual harassment, avoiding confrontation. Much of India’s youth had dreamed of living in truly cosmopolitan cities by now; where they could be free. Many others had simply hoped for better governance, less corruption, more true ‘development’. People are outspokenly fed up. The words ‘regressive’ and ‘oppressive’ are now heard publicly more and more; just recently the filmstar Mallika Sherawath declared angrily that ‘India is a regressive nation for women’ in a press conference, repeating the sentence with force when someone dared to challenge her. 

Through all this, the big election looms close, planned for May next year. Of course the right-wing is using this ruling to its advantage. Already, religious extremist groups and right-wing politicians across India are applauding the decision of the Supreme Court, saying homosexuality is, like so much else they attack, a Western evil and not in keeping with the real ‘Indian ethos’ – whatever that is.

Would there be any use in pointing out that the only ‘Western evil’ here is this archaic British law? Would there be any use in invoking ancient Indian erotic art, poetry and literature as well as historical narrative which clearly stands as evidence to the fact that ‘Indian’ society was indeed once tolerant of diversity?

The crux of the matter is this: this law, as in Sri Lanka, only results in giving authority to the Police to beat-up and imprison people they believe are gay, or wholly misuse the law for their own agendas. It only legitimizes harassment and violence and abuse. It simply enables Police brutality and exacerbates the sick power-trip that those in uniform in our part of the world are already very much accustomed to.

Since the Supreme Court has made its decision, the only people who can repeal it are the government of India. So, it is then down to the Indian parliament. The question remains: does Congress have what it takes to stand up to India’s morally righteous right-wing? Will they finally show the courage that they have been so completely lacking in the recent past? Are they willing to reassert their politics for the people who have stood by them?

It is hard to be optimistic, when one has observed the recent pattern of regression and Congress’ total lack of integrity. If they do not take a stand, it is nothing less than a cowardly handing-over of India’s morality to the extremists, allowing them to define who you are, allowing them to tell you what you can and cannot do. It is a spineless selling of India’s soul to fascists, racists, homophobes, xenophobes. It is a terrible waste of all the energy of India’s forefathers and all its heroes, old and new, who fought bravely and selflessly for a free and liberated nation. It is a stain on India’s righteous battle for independence:  so much for India’s tough anti-Imperialist views. Here is the best way to remain in the hole that the British dug for you.

The faith of India’s progressives and moderates in Congress has declined and dwindled – much like the Democrats with Obama. Congress can take back the power, if it has the courage. This ruling is relevant, important, politically significant. It is every bit as significant and symbolic as the decision of the Delhi High Court in 2009 was. Because while it is about gay-rights, it is also about so much more. It is about one way of living vs another, it is about being one kind of nation vs another – it is about whether India is ready to actually accept the responsibility that comes with being the kind of nation it claims to be, aspires to be, or not. It is about whether India, as a nation, can stand up to the increasingly arrogant, brutish right-wing – the right-wing that could very well be its downfall.

India’s moderates and liberals seem ready to battle the extremists – the question is, is their government ready to fight alongside them?

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