Comment: Despite the fanfare, freedom still eludes gay Indians
As India celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence from Britain, Balaji Ravichandran explains why he feels neither free nor independent.
The celebrations started well before I arrived in India six weeks ago.
From the moment I switched on the television at home the advertisements, programmes and notices, often painfully jingoistic in their self-congratulation, have constantly greeted me with their patriotic screams.
This is not limited to the Indian media, of course; the big international players, including and especially the BBC and CNN, all have an entire series of programmes dedicated to celebrating 60 years of Indian and Pakistani independence.
And why shouldn’t they?
A booming market economy, a rising consumerist middle-class, and a greater prominence on the international stage all mean that every move that the world’s largest democracy makes will be closely watched and scrutinised.
Almost all of my friends and relatives consider themselves ‘Indian,’ and are celebrating the 60th anniversary of independence from the erstwhile British Empire today.
I hold an Indian passport, and was born and brought up here for the first twenty years of my life.
I do not call myself ‘Indian,’ inasmuch as I would not call myself British or American if I was born in the UK or in the US.
That’s just a personal preference.
But, by definition, and by virtue of my passport, my nationality happens to be Indian.
Even as an impartial observer, I have reasons to celebrate India’s independence, its vibrant and thriving democracy, and its prominent role in the world economy, even as I mourn its many failures.
Despite all this, I consider myself to be neither free nor independent; and no, I’m not celebrating.
Why? I am almost a completely open gay man (the exception is my father, who doesn’t yet know), I am still metaphorically imprisoned by the archaic laws which define any form of sexual activity outside heterosexual vaginal intercourse as abnormal, and thereby make them illegal.
That is to say, homosexuality, under the definition of ‘unnatural carnal intercourse’ is illegal, and punishable with unlimited fine, and either 10 years in prison, or life imprisonment.
For a nation which is supposedly rid of its colonial past, this medieval law, passed by the British when they ruled India, restricts the freedom of tens of millions (if not hundreds) of Indians on the basis of their sexuality, something that is as innate as gender or race.
The common excuse for inaction is that the law is ambiguous, and that it has never been seriously used to imprison homosexuals or other sexual minorities.
Intimately tied with this excuse is another, namely that the main targets of this law are not homosexuals or bisexuals, but paedophiles and serial rapists and killers. What nonsense!
Implied, and often verbally stated, in these two excuses is the assumption that it is OK to construe sexual plurality and such vices as paedophilia and rape (which, according to Indian law, is a phenomenon confined to women; men, apparently, cannot be raped).
More worrying is the fact that despite its ambiguity, and the relative lack of prosecution, it is used almost on a daily basis by the police to commit serious institutional abuses, including harassment, blackmail, extortion, torture, and even rape or murder.
A year ago, police in Lucknow went undercover on a gay dating website, and subsequently arrested several professional men on charges of running a “gay racket.”
Suffice it to say that their personal and professional fates were sealed then and there.
Two years earlier, the offices of the well-known Naz Foundation was ransacked, and its employees arrested, on the charges of “promoting homosexuality” by the same moralistic police.
Technically it is still not illegal if someone were to arrest me just for being gay.
There is yet another common myth which is often touted when poor homosexuals highlight their plight nationally and internationally, namely that things are changing in India for the better.
Wishful thinking is all I can say to such misguided activists.
True, the plight of sexual minorities has gained some prominence in recent years.
But whatever positive light has been thrown on them has been neutralised, if not effaced, by the equally negative, blatant misinformation spread by overenthusiastic filmmakers and media, and more commonly by the India’s moral police, the right-wing political parties.
For every Fire, there is one Girlfriend or Vettaiyadu Vilayadu.
The former portrayed lesbianism in a positive and sensible light; the latter portrayed lesbians and homosexual men as murderous psychopaths.
For every editorial in the elite English newspapers urging decriminalisation of homosexuality, there are two editorials in regional and political publications advocating stricter penalties for sexual diversity, often supporting, as Nigeria and Iran do, the death penalty.
And while most English-language news channels do talk openly about homosexuality, every English movie channel, and there are almost a dozen in India now, censors any form of intimacy between two men or two women.
Even an intimate embrace is often censored, let alone two men or women kissing.
There is no use blaming the media or the politicians alone; the Indian mind-set, which historically embraced sexual diversity, is now overwhelmingly against homosexuality.
Nor is it fair to allocate blame to the Brits or to the Muslim rulers. The south of India seems, so long as records exist, to have always been homophobic.
The situation probably won’t change for a long time to come.
Sexuality, at large, is a taboo here, let alone alternative sexualities.
At the moment, even a simple sex education programme in schools is banned in a dozen different states across India, despite the fact that India has a disproportionately large AIDS burden.
To help effect a meaningful change in the average Indian mind-set, the only force that may prove worthwhile is spreading awareness through education.
And that’s where the politicians, the media (national or international) and particularly the mute celebrities (who fear their careers) can help.
If politicians underestimate the value of political will, the media and celebrities of their influence, and educators of their responsibility, can India really progress in being a truly independent state?
The issue is glaringly obvious in India’s well-known weaknesses, poverty, starvation, malnutrition, and the generally poor state of public services and health care.
As India’s stature in the world rises, can attitudes towards sexuality be left far behind?
Here I am, born and brought up in India, gay and single, shunned and ostracised by a large section of the society.
I cannot love someone the way my parents love each other, and I cannot express that love physically, mentally, emotionally or legally.
If I dared do so, I could face a lifetime in India’s filthy prison, state-sanctioned houses of torture. What use then is India’s independence to me?