Last year, after a reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I was tired and homesick. So, when my British editor suggested dinner with some writers, I was hesitant (from authors, as with inflammable trucks on Indian highways, I Keep Safe Distance). But the British novelist Shamim Sarif and her partner, Hanan Kattan, astonished my heart with the grace of their rapport. The two women, in their thirties, make up a family with their two sons. I recall how Shamim's eyes shone at their mention and how Hanan called the babysitter to check if the boys, at home in London, were in bed.
To glimpse the scruffy loveliness of maternal anxiety, to find affirmation in contracts of trust, to recognise lives lived on authentic terms: all this was an unexpected blessing. As I tried to picture a similar scene in India, the audacity of my imagination was betrayed by reality. Never mind cultural constraints, the fact that even today, as a citizenry, we tolerate Section 377 on our books of law is proof that the benefits of India's coming of age are, at best, economic, erratic, and available mainly to the elite. Section 377 asserts: "Whosoever has carnal intercourse voluntarily against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall be liable to fine." Although rarely used to punish, Section 377 blasts a violent stigma over a specific sexual act—anal intercourse; stigmatising homosexuality. The power of Section 377 lies not in its capacity to criminalise as much as in its power to shame.
And shame remains the gun in the hands of the upper castes of the sexual classes. Remember Gore Vidal's famous adage "Sex is Politics"? Well, sex is also power. To identify one sexual conduct as "normal" and another as "perverse" is less an exercise in the moral upkeep of society as it is a manipulation of power. Let's also not forget that one person's power is defined by another person's powerlessness: power, without relative value, ceases to exist. And the power to forbid is innately arousing: it's sadomasochism of the mind.
In 2004, the Delhi High Court rejected an ngo's petition asking for Section 377 to be no longer applicable for consenting adults. (Consensual intercourse, simply put, is a private privilege—who asked the state to pen our private Kamasutra?) In 2001, the government had refused to append or repeal Section 377. A home ministry affidavit suggested that Indian society offered little tolerance for any sexuality other than heterosexuality: reason enough for Section 377 to exist. In the past, child marriage and dowry were tolerated; today, both are illegal. If the court believes it must reflect society, how can it forget that society reflects the law? If Section 377 is cleaned out, how long before societal outlook—prejudices included—undergo vacuuming? Section 377, unappended, not only inflicts bigotry, it prevents society from adapting to zeitgeist.
My India is Remixville; 50 per cent of urban marriages end in separation or divorce; Bollywood stars zoom off with murder (and croon, ostensibly to judges, "Just Chill, Chill...Just Chill"). Change is so palpable I can almost extend my hands and dance with it. So, when will the government wake up and smell the chai of the mtv electorate? Of course, one argument is that same-sex relationships exist in India heedless of social limitations or legal ramifications. Why purge Section 377? Inherently, by condemning a sexual act as an abnormality worthy of prosecution, the courts standardises heterosexuality. It creates room to punish sex that doesn't conform to this standard. The only thing worse than turning homosexuality into pathology is assuming that heterosexuality is the healthy
norm. (This defeats, consequently, the idea of fair trial.) In Theorising Heterosexuality, Jean Carabine asks: "Why does social policy tend to adopt a fixed idea of sexuality as heterosexuality, which has normalising effects?" Perhaps because governance is essentially concerned with power management, and for one person to be in control, another has to be controlled.
Within heterosexuality, men control women (although this is changing); and heterosexuality, as a whole if ambiguous unit, manages other sexualities. But as the global sexual rights movement strides beyond the politics of desire and ploughs the amorphous landscape of love, writers, activists, citizens ask: whoever said heterosexuality was supposed to wear the pants in the house? Section 377 needs to go for several reasons. Because we don't want the government in our pants. Because it interferes with the tasks of aids outreach workers. And because it is anti-democratic. In a nation where democracy is reduced to an item number, a law forbidding a particular sexual liberty is patently inhuman and shockingly regressive.
Perhaps my generation must recognise the freedom our ancestors died for: only so it can refurbish the meaning, privileges and the bravery of freedom: this, after all, gives our children something to live for. When extending marriage to all its citizens, Spanish prime minister Zapatero said: "We are enlarging the opportunity for happiness to our neighbours, our co-workers, our friends and, our families: at the same time we are making a more decent society, one that does not humiliate its members." By denying dignity, Section 377 humiliates a part of its citizenry.
Besides, if Shamim, Hanan and their kids ever visit me in Bombay, I'd like them to feel safe and their sexual self to be intrinsically respected. I'd assure their children that you can forbid a lot of things in this world, but you can't forbid love: its power is invincible, its range transformative, its tenderness subtle enough to stun. Their mothers, I'd tell the boys, were right all along. And brave as hell.
(Shangvi is the author of The Last Song of Dusk)
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