About 20 years ago, a young Indian economist then working in the UK came to see me. He asked for my advice whether he should go back and settle. I said, of course, he should.
But then he ‘came out’ and said would he have a problem about being gay. My view was that there was nothing in Hinduism, unlike the Abrahamic religions, which formally disapproved of homosexuality. Indian society, especially since the modernisation during Victorian times had, however, picked up some puritanical notions, which found sex loathsome especially gay sex. But if he did not flaunt his preferences I felt he should be alright.
This was as it turned out. The young man returned and is now at home in India.
I thought of this as the Supreme Court rejected all appeals against it setting aside the Delhi High Court verdict which came near to the expunging of Section 377 from the IPC. At that time, it seemed the government may strongly object to the Supreme Court’s verdict on appeal, but that does not seem to have worked. The only option remaining is for legislation to be brought before Parliament to formally remove the section from the IPC. How likely is that?
Parliamentary activities are fragile and frenetic in any case. After the election, there may be less of a dogfight every day, at least for the first two or three years. Can we hope that Parliament will then undertake the bold step of removing Section 377? This will depend on the winners in 2014, and if the BJP is the winner, as seems most likely, there is little likelihood that the government will be active on that front. As Rajnath Singh said, the BJP is in agreement with the Supreme Court on 377 and is unlikely to legislate.
I do not think a fragile coalition of Third Parties will be any better and the Aam Aadmi Party may just end up taking an SMS poll, and who knows what that would say.
Activists for gay and lesbian freedoms should neither despair nor get angry. I have observed the campaign for gay rights in the UK for nearly 50 years and I can say that it is never easy but essential to win over a majority of the society to gay rights. While homosexuality was decriminalised after the Wolfenden Report in the late 1960s, it has taken 40 years in the UK till the Conservative Party was finally moved to take a positive attitude towards gay sex. This was despite the well-known prevalence of homosexuality in public schools, to which many Conservative Party members had been. There have always been ‘closet gays’ among the MPs. Chris Smith, the MP for the Islington South and Finsbury constituency, was the first MP to come out openly. I was active in the party and in the campaign. His open declaration was a watershed event.
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The Labour Party was active in the gay rights campaign but even within the party there were conservative elements. Trade unionists were radical on bread and butter issues but dead against gay sex. The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher was adamant on gay teachers being prevented from inculcating their ‘disease’ into young minds. Time and again we fought to have sections of the Education Act removed which were anti-gay. The Church of England has had to confront the presence of gay bishops. The Catholic Church is just now being brought into the 21 century by Pope Francis, but even so there will be years before there are openly gay priests in the Holy Church.
Indian gays thus face a long campaign to educate their parents and teachers and friends to adopt a healthy and supportive attitude. The task cannot be done from above by a court verdict. What is needed is the broad consensual acceptance of gay lifestyle being as normal as any other lifestyle. This will not be easy. Political leadership is a vital ingredient in such a campaign as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have shown. Who is there in India to give political voice to gay rights? Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal? Or someone new may yet emerge.