‘(If Sec 377 goes), for the first time, we might feel like legal citizens of India’https://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/if-sec-377-goes-for-the-first-time-we-might-feel-like-legal-citizens-of-india-5267817/

‘(If Sec 377 goes), for the first time, we might feel like legal citizens of India’

Navtej Johar, one of the lead petitioners against Section 377, on what a favourable judgment might mean for the LGBTQI community.

Gay rights activists hold a rainbow banner during a gay pride parade in New Delhi. (Source: Neeraj Priyadarshi)

What made you file this petition? How did the five petitioners come together for this cause?
We filed it because it was time. IPC Section 377 is both unconvincing and unacceptable. We came together through conversations based on our personal reflections and convictions. We do not feel or behave like outlaws; however, we technically are — it was the absurdity of it that made me decide to challenge it.

Have you ever suffered any form of persecution because of your sexual orientation?
The dance field is relatively open to homosexuality worldwide. But at a personal level, I knew I was different very early on, as all of us do. I made a decision to play safe by keeping a low profile, being overly discreet, even cautious — not asserting, demanding, or expecting, nor raising my hopes too high. I was reconciled to not being fully counted. I know there are many like me who make such persecution second-skin and, in fact, convert it into an art and personal style, both literally and euphemistically. I am also fully aware that this is not a condition unique to me or us alone — there are many other categories of people, including women, who feel, are made to feel and live out a similar fate. And it is inherently wrong; it is outrageous.

With the act of love being criminalised, were there any struggles that you faced that others in heteronormative relationships in India would have never known?
Sunil (Mehra) and I have been lucky. We have loving families, friends, co-workers and neighbours who have welcomed us with open arms. It is on the basis of this that I say, we Indians, by nature, are not homophobic. It is an acquired attitude, which makes Section 377 doubly incongruous, dubious and unacceptable. This is not to say that we haven’t had our share of snide remarks and sneers. This is also not to undermine the emotional, psychological and physical violence that many of our friends have been subject to. We have learnt to normalise our marginalisation, make the best of our nebulous statuses, and even found love and bliss within it; but that does not mean that it is acceptable and not deeply violative of our basic human dignity, rights and simple expectations.

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Colours of life: Bharatanatyam dancer Navtej Singh Johar has been at the forefront of the fight against Section 377 in the Supreme Court. (Express photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

What, according to you, would a favourable verdict in this case mean for the LGBTQI community at large?
First of all, it would mark a significant shift, both sociopolitical as well as psychological. And both of these will sink in in due time. For many, it will mean shedding the label of a moral inferior and, perhaps, for the first time feel a legal citizen of this country. Yes! Valid, equal, visible, “alright”, and no longer defenceless in the face of moral policing or abuse. However, it will take a long time to feel psychologically safe for many to step out of the darkness of secrecy, no longer having to live a surreptitious life in the shadows, or over-exert to become visible and be counted. It is bound to be initially disorienting. It will take time for our inbuilt defence and resistance mechanisms to gradually become redundant and lose steam, and, equally, for the ground reality to change and become accepting and non-judgmental. This is not to say that the reality will change easily, the dangers of backlash is a reality that we’ll have to remain vigilant about.

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In the two decades of the legal struggle against Section 377, there has been a marked shift in the nature of arguments against the law — from health concerns back in the Nineties to assertion of the right to sexuality. Considering how far we have come, is decriminalisation enough? How far would you want to take this fight?
The right to privacy is fundamental. My sense of self is not only a collective construct but also a result of what I have explored, examined, realised and allowed myself to dream in private. Decriminalising is an essential, technical first step that we must go past. But I would like to emphasise that Section 377 does not pertain alone to those with alternative sexuality, it affects all Indians. It is to be recognised for the bluff that it is and needs to be forever stricken off the books. It is the last standing emblem of Victorian morality that was artificially constructed to render the subject, particularly the colonial subject, morally wanting and inferior. It worked as a ploy to “deeply” colonise our minds, hearts and psyches. And from what we can see, it was a hugely successful project. We have not only held on to it far longer than Britain itself, but even — to this date — tout it as our original morality. It is high time that all differently-sexually-oriented Indians are seen as normal as others know ourselves to be; and be granted equal rights and opportunities in all walks of life — be it personal, public, legal, political etc.

Striking down Section 377 will be a symbolic act for India, a rite of passage to come into its own and shed an acquired, and dreadful, Victorian morality that implicated us in our own loss of power. It was a political coup, and most successful! On a more personal level, it resulted in alienating generations of Indians from our own bodies, crippling our faculties of intimacy. And today, we are products of such psychological and emotional dysfunction. What a tragic and unnecessary loss that is of life, beauty and love for the sake of an “idea” of morality. And that is the realisation that we need to come to. Heteronormative people, and all those who endorse or dream of homogeneity in any form, need to sit up and awaken to the deep violence embedded in their “normalised” insensitivity towards those they consider their moral inferiors, and to register that this violence they exercise is eventually directed not towards the “others” but at themselves.