Five years ago, Fazil Khan (30) made a modest living working with an NGO as a peer educator in HIV/AIDS prevention among MSM (men who have sex with men). He identified himself as kothi — an effeminate biological male — a fact that was known to no one other than his supportive parents and his wife.
Then came the night of November 3, 2013, when policemen barged into his shanty in Hassan, Karnataka, and dragged him to the police station. There, 13 sexual minorities were slapped with IPC Section 377 and paraded in front of the media before being huddled up with other inmates in police custody for 10 days where their now-outed identity made them victims of sexual and verbal abuse.
The case saw the single largest number of arrests in independent India under Section 377, which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on Thursday.
Fazil says Thursday’s order made him happy momentarily before he realised that his life was too far undone to be righted. From being a “pant-shirt-wearing” father-of-two with a job, life after the arrest has closed all doors for him. “No one knew about my identity till then. After that, I had to flee Hassan for three months and was forced to live at bus stops and railway stations. Once I returned, even my 10-year work experience didn’t get me a job with any NGO. I had no choice but to put on a dress and go begging as a transgender person. It fetches me about Rs 500 a day today,” he says.
His voice trembles as he says his children still face lewd taunts.
Recalling the night when the policemen came knocking, he says, “At the police station, we were asked to sign a document in English despite most of us not being familiar with the language. We were not told why most of the gay and trans community in Hassan were brought to the police station.”
What followed was a 10-day nightmare behind bars that still haunts him. “That night, I was slapped when I asked to be allowed to go relieve myself. Some of my friends were made to strip and sexually harassed with lathis,” says Fazil. He says the next morning, they were paraded before the local media. While in police custody with other inmates, Fazil says they first faced cuss words and then sexual abuse. “We were made to clean bathrooms. Even in my sleep I was molested repeatedly.”
A 2014 report by advocacy group, Coalition of Sex Workers and Sexual Minority Rights, on the overall impact of the colonial-era law on LGBT lives documents the Hassan incident where police conducted “systematic raid within 3 hours” to target sexual minorities, most of them from working class backgrounds. It also details some “salacious” coverage in the local media.
Mallapa K from Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum said, “The arrests were made on the basis of a complaint by a college youth from the community who contracted an STD. Afraid to come out to his family, he went to the police station and filed a complaint, saying he was sexually assaulted. Police decided to make an example of Section 377 by cracking down on the entire community. Last year, the youth deposed before the court, saying that he wishes to withdraw his complaint but the hearings are on.”
He said the policemen booked the accused under IPC 377 (unnatural sexual intercourse) and added charges like IPC 294 (doing obscene acts in public), despite the fact that most of those arrested were brought from their homes.
After the five-year ordeal, all Fazil has is a bit of hope. “The next hearing in my case is on September 17. Everyone says the apex court order is great for us. I can’t celebrate till my troubles are over.”