It was in 1994 that journalist Sunil Mehra met Bharatnatyam dancer Navtej Johar for a profile he was working on. Coming back to the newsroom, Sunil declared that he could not write the story with the journalistic objectivity required of him. That story remained untold but the two moved in together within six months.
More than two decades later, as the lead petitioners in the case against IPC Section 377 in the Supreme Court, Navtej (56) and Sunil (60) are hoping to leave behind a legacy that would allow LGBTQI youth in India to script their stories without fear of persecution. The verdict in the landmark case is expected on Thursday. Given that a year ago, the court ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, activists and experts hope that will be the guiding light of the verdict on Thursday.
For Mehra and Johar, their optimism stems from their shared belief that Indians by nature are not homophobic. “Two men walking hand in hand or even hugging, likewise for women, is quite acceptable in India unlike in the West. There has always been a discreet acceptance of homosexuality here. The law has to keep pace with the times and it is an issue whose time has come,” said Mehra, now a documentary filmmaker, who lives in Delhi’s Green Park where he runs a yoga and dance studio with his partner.
Navtej, a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, clarifies in an email interview, “This is not to say that we haven’t had our share of snide remarks and sneers. And 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. But that does not mean that it is not deeply violating of our basic human dignity.”
Express Explained | 377 battle at journey’s end
The trigger for the writ petition against IPC Section 377 that criminalises same-sex relationships, popularly known as Navtej Johar vs the Union of India case, was the SC ruling of 2013 that dismissed the issue as concerns of a “minuscule fraction of the country’s population”.
Mehra admits that at their age, they had no ambition to be the poster boys of gay rights. “But we had to make a point that this is not just a matter of omission of law, there is a human cost involved. We exist,” said Mehra.
Following discussions with advocates Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, the two along with their friends — restaurateur Ritu Dalmia (43), hotelier and historian Aman Nath (65), and business executive Ayesha Kapur (41) — decided to be the human faces of the battle.
A legal battle that until now was pursued entirely through PILs by NGOs — starting with the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan vs Union of India case in the Delhi High court in the ‘90s to the Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation case that led to the 2013 apex court ruling.
Johar points out that despite working in the field of dance with its liberal attitude towards homosexuality, his orientation has led him to keep a low profile and “be reconciled to not being fully counted”. “On a more personal level, it resulted in alienating generations of Indians from our very own bodies, crippling our faculties of intimacy. We, today, are products of such psychological and emotional dysfunction,” Johar wrote.
Hailing from a family of bureaucrats, Mehra considered sitting for the civil services exam but finally decided against it as he felt his sexual orientation would make him a misfit. He found the media to be largely accommodating barring for the occasional barb from a colleague or two.
The couple also admit that they are fortunate to have supportive family and friends which is not the case for several others. “My brother who is a bureaucrat and Navtej’s mother, both had the same reaction when we came out to our families, their only concern was that each of us would end up alone in life,” said Mehra.
The two acknowledge the fact that they are insulated by their class privilege, access, life-choices, and by virtue of being relatively mainstream. “I am not a purple eye-shadow wearing, nail-painting, hip-swaying gay man but there are people who are like that and they have every right to be. There are people who genuinely feel the need to marry, adopt, to take a home loan, or get the benefit of spousal insurance,” said Mehra who added he would want to pursue the battle until complete equality is achieved. “We want to tell the youth you are not freaks, you are free to love, you are free to be,” he said.
The court could help him do that tomorrow.