Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The mills of justice grind surely

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To argue that coming out as gay was easier for the few in the anonymity and privilege of big cities as opposed to the many in the stifling oppression of small towns and villages is true. But only upto a point.

Column in Business Standard, September 8, 2018

The mills of grind slowly but they grind surely. It is notable that some of the most stirring words of the verdict that finally junked Article 377, engulfing the country in a wave of euphoria, came from Indu Malhotra, the lone woman and recent entrant to the apex court. “Homosexuality,” she said, “is only a variation and not an aberration…[It] is not against the order of nature and is nature itself.” And more remarkably that “history owes the an apology for their sufferings.”

In this Malhotra was taking a leaf out of her fellow judge, the late who vigorously campaigned against the death penalty and helped frame the new laws in a radical redefinition of rape, continually stressing that compassion was a keystone of natural justice. Only once did her calm, measured tone in her 2014 book Talking of Justice: People’s Rightsin Modern India diverge from the dispassionate to an anguished mother’s voice: So long as remained on the statue books, she said, her son, the novelist and poet Vikram Seth, would remain “a criminal, an unapprehended felon”.

Mr Seth, who had come out as gay some years earlier, had, in his stellar literary career, first touched upon the subject with light-hearted levity in his path-breaking verse novel The Golden Gate (1986) and later, with greater intensity, in An Equal Music (1999); but it was not till four years ago that he tore through the barricade by appearing on an India Today cover — looking a beleaguered prisoner and holding a “Not A Criminal” placard — in a harrowing black-and-white image shot by the photographer Rohit Chawla. It was a moment that galvanised mainstream media to investigate the travails of the extensively.

Unquestionably a growing number public figures propelled upturning social and political — celebrity endorsement as weapon of change — to join the legal challenge but 20 years ago it hardly seemed possible: Even in liberal, cosmopolitan circles the question of some “being different” (or in the Victorian phrase of “not being the marrying kind”) hung unspoken in the air, the proverbial elephant in the room. Despite supportive friends and colleagues, it was not easy to come out to parents and conservative relatives. Exemplary were the dignity, quiet conviction and even humour, with which hotelier Aman Nath and chef Ritu Dalmia, among other friends, lived with their partners.

The first time I heard an Indian film audience laugh out loud and realised the mood was changing was in Gurinder Chadha’s breakout comedy of gender stereotypes Bend It Like Beckham. A lineup of Punjabi matrons, led by the incomparable Zohra Segal, are discussing a girl’s matrimonial horoscope. “Is she Aquarian?” asks one. “No. Lesbian,” retorts Segal with a self-satisfied smile.

To argue that coming out was easier for the few in the anonymity and privilege of big cities as opposed to the many in the stifling oppression of small towns and villages is true. But only up to a point. In his bestselling memoir An Unsuitable Boy last year — a sort of Bildungsroman for the film and fashion fraternity — filmmaker Karan Johar describes the low esteem and anxiety he suffered on account of his sexuality. Far more gruelling and expansive is the account by journalist-activist Siddharth Dube, No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex (2016). Mr Dube’s enviable education — Doon School, St Stephen’s College, Harvard University — brought him plum assignments with the World Bank and UNAIDS. Instead he chose to travel among India’s punished — HIV patients, sex workers, transgenders — interleaving their accounts with his own unsettling story. The book’s wide impact has led to an expanded edition, An Indefinite Sentence, out in America and India next year.

A couple of weeks ago I found Anand Grover — the lawyer-activist who has represented Anjali Gopalan and the to fight Article 377 since the early 1990s — in buoyant mood. He was confident of the statute’s imminent demise. When asked why he advanced several reasons: The government no longer had the stomach to oppose it. Public patience was wearing thin at the Court’s interminable prevarications. Above all, he said, the expanded five-member Constitutional bench was composed of enlightened minds. And, finally, that retiring would like to go down in a blaze of glory.

But even he may not have expected a verdict so resoundingly unanimous, unequivocal and progressive. Although the BJP-RSS ruling dispensation had made its acceptance of change gradually, there is a section hailing the judgment as a sign of the government’s inherently liberal ethos. This assumption is presumptuous and erroneous. The list of deepening injustice — lynchings of beef eaters, attacks against Dalits and Muslims and activists thrown into jail on specious grounds — is long.

As the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said in one of the most-quoted lyrics of Urdu love poetry: “Aur bhi dukh hain zamane mein mohabbat ke siwa” (The torments of the world are greater than the pain of love).


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