The Faceless Enemy

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Protest in Delhi against Sec 377 on Dec 15th

Protest in Delhi against Sec 377 on Dec 15th

A minority cannot be denied rights based on public opinion, or on the claims that ‘the right time hasn’t come yet’, writes Karthik

In the last few weeks, a lot has happened. While, I was disappointed and felt let-down by the entire episode surrounding 377 and the statements by the likes of Baba Ramdev, Rajnath Singh etc., I was also quite surprised to see much support in the media, Facebook posts and others who spoke out. I wasn’t really enraged (A lot of my friends and others in the community were enraged – rightly so. It’s just that I wasn’t enraged).

But, this Sunday, I read something, which has left me furious. Arguably, this was an article hidden in the 5th page in the supplement of a English Daily (Indian Express – Sunday Express). It wasn’t written by someone most people would recognize – a former ‘Cabinet Secretary’ by the name of TSR Subramanian. Now, before I explain why this article has left me fuming while much more openly infuriating statements have not bothered me so deeply; do note that this article is written by an elite (IAS Officer, educated in the UK and currently the ‘Chancellor’ of an university), with no openly homophobic statements. In fact, a light reader may even conclude that the article is actually neutral opinion – written by someone who doesn’t oppose gay rights – but is merely saying that it will take time.

To me, this article has given a face to the faceless enemy that we have to fight. The notion that an ‘idea’ has to appeal to the sensibilities of the masses before it can be accepted. For one, the article can easily be re-written in the same vein to support any of the following ideas:

  • ‘The time for abolishing slavery hasn’t come yet’ – in the 1860s
  • ‘The time for equal empowerment to women hasn’t come yet’ in the early 1900s
  • ‘The time for abolishing the Zamindari system hasn’t come yet’ in the 1950s and so on..

I’d call these people the ‘faceless enemy’ – because these people hide behind the veil of public opinion (Not the opinion of a few people who are ‘popular’ public figures – but the often unexpressed opinion of the masses). They rarely engage in a debate or express their ideas based on reason. In the not so often moments when these ideas are openly expressed (More so in the living room, or amongst relatives – very rarely in the press), the person goes on to presume that everyone is in agreement with their opinion and expresses oneself in a ‘matter of fact’ way.

In this instance, I find that this author has managed to serve as the ‘face’ of the masses and has actually attempted to cloak his homophobia behind soft notions like ‘social norms’ and ‘traditions’. For someone who has been highly educated and has held many positions of influence, one would expect that his arguments are based on reason and scientific principles. But, no! The only evidence of his education is the fact that he has weaved his homophobia ever so subtly in the article.

Consider this:

Apart from strong cultural aspects, we need to remember that in a hot poor country, boys sleep in dormitories, semi-clad; men at work in field projects often sleep in the same space—six or eight to a room; without spelling out the details, there could be significant impact on social behaviour all over the country

 Now, did you notice his subtle homophobia? Isn’t he implying that today, Section 377 is the only thing that prevents homo-erotic orgies from breaking out in dormitories? Or what part of ‘adult, consensual and private’ does he fail to understand? No, he doesn’t stop there either – he actually goes on to say:

Will our ‘decency’ laws permit scantily clad women in public spaces? Can we replicate the summer dress-code, indeed near-nudity say of Mediterranean resorts in our beaches, as also in our cities and towns or villages, in the name of ‘modernity’? The social practices in Western countries are quite different from those of the family values in India.

In the entire issue, it’s not that LGBT are asking for right to display their affection in public (any more than heterosexual people) – what part of private relationships does he not understand? He plainly wants to ‘woo’ the sentiments of an uninformed conservative reader to assume that this is what this entire issue is about.

Or this (where he expresses dissatisfaction with the coverage of ‘gay rights’ in English media:

Whatever the TV anchors may like to project, the Indian social and cultural standards are quite different from those of Western countries—one need not necessarily rue this; indeed this may be India’s strength.

Seriously sir? Is suppression of minority rights a source of strength for India? Would you actually say that ‘denying equal rights to LGBT people’ better represents Indian society and cultural values than say, ‘acceptance and celebration of diversity’?

Or this:

Note that 377 has many aspects beyond relationship between ‘consenting adults’. The court has merely referred this matter to the representatives of the people.

How about this? If the highly educated author had taken the time to understand the Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 – he’d understand that the Delhi HC did NOT strike down Section 377. It left Section 377 to hold in instances of bestiality, pedophilia or rape. It merely exempted ‘adult consensual, private acts’ from the purview of section 377.

Now, just digest this – If this is what goes inside the mind of a foreign educated, urban-elite, influential member of the society, it seems completely hopeless how the uneducated, rural citizen would understand LGBT people.

gay groups protest in delhi

Imagine the difference someone like Mr. TSR Subramanian could make, given his position in the society to accelerate the progress. As the Chancellor of ‘Shiv Nadar University’ – how about having a support group for LGBT people in the university? How about having a ‘Zero tolerance policy’ for homophobia within the campus? How about an ‘Equal Employment Opportunity’ policy explicitly proclaiming no discrimination on the basis on sexual orientation? Are these ideas ‘ahead of their time’ within a much admired educational institution too, Mr Subramanian? Oh, no – I guess you are probably waiting for the ‘right stars to align’ before doing any of that?

A lot can be done, Mr Subramanian. Instead, you choose to sit in the sidelines and just ask for us to ‘wait for the right time to come’. If I may infer this is precisely what you did in your rather ‘illustrious’ IAS career, it doesn’t surprise me that we as a country are still waiting for the ‘right time to come’ for progress – in both poverty eradication and social equality.  Just to add salt to injury, you also choose to spread the idea through your article. Well done. The likes of Baba Ramdev (or Westboro Baptist Church) will always exist – It is people like you who actually decide how strong or weak their voices turn out to be.

What is the right time for change, Mr Subramanian? If I may ask? Should the millions of LGBT people today just continue to live marginalized and invisible lives because it may affect the sensitivities of the billions? While I feel there is ample passive homophobia in your essay – can I ask if you have ever pondered about the lives of LGBT people? (I’m sure you have a very vivid imagination – going by the dormitory example). For once, can I ask you to step back and think about what is right? Instead of what is acceptable? Because, if you agree with what is right, we can work together to make it more acceptable. But, if you go by what is acceptable, you can’t make it right.

You may be correct after all, that the time for change has not come yet. But it’s not because of the social and cultural traditions of India. It is because of people like YOU standing in the way of progress.

I can’t hold myself up, but to also infer the following (Using the same shaky, logic that you have used in your article) – A lot of people in your generation seem to measure the success of your career by claiming to ‘not be corrupt’ in the decades of public service. Unfortunately, my generation has higher expectations – you may have been the cleanest IAS official ever – but, you and others like you have failed, if you refrained from driving positive change and progress just because ‘the society isn’t ready yet’.

P.S: I also completely deplore the idea in which Mr Subramanian treats the ‘idea’ of gay rights as just an ‘idea’ or a thought experiment. With all due seriousness, we’re talking about minority rights. It is about equality under the law and constitution, not a mere ‘idea’ of a fanciful thought experiment.

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Karthik

Karthik is a Boston based strategy professional with a passion for writing by the side

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