“The Younger Generation is Pivotal to Discarding Section 377”- An Interview with Dr. Shashi Tharoor

The LGBT community in India has had its share of legal battle. The community is still fighting to amend Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This law is not only against our Fundamental Rights but is extremely inhumane as well. I have been a supporter of the LGBT community since I was introduced to it. I chose ‘LGBT community in India’ as the subject of my Sociology project without a moment of hesitation. The idea of questioning people of our society about the LGBT community excites me, because I have always wanted to know why some people not just condemn it but also refuse to discuss it. Many also consider homosexuality an illness till this day. This ignorance surrounding the issue has made it a taboo in our society. This is also a reason why I chose this topic.

Dr. Shashi Tharoor is one of the few Indian Politicians who have openly supported the community. He has also not once but twice, attempted to amend this law. So, for my project I decided to interview him. At first I was not expecting a reply, but I was surprised to have received his answers. His answers inspire me to work for this issue and I hope it inspires many others as well.

India is regarded as one of the biggest democracies of the world. We as Indians, take pride in our constitution and the Fundamental Rights that it guarantees. But do you feel that Section 377 of IPC not only goes against our Fundamental Rights but also our Human Rights?

Yes, and I have repeatedly tried to highlight that the issue is not one of sex, but of freedom. By giving the State the authority to control what Indian adults do, consensually, in their bedrooms, Section 377 violates the constitutional rights to dignity, privacy, and equality enshrined in Articles 14, 15, and 21, respectively.

Let us also not forget that the opening words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted as far back as 1948, are very clear- “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This is what we must uphold. Through my unsuccessful attempts to change Section 377, the effort was very much to ensure that our homosexual and transgender communities enjoy the same freedoms and dignity that the rest of us enjoy as citizens of India.

Both the times you introduced a bill to amend Section 377, the Parliament voted against it, and hence no debate could take place. Why do you think Indian Politicians are so apprehensive of this issue?

There is no simple answer to this question given that the ruling BJP, which has shot down my bill twice, has neither been clear nor consistent in its views on Section 377. Different party leaders have contradicted each other. In July 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned the High Court decision to decriminalise homosexuality in India, Home Minister Rajnath Singh agreed with the decision. A year later, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan spoke in favour of LGBT rights. Finance Minister Jaitley and former Law Minister Sadanand Gowda have expressed sympathy for the idea of repealing Section 377 . Yet none of them stood up to be counted when their party members vociferously opposed my efforts to do just that. The BJP must work out what their actual stand is on this subject.

What is most striking is that many politicians who are against decriminalisation do so while claiming that they are protecting Indian culture. This reveals that they are completely oblivious that all kinds of sexual behaviour has actually been tolerated for millennia in India. The argument that homosexuality or any form of queerness is a product of Western influence is particularly absurd especially since the Indian ethos toward sexual difference has not only recognised such difference but has historically been liberal.

In fact, the Hindu epics are dotted with characters like Shikhandi in the Mahabharata, who was born female and became male; many Hindus venerate the half-man, half-woman Ardhanarishvara; and temple sculptures across India depict homosexual acts. Yet the BJP chooses to ignore this Hindu tradition. Section 377 is a British relic, drafted in 1860 and based on outdated Victorian morals. It has no place in a modern nation like India, and those seeking to preserve it must wake up to this.

Why do you think Homophobia is so prevalent in the Indian Society?

The reason for homophobia is not rooted in Indian culture as people attempt to claim. As I have mentioned, Indian culture has historically accepted sexual diversity. Most Indians today, however, have instead been saddled with a colonial-era interpretation of what is good and right for them. We have been saddled with a sense of morality that is not from this country but from Victorian Britain. All the prohibitions that the ruling party so fondly clings on to today– which we have seen in their exhibition of prejudice by rejecting any discussion on my Bill– all of these are legacies of British colonial rule and have no roots in Indian practice or in Indian ethos. It will take time to change this and education is critical to this.

Sir, do you think that with the new generation coming out in full support of the LGBTQ+ community, in the future India can amend Section 377?

Yes, I think the younger generation is pivotal to discarding Section 377. The question they must ask is if we are going to be governed by an archaic, socially conservative British law or are we going to implement more liberal, progressive and inclusive laws? I believe that one day in the not too distant future, because of the strength and solidarity of our younger generations, we will be able to amend this anachronistic law– it is not a question of “if” as much as “when”.
Upasha Das