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Why the battle against Section 377 must continue!

January 30, 2016 11:59 IST

'No country has moved from bigotry to equality fast, and India, with its leisurely, elephant-like pace for the most non-controversial of things, will only take longer,' says Vikram Johri.

A scene from the 2014 Gay Parade in Delhi. Photograph: Aseem Chhabra

IMAGE: A scene from the 2014 Gay and Lesbian Parade in Delhi. Photograph: Aseem Chhabra

One of the less salubrious consequences of Section 377 has emerged with the story of one Amogha Shanabhag, an Indian-origin resident of Germany who has become the victim of lies and deceit perpetrated by a man whom he married and who has since disappeared.

Mr Shanabhag posted on Facebook: 'Rajesh Yadav (Aryan Ved) from New Delhi is my wedded partner. We got married in Iceland on 26 October 2014. However, Rajesh married me for financial benefits and to gain residence permit in Germany. He has taken 800,000 INR in cash from me on different pretexts, apart from expensive gifts!'

He added: 'When I came to know about his intentions, I had to cancel his visa application to Germany. He was trying to con three people at the same time. While being in a relationship with me, Rajesh was playing the game of love and deception with a doctor in Germany and with another person in Iceland.'

He also said: 'Unfortunately, I cannot report my partner's missing report to the Delhi police from outside India. Furthermore, our marriage is illegal in India!'

Since Mr Yadav has gone incognito, it is difficult to get his version of the events -- but friends in the community tell me that entering into a civil partnership to earn a residential permit is not an uncommon way to get into Europe.

To be sure, the trend of entering into alliances to gain immigration is not restricted to homosexuals. There have been numerous cases from, say, Punjab where hopes for a better life have led people of either gender to enter into alliances only to regret later when the marriages don't work, or when the partner is found to have another family in the West.

But with gay men there is an added layer of complexity. Settling abroad is a legible option for those who cannot by law enter into marriages in India. Many gay people are leading happy and legally tenable lives abroad. So when a case like the above happens, it puts a cloud over what remains the only viable option for Indian gays to lead lives of dignity.

Another more common form of convenient partnership that is common due to the presence of Section 377 on the statue is gay men marrying women in keeping with their families' wishes. On the rare occasion this can end in tragedy, as happened with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences doctor who killed herself last year on discovering her husband's gayness.

More often, it leads to wasted lives and absence of marital harmony. There are several cases of gay men getting into such marriages only for the alliance to end in divorce.

All of these represent tangible and urgent reasons to scrap Section 377 and allow gays and lesbians to marry partners of their choice. In this regard, last year was a good one for LGBT rights in India. Arun Jaitley, a senior minister in the government, spoke about the need for the Supreme Court to revisit its stance on Section 377. Shashi Tharoor introduced a private member's Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking to repeal the Section.

More welcomingly, the RSS seemed to soften its stand on the issue. Its spokesperson Ram Madhav, who has since been lent to the BJP as general secretary, made the right noises about decriminalising homosexuality, even if he added the rider that the organisation does not 'want the glorification of the sexual preference of one section of the community.'

To be sure, each of the above turned out to be more theatrics than a harbinger of real change. Mr Tharoor's Bill was dismissed even before it could be discussed because our learned parliamentarians, most from the BJP camp, did not deem it fit for taking up.

Yet, the very fact that this conversation is taking place is a step forward. No country has moved from bigotry to equality fast, and India, with its leisurely, elephant-like pace for the most non-controversial of things, will only take longer.

In some ways, that may be no bad thing. Only when society at large is ready to accept change can LGBT rights become a reality in spirit. The US Supreme Court last year legalised gay marriage nationwide. This came at the end of a long struggle during which much bad blood against LGBTs was spilled in the public domain, especially by religious bigots. But all that rancour ironically helped the cause, and led to large-scale acceptance of gay rights and marriage among the American public.

Every move, however tiny, therefore helps. Mr Tharoor, for his part, has promised he will try bringing in the Bill to scrap Section 377 again in 2016. It is unlikely, however, that the Bill will meet a different fate. A move such as this will need much inter- and intra-party discussion at all levels which does not appear forthcoming either from the government or the Opposition.

But the battle should continue. A concerted push both socially and legally should ultimately usher a more egalitarian climate for LGBTs, one in which alliances such as the one Mr Shanabhag found himself in will cease to exist.

Vikram Johri
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