The reinterpretation of Section 377 by the Delhi High Court, decriminalising consenting adult homosexual sex, is a judgement justly hailed for its wisdom. By saying that it was the same spirit of ‘inclusiveness’ that also motivated Jawaharlal Nehru, the judgement has reminded us of the truly radical freedoms that form the foundations of the nation. In 1947, when India’s constitution-makers gave universal adult franchise to a poor, tradition-bound illiterate country, they set us on course for a constantly evolving contract with freedom. The reinterpretation of Section 377 could become a trigger for a larger debate about the balance between sexual freedom and traditional society and how to achieve a middle ground.
Today, personal freedom and ‘traditional morality’ seem to be on a collision course. The attacks on women at a Mangalore pub led by Pramod Muthalik are the lunatic manifestation of a deeper anxiety being voiced in many quarters on the future of ‘Indian values’. In Mumbai, 2006, an art exhibition entitled ‘Tits, Clits and Elephant Dicks’ was disrupted by the police. Last year, lovers in a Meerut park were beaten up by police. The government has just banned savitabhabi.com, accused of dispensing pornography and showing, in cartoons, the activities of a sultry ‘bhabhi’. The ban has led to protests on the net. In rural communities, marriages and elopements of inter-caste and inter-religious couples are being met by resistance from elders, and sometimes boys and girls are being put to gruesome death. Dress codes are being imposed. In a Kanpur college, tight clothing and jeans were banned for women because such clothes “attract eve teasers”. In Kerala, some colleges have even banned Bollywood dances on campus.
Politicians have sensed an issue. Ashok Gehlot has stated that “pub culture” and “holding hands in shopping mall” are damaging Indian culture. Lalu Yadav said homosexuals are criminals and the government must ban such “obscenity”. Politicians, their weather vanes always tuned to which way public opinion is blowing, are seeing political benefit in taking a “moral” position, they have realised that the worry among voters about “traditional values” being destroyed is growing.
Now that laws have been changed, how will social mores change? Where does the balance lie between the need to transform age-old attitudes and at the same time not giving a shock treatment to the Indian sensibility that will only create a potentially brutal backlash by the moral police?
Let’s learn from the Union Budget. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has presented a Budget that was devoid of any dramatic statements and firework displays of the government’s reformist zeal. The stockmarkets plummeted in disappointment. But the prime minister defended the Budget saying it was a document aimed at bringing Bharat and India closer together and to prevent the creation of two worlds — one glitzy and urban and the other poor and rural as was supposed to have happened with the hectic privatisation of Shining India.
In the same manner, Justices A.P. Shah and S. Murlidhar did not deliver a judgement that was a dramatic statement geared to create a sudden overturning of cherished ideals. Instead, their judgement on Section 377 stressed on creating an inclusive society on both sides of the moral divide, while at the same time retaining the criminal provisions for sodomy and exploitation. Both in the Budget and the judgement, there seems to be the acknowledgement that in a society like ours, change must come slowly. Expressions of personal liberty in India must be rooted in dignity and the surrounding milieu, if we are to prevent an exponential rise in militant traditionalism.
While gay pride marches are a regular feature in California, to hold them in traditional cities like Chennai and Bhubaneswar may not immediately serve the cause of creating an inclusive society. Would a colourfully dressed man flaunting his sexuality not, even if it was not intended to be, be too much of a shock for traditional families? While dress codes need to be challenged, yet must Twinkle Khanna unbutton Akshaye Kumar’s jeans in public? Expressions of personal sexual freedom and choice are a basic human right of every citizen, but they will only create a vicious backlash if such choices are seen to be exhibitionist and disconnected. After all, the Indian homosexual lives in all spheres of society, not just among the glitterati, and the aam aadmi homosexual needs maximum protection by society and law.
He cannot be protected if the more visible members of the gay community fail to create a dialogue with the mainstream.
Similarly, the glossy media seems to be upholding one-sided images of the modern woman. There are endless sex surveys and lovemaking techniques displayed on magazine covers held up for sale by urchins at streetcorners. It’s as if sexual identity has become almost the only way to demonstrate a modern identity. The semi-naked sex symbol is supposed to be the opposite of the demure bharatiya nari when, in actual fact, millions of professional women are making all kinds of modern choices about their lives. Bollywood and the media have failed to convey that a sari-clad woman can be and is as much of an educated professional as a woman dressed in a power suit. Perhaps, the professional woman continues to be the target of so much rage and suspicion because the media images of her are so bizzarely out of touch with what she actually looks like. Kiran Bedi and Kalpana Chawla are perhaps better examples of modern Indian women than outlandishly dressed models.
A confrontation is brewing between those making personal sexual and moral choices and those upholding traditional values. Just as the Union Budget has seen a balancing act between reform and status quo, now that the laws are in place, attitudinal changes will probably have to be coaxed forward, rather than by shock treatment or flamboyant gestures.
The author is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN.