Why an openly gay PM such as Leo Varadkar is an impossibility in India | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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Why an openly gay PM such as Leo Varadkar is an impossibility in India

There are no openly gay politicians in India, mainly because non-normative sexual or gender orientation is considered a death knell for one’s career

opinion Updated: Jun 03, 2017 14:01 IST
Leo Varadkar celebrates as he is named Ireland's next prime minister, Dublin, June 2. Ireland's governing Fine Gael party has elected Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, as its new leader and the country's next prime minister.
Leo Varadkar celebrates as he is named Ireland's next prime minister, Dublin, June 2. Ireland's governing Fine Gael party has elected Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, as its new leader and the country's next prime minister. (AP)

January 2015, Dublin, Ireland: The country’s health minister Leo Varadkar has just made history by coming out as gay on a live national radio broadcast. “It’s just part of who I am…it is a part of my character,” he says, months before Ireland votes in a landmark referendum to legalise same-sex marriage.

January 2015, Panaji, India: Goa youth affairs minister Ramesh Tawadkar has just declared setting up “gay cure” centres to deal with homosexual youth. “We will make them normal. Like Alcoholic Anonymous centres, we will train them and (give them) medicines,” he says.

India woke up on Saturday to celebrate the success of Leo Varadkar, the son of a Mumbai doctor who rose to become Ireland’s youngest prime minister. But among the adulations showered on the 38-year-old lies one deliberate omission: The shameful way in which Indian society and political leadership treats it Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) population.

The challenges of living queer in India are well documented. LGBT folks are shut out of our education and employment institutions, and pushed out of housing and public spaces. To be out or present non-normatively is to often invite ridicule, bias and outright violence. And if one is poor, or lower-caste or disabled and is queer, they stop existing not just in collective memory but also for public policy.

But a far more insidious form of discrimination flies under the radar: The refusal of our political leadership to discuss, let alone reform, India’s outdated laws that outlaw homosexual people and criminalise the lives of LGBT folks.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has been on the national agenda for at least a decade and half now, since activists approached the Delhi High Court to read down the provisions of the colonial statute. But in these 16 years, not once has the government of the day or the political leadership taken up the cause of people who are among the most marginalised sections of society.

In 2013, when the Supreme Court sounded out Parliament to read down section 377, the political leadership ducked. Two years later, a majority of lawmakers blocked even any discussion on a bill brought by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor to scrap the section. Despite intermittent comments by leaders of the ruling party, and apparent attempts at sounding progressive, little has moved on a basic human rights issue that most parts of the world have resolved. The government seems content on passing the buck to the judiciary, apparently paralysed by the fear of offending sections of the population obsessed with cows.

This toxic concoction of opportunism and apathy is why a Leo Varadkar is impossible in India – an ironic situation considering we regularly elect repeat offenders, people accused of rape and murder who blithely suspend investigations against themselves when in power. We look the other way when suspects, even convicts, enter Parliament. As a nation that seems to have little problem with leaders accused of embezzlement, corruption or murder, a person being gay should be the least of our concerns.

But there are no openly gay politicians in India, and the few transgender representatives have found it difficult to break into larger than a local arena – mainly because non-normative sexual or gender orientation is considered a death knell for one’s career.

Varadkar has presented himself as any other politician to be judged on the merit of his policy -- and there are problems, say, with his position on immigration reform or housing. But in that appraisal, his sexual orientation is increasingly faint as a factor —something unimaginable in our society.

Varadkar’s election isn’t an event to celebrate for Indians. It is a moment of introspection on how we have systematically disenfranchised a section of our country. Leo Varadkar only has his father to be grateful to, not his country of origin that would have made him a criminal. Thank god he left India.