Let’s talk about 377 | Police revulsion for a gay man put me in ‘hellhole’ jail: Arif Jafar
“Saala angrezi cho*** hai” (Bloody *** is sleeping with the British).”
The inspector screamed at me as he slapped me again and again inside the lock up. The date and time is still etched in my mind — 2am on July 8, 2001 . I was abused, tortured and humiliated for 24 hours — and made to feel less than human — only because of an archaic law that decided I was a criminal in my own country.
The horror had begun a day earlier. Around 5am, a panic call from my mother had jolted me awake. Shahid, a worker from my organisation, had been arrested while doing his job — distributing condoms among MSM (men who have sex with men) population in Lucknow’s Charbagh area. He had been dragged to the police station and hadn’t been heard of since.
I was confident it was a mix-up. After all, I had been working with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) population for a decade and knew state and national-level authorities. I called up senior bureaucrats and police officials and was promptly assured it would be sorted. I rushed to the police station to get Shahid back.
Unknown to us, a plan to arrest and humiliate us was already afoot. As I waited in the station, the police raided our offices, ransacked the premises and seized what they thought was damning evidence of our ‘perversion’ — literature on gender, sexuality and safe sex, stacks of condoms and a couple of dildos we used for demonstration.
We were raided around 4pm on a Saturday. By evening, the channels were splashing bulletins of a “Gay Sex Racket” and discussing theories of how I had taken funding from Pakistan to make all Indian men homosexual.
But that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Within hours, three of my colleagues and I were arrested and beaten up in public at the Hazratganj traffic circle. I think the revulsion for a gay man was so acute that they wanted to hurt our reputation and ensure we could never show our faces in public again.
When we were produced in court the next day, we learnt that we had been charged under section 110 (abetment to a crime), 120B (criminal conspiracy), and section 377 (unnatural offences) of the Indian Penal Code. The police told the court that they had found us guilty of a conspiracy to promote homosexuality, as if perfectly normal sexual behaviour could ever be ‘promoted’.
But the pervasive homophobia and stigma surrounding gay sex ensured no one questioned the police, and instead looked at us as if we were animals, undeserving of even the most basic human rights accorded to every Indian citizen. We were thrown in jail with the then police chief declaring, “Even if I have no proof against them, I will ensure they rot in jail.”
Our horrors were just beginning.
Many prisoners had already heard of us. We were beaten up almost every day, and abused — Saaley Gandu aaye hain, mazey se ***. (“Bloody homosexuals have come, we can take advantage of them.”). We were beaten up and the jailor would often menacingly threaten to “take remand” of all of us with a wicked smile. What that meant anyone can imagine.
The media reported that we took Rs 70 lakh for supplying boys to ministers and bureaucrats, and many of the burlier prisoners beat us up when we couldn’t show the stash. My colleague still has a damaged tailbone because of the torture.
The psychological violence also broke me. We were forced to use putrid drain water for cleaning our utensils. Our dirty food bowls were mossy, which could only be cleaned with the drain water. It was clear that they wanted to hit us where it hurt the most — our sanity and self-respect.
But even in hell, there was a sliver of light. Some prisoners saw that we were crumbling and offered support. We were moved to another barrack, where two prisoners gave me fresh clothes of their own, arranged for some warm water and a haircut. I used to offer Namaz five times a day, and this forged a bond with some of the other inmates, who were convinced that we were innocent.
On day eleven, when the constables came to beat us up, these prisoners and their friends ring-fenced us and threatened the policemen, who backed off. I can never forget their magnanimity.
Still, our fortunes were far from turning around. I used to have severe kidney pain, but the officials offered no help or treatment. The poor hygiene of the jail made me lose most of my teeth — now I make do with artificial ones. We were frequently ill and infected with diseases. Our bail request was turned down repeatedly on the grounds that we were a curse to society.
Finally, on Day 47, we stepped out of that hellhole.
But the nightmare hasn’t ended for me. I am 47 years old now and for the last 18 years, the case has dragged on and poisoned my life. I have to go to court every couple of months. I live in fear and consternation. Only because, as a gay man, I cannot seem to enjoy the same rights my fellow Indians take for granted.
It took me almost a decade to come out of the trauma the jail inflicted. An archaic law that is the remnant of a regressive colonial practice was used to strip me of dignity and abuse me, only to serve the homophobic hatred of some people in positions of power.
Thankfully, my mother and family were supportive of my case, my sexuality. They understood that there is nothing wrong in falling in love with a man and wanting to live with him. They understood that there is nothing unnatural in being gay. That section 377 is a retrograde law that is designed to make us second-class citizens and criminals for no fault of ours. That I committed no crime in being gay.
I am now in a loving relationship with a man I deeply care for. We have been together for almost a decade. But the trauma of Section 377 continues to hang over my head. The humiliation never leaves you — I have to keep explaining to people that I did nothing wrong, that I am just as “normal” as everyone else.
But that jail stint left me stronger and more determined to carry out our work against Section 377 and build it into a nationwide movement. I now know that we have to stand up for our own rights as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people. I know that section 377 has no right to impose social morality on our community, force it into the shadows — into shameful marriages, extortion, humiliation and even suicide.
With the Supreme Court deciding to hear the petition against the abominable law afresh, I am hopeful that a new generation of LGBT people will never face the trauma and shame I faced. It is time we start talking about a law that criminalises our lives and makes us less than human. It is time to talk about Section 377.
(Arif Jafar is an LGBT activist and has worked for the community for 30 years)
(This is the third part of Let’s Talk About 377, a five-part series on the challenges faced by India’s LGBT community. Join the conversation with #LetsTalkAbout377 on social media or send us your stories and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org)