Monday, February 08, 2016

Under State control

A piece I wrote for The Hindu's Mumbai edition... it was published the day after the Supreme Court held an open court hearing on whether to consider the curative petitions against its own verdict that had upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

There were three sets of people with a very keen eye on the proceedings in Supreme Court in the matter of the curative: thousands of LGBT people and their allies; some legal eagles and the press; and a miniscule minority of opponents, mostly ‘religious’. This last group feels that not only must it oppose homosexuality within its own private sphere but also impose its world view on everyone else through the might of the State, even to the extent of punishing consenting adults with up to 10 years of time in jail. Compare this with maximum punishment of a ritual bath for a homosexual act (that too only for the priestly class) prescribed by the Manu Smriti.

We can debate the authenticity of the Manu Smriti and its importance, but it contrasts with the extreme position that the opponents, including the State, have taken by wanting to retain Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). By now it has been argued often enough that Sec 377 is a law based on Victorian morality, which was itself rooted in the Bible, and that much of the IPC is a relic of the British Raj days.

The larger point here is illustrated in the fable of the Arab traveller and the camel, who first begged to insert its nose into the tent and then other parts of his body, with the Arab finally thrown out of his own tent. The State entered into our bedrooms with the IPC and now it refuses to get out. It has been decades since the State’s right to interfere in our choice of partners — sexual and marital — is being contested but it refuses to yield. The Arab traveller remains at the mercy of the camel when it should be the other way round. We, the people, have allowed the State to take control of our lives increasingly, to the extent that we have forgotten the liberties that were ours naturally. In every sphere of our life, the State limits and regulates both our economic, social and personal choices.

This did not happen overnight. It happened gradually, like in the fable, but it now seems pretty irreversible. In fact, we, the people, give the State more power every day over ourselves, even to make choices on our behalf each time we demand that the State perform a function other than the minimum required for us to exercise our choices freely, without fear to our life and property.

Most of us, wherever we may place ourselves on the political spectrum, only pay lip service to liberty, equality and freedom of expression; we do not know what we ask for when we demand that the State enact new statutes and more stringent laws (when it does not even execute existing laws fairly and efficiently, allowing scope for misuse), instead of reducing them to the minimum and simplifying the rest. This can be seen in every area of our life, from ‘net neutrality’ and use of social media to fiscal and monetary policies, and the selling and buying of our own assets. Governments, meanwhile, are only interested in increasing their power over the people. So there will be some noises about liberalisation and minimum government, but every government’s actions are quite the opposite in the guise of maximum governance and ‘social justice.’

What social justice is served by keeping Section 377 in the IPC? What does the State achieve by either punishing or the threat of punishing adults for a ‘crime’ without victims? Did social order and public morality breakdown when the Delhi High Court re-legalised ‘gay sex’ (given it was never a crime pre-IPC)? Did homosexuality spread across the nation like a newly-discovered virus and threaten nationhood in addition to heterosexual ‘manhood’?

The answers to all of these questions are staring at us but, no, the courts and the government will take their time to exercise their wisdom and decide what is good or bad for we, the people. Until then, far from enjoying the liberties and benefits available to heterosexual couples, we lesbian, gay and bisexual and even transgender people must pretend we do not break the law. Or else resign ourselves to the possibility that some individual or a cop may take it upon themselves to use Section 377 for harassment or extortion, if not for legal prosecution.

Of course, LGBT people will continue to watch the SC very closely, to see if it does take this last opportunity to correct its error of judgement.