Love in the time of constriction

Remember those who have fought and sacrificed for the freedom to love.

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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Then must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well

(Othello, William Shakespeare)

Most of us would not be able to point to Belize, Seychelles and Nauru on a map, but these three little countries stole a march on India this year. They decriminalised gay sex or as the law coyly puts it, “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. The Belize Supreme Court was the latest to rule and on August 10, it struck down its colonial era law not just on grounds of a right to privacy, but also under protections of  “dignity, equality and freedom of expression.”

With this ruling, according to Human Rights Campaign, the number of countries where homosexual acts remain criminalised drops to 72.

One of those 72 countries is India.

India is still waiting for its Supreme Court to act on Section 377.  When the court took it up last time in 2013, it reinstated the old law and dismissed homosexuals as a “minuscule minority”.

They might be and they might not be. That should not have any effect on their right to privacy, dignity, equality and freedom of expression.

However, at its heart, 377 is really about a larger battle that goes beyond amending an outdated penal code. It is not a special right, though it is a right that is special. It’s about a freedom to love and there is nothing gay or straight about it.

The fight over 377 is really about saying we are grown up enough to realise that the nanny state needs to stay out of the bedrooms of consenting adults.

The nanny state takes many names in India. In the Penal Code, it might call itself 377. In a village in Haryana, it could call itself the khap panchayat. In Bengal, the salishi sabha. In most parts of India, it just calls itself ‘family’, or ‘neighbourhood’, or ‘village’, or ‘housing society’.  All these variations have one thing in common – they want to define the boundaries within which we are allowed to love. And they want to punish any transgression of those boundaries.

Sometimes with ostracism. Sometimes with acid. Too often with murder.

When 22-year-old Shankar, a Dalit man, married 19-year-old Kausalya, a Thevar Hindu in Tamil Nadu, he was hacked to death by three men on a bike. She suffered injuries trying to save him. That incident was captured on CCTV. Their crime? They were born into different castes.

When Nidhi Barak, 20, eloped with fellow student Dharmendra Barak, 23, her family promised they would not be harmed. She trusted them and returned. She was lynched and killed. All his limbs broken before he was beheaded. Their crime? They were of the same gotra.

A Muslim woman, Danista, 21 married her Hindu neighbor, Sonu Singh, 22, in a village near Meerut. Her brothers allegedly hacked him to death outside their house. When she rushed out to see what was happening, she was killed as well. Their crime? They crossed religious lines.

Bhavna, a 21-year-old student of Sri Venkateshwara college in Delhi secretly married Abhishek Seth, 24, an assistant programmer at the Cabinet secretariat. Her parents and uncle were eventually arrested after she disappeared. She had been strangled to death and quickly cremated. Why? She was a Yadav from Rajasthan. He is a Punjabi.

Sucheta Mondal, 19, was in love with her cousin Swapna Mondal, 23. The village court (shalishi sabha) was summoned thrice to forbid their “unnatural” relationship. On the court’s advice, Sucheta was married off. One day, when she was visiting her parents, the two women snuck off into a paddy field and killed themselves. Swapna left a note saying, “I could not live without my love”. The family refused to claim their “decomposed, stinking bodies”. Their crime? They were both women.

We only know about these stories because they paid the most extreme price for daring to love. There are countless others whose transgressions have been punished in ways that do not make it into the news, but are heartbreaking nonetheless. These are just as much stories of modern India as those other heartwarming stories Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves to share about farmers in Maharashtra using a Whatsapp group or the #SelfieWithDaughter initiative from Haryana.

The freedom to love is one of the most dangerous and the most perilous. It has little protection in law. That’s not because the law is powerless. More often than not, the law works hand-in-glove with those who wish to circumscribe it.  They are often called ‘honour killings’, a terrible phrase that embeds honour in an act that is really murder most foul.  Of course, they are not just Indian stories (Qandeel Baloch and Samia Sarwar in Pakistan, for instance) but they happen far too often in our liberal democracy.

Section 377 must go. But it is only the tip of the iceberg. That law is dismissed routinely in media reports as an antiquated colonial relic long discarded by many of the other former colonies. But what about all those other stories? Those tragedies cannot be dumped on the laps of long departed Englishmen. Those stories are as Indian as desi ghee. And they remind us that a change in the penal code, while necessary and welcome, does not automatically guarantee any of us the freedom to love.

That is part of a different kind of independence movement, a saga that is treated as more shameful than glorious. But it too has freedom fighters though they are not feted or valorized; their names forgotten; their bodies often unclaimed, and otherwise hastily cremated.

Their names are just blips in the news – here today, gone tomorrow, swept away by the next misguided tweet from some celebrity. Often even their families do not want to remember them. That is why we must. We must remember these accidental fighters who loved not wisely but too well, because they wanted nothing more than the freedom to live and love the person of their choice.

In 21st century free India, almost 70 years after Independence, that should not be too much freedom to ask.


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