It took my father nearly 20 years to come to terms with my sexuality. I first spoke to him (and my mother) about it in 1985 while struggling with my ‘difference’ and science subjects in high school. He signalled his acceptance in 2005 by speaking to a documentary filmmaker along with my mother (with the camera focussed on their hands), and then again anonymously to queer journal Swikriti Patrika within a year.
The span of time in between was contentious but never one of silencing. Dissent had space, even when things seemed irretrievably lost. One night in 1994, when I was less than a year into being part of Counsel Club, an early years queer support forum in Kolkata, my father told me to leave home if I wanted to talk and write about “sexual health” all the time. This was when he found me proofing copy for Pravartak, a journal that Counsel Club used to publish, rather than convalescing from severe jaundice in bed. Prejudice, concern and quite possibly confusion – all seemed to come out in that moment of exasperation.
Till the next morning I had no idea where I would go, though fortunately I knew people I could’ve talked to. But then my father apologized, we hugged and since then we always agreed to disagree. One thing I believe in and I think my father also came around to accepting was that whoever may be the head of the house, the home belongs to everyone who lives in it.
My mother never seemed to struggle with such a dilemma. She could see where both my father and I were coming from. And while my father came around to accepting me, she began with accepting me and then trying to understand me. This is something that strangely brings me to the recent Supreme Court verdict on Section 377, Indian Penal Code. I see the stance of both my parents in the verdict and in the institution of judiciary itself, though this is not by a long shot to glorify a parent-child relationship that we seem to have with the State in India.
Counting only from when the first petition against Section 377 was filed in Delhi High Court by AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), the courts took 24 years to come around, apologize and interpret the possibilities of inclusion that the Constitution allowed for – much like the possibilities that my father discovered in spirituality (and religion to a certain extent) to say that “We are both right in our ways”. And then the verdict itself seems to have turned out to be as expansive as my mother’s viewpoint!
What would’ve been my father’s reaction to the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377? I daresay he would’ve been deeply interested, being a keen follower of polities, politics and policies, but also happy. Alas, he hasn’t been around since 2007 for any of the court verdicts that have had a link to Section 377. My mother on the other hand was simply joyous for me and my colleagues and friends when the verdict was announced on September 6, 2018, even if her poor vision and hearing hardly allowed her to follow the newspapers and TV.
A list of all the people who should be thanked for the hard work that went behind the Section 377 verdict will be nearly impossible to pen down here. I’m still calling and writing to people to say thank you, and then have also made Facebook posts to highlight the contributions of individuals many don’t know about or who we never think of. But here, I want to mention two Delhi-based activists Anuja Gupta and Ashwini Ailawadi, who I remember strategized, toiled over and mobilized support for the 1994 ABVA petition. In 1996, Anuja Gupta also presented a testimony on human rights violations faced by queer people in India at a conference organized by the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (now known as OutRight Action International) in New York.
Among innumerable strands of community mobilization and activism that have flown into the outcome that is the Section 377 verdict, I relate to Anuja Gupta’s contribution in a special sense. It was early days for me in activism, but long chats with her during her Kolkata visits on how the petition came about were immensely illuminating. And then I count on Ashwini Ailawadi as one of my earliest mentors who guided me on how one could mobilize people and initiate a queer support forum. This was before I co-founded Counsel Club with half a dozen other people in 1993, and as the group was beginning to move along, I met two other remarkable individuals in Kolkata – Veena Lakhumalani and Dr. Sujit Ghosh.
Veena Lakhumalani was with the health and social development unit of the British Council Division at that time, and Dr. Sujit Ghosh a psychiatrist and sexual health specialist. Committed professionals apart, I’m sure many of the erstwhile Counsel Club’s members will remember them as true friends and guides – for the group and the individuals that made up the group. Both were a key force behind the West Bengal Sexual Health Project (WBSHP) that took off in the mid 1990s, among the first of its kind in India.
It was conferences and workshops organized by the WBSHP that brought me in touch with the indomitable Anjali Gopalan of Naz Foundation (India) Trust, Delhi, who filed the second petition against Section 377 in Delhi High Court in 2001. At a more personal level, I’ll always remember her counsel when I was struggling with a Customs Department notice in 1997 that charged me with ‘corrupting the morals of the nation’ by distributing copies of the well known queer magazine Trikone published from USA.
Eventually, the WBSHP conferences and later developments also helped me meet the crack team of Anand Grover, Vivek Divan, Tripti Tandon, Amritananda Chakravorty and several others who were or are still part of the pioneering Lawyers Collective, Delhi. Further down the line there was Arvind Narrain and his colleagues in Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.
Leave aside lawyers in Hollywood and Bollywood. These extremely knowledgeable and caring (and handsome) legal professionals associated with the battle against Section 377 and other social injustices were among the first who changed my perception of all lawyers as rather intimidating people. Human rights need humane torchbearers like them.
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This occasion also gives me the opportunity to thank some more individuals and to set a certain record straight. This is about who should get the ‘credit’ for the ‘Friendship Walk’ organized in Kolkata in 1999, often considered the first rainbow pride walk in South Asia. Of course, everyone who walked should get the credit. And yes, I was among the organizers and walkers. But the idea was first proposed by queer activists Owais Khan (then based in Bangalore) and Rafiquel Haque Dowjah, my colleague in Counsel Club (adjacent photograph). It was these individuals who motivated the others to put their best foot forward. But this nuance is quite lost in the hurried media interactions and the social media blitz of likes and emoticons.
This brief mention of Rafiquel Haque Dowjah, with whom I worked closely in the 1990s and early 2000s, is entirely inadequate if I have to acknowledge his energy, creativity and dedication to the queer and other causes. He brought in greater awareness about class and privilege in the functioning of Counsel Club, and helped the group grow in numerous ways as a support forum. In the end we fought bitterly and went our separate ways, but then this is also a moment for looking beyond differences and looking ahead.
While the family or home is often the site of extreme violence against queer people, one has to acknowledge the support of many parents who face immense social pressure and stand by their queer children. In this regard Suriya Haque Dowjah, Rafiquel’s mother (adjacent photograph), needs to be thanked for her invaluable support. One small example – she was among the very first parents to have spoken out on TV in support of not just her gay son but queer individuals in general (in an interview in Tara Bangla in 2000). A loving salute to all the mothers and fathers who fought against Section 377 in court and outside!
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In its verdict, the Supreme Court said: “History owes an apology to the members of this community and their families, for the delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries”. I count this as one of the pleasantly surprising bonuses of the judgement. But then it also raises expectations about the ‘enactment’ of this apology. Will the judiciary facilitate further ‘transformative changes’ to prevent discrimination in different socio-economic as well as socio-legal spheres? How about badly needed checks and balances in the way the police continue to behave with queer people?
Also, why should the apologies and transformations be restricted to queer communities? The expansiveness demonstrated by the Supreme Court while reading down Section 377 is needed to address many more injustices, inequalities, oppressions and privileges. A corner of my mind still wonders how people around me would’ve reacted if I were lesbian, bisexual, transgender, someone with a disability far more stigmatized than poor vision, or a combination of any of these or more ‘imperfections’.
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As I sign off, listen to two audio bites from participants at a queer celebratory march ‘Down with Facism, High on Love’ organized in Kolkata on September 16, 2018. In the first recording, social researcher Sarbendra Saha comments on the time lost in Section 377 finally being shown its place, and in the second, advocate Aniruddha Deb Majumdar speaks about the boost that the verdict will give to the demand for larger civil rights equality.
A small note of regret – for various reasons the fourth and concluding part of the ‘Queer Kolkata Oral History Project’ interview with Rudra Kishore Mandal and B. Kumar (Qatha: On the Uses of ‘Sil-batta’ to Make You Straight & More Queer Tales) is being postponed to the November 2018 issue – Editor.
About the main photo: A Remington portable typewriter gifted to the author on his birthday by his father in 1991. This writing tool was complicit in protesting Section 377 before handing over the baton entirely to personal computers by 1997. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall. Other photos courtesy Rafiquel Haque Dowjah