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, which was 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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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 Suraiya Haque Dowjah, Rafiquel’s mother (photograph above), 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’.
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