On freedom’s avenue

Gautam Bhan
Posted online: Friday , Jul 03, 2009 at 0427 hrs
The historic judgment reading down Section 377 in the Delhi high court on Thursday chose its words very carefully. It turned for help to an older moment, a moment of origin. Citing the constitutional debates of 1946, it reminded us of another India. An India that was being imagined just as it was coming to freedom. Nehru urged, in those debates, that we see the Constitution in its spirit rather than in any narrow legal wording. On Thursday, Judges Shah and Muralidhar sought to unearth that spirit. “If there is one constitutional tenet,” they argued, “that can be said to be the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of ‘inclusiveness’. This Court believes that the Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations.” A few lines later, they argued further: “Indian constitutional law does not permit criminal law to be held captive by popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is the antitheses of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.”
Court one, item one on the Delhi high court’s cause list. Ten thirty in the morning on the 2nd of July. A high court pass secured by a few dozen activists each of whom was remembering moments from the last decade of fighting Sec 377. It is these simple words and an electronic pass receipt that a movement lasting decades and a legal battle lasting eight years came down to. In the end, it was enough. When the judgment was read, you could feel the emotion in the room. Our tears flowed not just because we had “won”. They came for the judgment that had set us free. This judgment is a judgment about dignity. It is about an India that Nehru imagined — an India that would open its arms and embrace all who lived within it. It is about the words equality, dignity and rights finding roots in the lives of millions of queer Indians who today can feel their feet on the ground of their own country.
This judgment is a return to Ambedkar. The judges reminded us of the Ambedkar who so passionately fought for the constitution of his imagination. In Ambedkar’s India, he wrote fervently that the courts of law of our land must be ruled by a “constitutional morality” and not a public morality. State interest, he argued, cannot be governed by public morality but by the spirit of the Constitution. In the days to come, as morality debates will no doubt flood our media and public spaces, we must keep this other morality equally in mind. A morality that we share as citizens, not just as individuals.
This judgment is about equality. Citing Article 15 of our Constitution, the judges ruled that “sex” as commonly used in non-discrimination statutes must also include “sexual orientation”. Non-discrimination legislation based on gender/ sex now can be read to include sexual orientation. Reading Article 15 into the judgment, the judges have reminded us decriminalising queer people also means simultaneously treating them with equal respect in jobs, in hospitals, in our homes and in our public places.
Yet how do we read this judgment not just as queer people but also as Indians no matter our sexuality, gender, religion, caste, language or region? Movements across this country have and continue to struggle for their rights. Frustrations with the government and the “system” are commonplace. Many have argued that change is not possible in India and even less in the new India, which in its shine has separated from the Bharat that so many inhabit. This judgment is a renewal of faith in the system so many of us — this writer included — find so easy to almost lose faith in. It is a reminder that the Constitution is still alive, and that movements and fights sometimes end in days of victory. All Indians must celebrate that — it is not just queer rights that were protected today, but all the rights of all Indians.
We will remember tomorrow to be more cautious. The queer movement has long said that the fight for the dignity of queer people will not be won just in the courtroom. Our fights are in the spaces where homophobia impacts people’s lives: families, clinics, police stations, offices and the streets of our cities. The law will not change these spaces overnight. Our fights are far from over. This judgment, however, has untied our hands. Our debates now to change public opinion will be played on level playing fields amongst citizens as equals. We have the words of this judgment and the chance to make them come alive outside the courtroom.
The biggest change, however, will be within the hearts and minds of queer people. The process of accepting ourselves, of not being ashamed, of believing in our right to have rights is a long and lonely one. The process of thinking of ourselves as equal citizens takes even longer. This judgment will change what a young queer woman sees when she’s in the mirror. There are no words to explain what that means or how valuable it is.
For the government of India and its ministers, who recently have spoken about Section 377, they should read this judgment closely as they come to their “consensus”. They should ask themselves which of the tenets of this judgment they wish to consider and reconsider. They should remember that Ambedkar and Nehru imagined statesmen and women in their assemblies. The day has come for them to return, along with the rest of us, to that imagined assembly.
Inclusiveness, values, tolerance, constitutional morality, equality. In the older imagination of India, these words would not be just about queer people or homosexuality. Today, these have taken the first step to become Indian words again. The judges have reminded us that these are the ingrained values of Indian culture that so many are trying to “defend”. This judgment should be seen by all of us, gay or straight, no matter what we think of sexuality and homosexuality, as a victory for a secular, democratic, constitutional and free India. We should all be proud. Today, queer people are finally, proudly, happily also just everyday Indians — free, equal, and breathing deeply the air of a day that feels like no other.
Today, queer people are fellow citizens. Today, queer people will finally feel the ground below their feet.
The writer works on urban policy express@expressindia.com

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