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 •  Vol #2, Issue #4, Combat Law
 •  Human Rights
 •  Printer friendly version Redefining oppressions, articulating rights
Shalini Mahajan on marginalised sexualities and genders in India.
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Combat Law, Volume 2, Issue 4 - In recent years, the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and hijra peoples and communities in India have effectively and consistently raised their concerns in larger social, legal and political contexts. There is a vibrant and political movement fighting for the rights of these communities and peoples. The issues raised by the groups are multiple: creating public visibility for the identities and issues, building community and safe spaces for people to be able to reach out to each other, providing support networks, fighting for legal recognition and rights, providing safe health care services, articulating and questioning the politics that makes all sexuality other than hetero-normative suspect, building alliances nationally and well as internationally with other movements, connecting the politics of gender and sexuality with other politics, and working with multiple strategies towards a society where all genders and sexualities would be respected and treated equally.

The structures and organising strategies of the various groups that exist today are several and often separate. Many groups are funded and provide services such as information and counselling on sexual health and HIV prevention, general counselling, legal aid, helplines, etc. to specific sections such as gay men, hijras, kothis, men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers and so on. These groups are scattered all over the country, from small towns to the metros and provide much needed infrastructural support for people who are otherwise marginalised by the medical and other state institutions. A handful of groups work autonomously and are non funded collectives. Many groups have also worked consistently on documentation and today there are quite a few reports and magazines.

Within these groups, while many claim to work for all marginalised genders and sexualities, specific and much needed work on the minorities within these groups, such as lesbian and bisexual women and transgender persons, is limited. Most of the organising and articulation of issues of women has come from within lesbian and bisexual women's groups. In terms of service provision, these groups have provided helplines and safe spaces for women to meet each other. Most of these groups have been working in urban centres and are often in alliance with women's groups and feminist organisations on many issues. Some groups of transgendered persons and hijras have also begun articulating their concerns in the last few years.

The movement for the rights of peoples of marginalised genders and sexualities is not monolithic and there are many voices and articulations, often in conflict and dialogue with each other and other movements. Some groups are trying to evolve a queer politics in alliance with various other peoples struggles and movements. One such instance was the coming together of almost fifteen LGBT groups from different parts of the country in January 2002, to begin the process of forming a political understanding on all issues and to reaffirm that they would not work with organisations supporting right wing religious fundamentalism in any form. Some of these same groups were actively part of the work done by citizen's and other groups for justice and peace after the carnage in Gujarat the same year.

The support of the progressive movements to these groups has, however, not been unequivocal. Sexuality is generally considered an 'unimportant' and secondary issue. It is also seen as an issue of only a handful of people who are labelled pervert, abnormal, western, un-Indian by the mainstream within the political movements as well as in society. The importance of issues of sexuality in shaping of all social relations and hence all aspects of human interaction has not been recognised by most movements.

The state is not an arbiter of what 'Indianness or Indian society' can be or should be. By citing disapproval by society as a valid reason for the criminalisation of homosexuals, the state is doing several things simultaneously. It is restrictively defining Indian, making all those who do not fit the definition, criminal, and further justifying the multiple ways in which the very basic rights of a section of its own citizens are violated. It is only in the past few years that a few groups within the women's movements and the human rights movement, have begun to contribute to the articulations of LGBT groups. When the workers of Bharosa Trust in Lucknow, an NGO working on sexual health, were locked up by the police under section 377 amongst others in July 2001, many voluntary autonomous groups, funded NGOs, women's groups, lawyers and human rights groups and civil society groups joined in the countrywide protests against the state. LGBT groups, women's groups, child rights groups and human rights groups, also came together in response to the changes in the rape laws that were recommended by the 172nd report of the Law Commission of India. All the groups sat together through intensive consultations to formulate and propose sexual assault laws that would be sensitive to each of the sectors and oppose those that would further endanger the rights of any group.

In complete contrast to these vibrant discussions is the Indian State, which, on September 9, 2003, responded to the petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001 by saying that Indian society was intolerant and did not approve of homosexuality. Further quoting the 42nd report of the Law Commission it claimed that Society's disapproval was 'strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offence'. This was an official statement from the Union government in response to a petition demanding a very basic right - that private consensual sexual acts between adults be decriminalized.

The irony of the situation begs articulation and demands serious action from all those who work towards a more egalitarian and a just world. The government of a country which has been the most celebrated for its democracy, feels justified in treating a large number of its citizens as criminal, based on the alleged 'disapproval' of the 'Indian society'. The democratic state is the upholder of the fundamental rights of all its citizens and not just those belonging to a majority, howsoever it may be defined - in terms of religion, caste, community, sex and also sexuality.

The state is also not an arbiter of what 'Indianness or Indian society' can be or should be. By citing disapproval by society as a valid reason for the criminalisation of homosexuals, the state is doing several things simultaneously. It is restrictively defining Indian, making all those who do not fit the definition, criminal, and further justifying the multiple ways in which the very basic rights of a large section of its own citizens are violated. This is not the first time in the recent past that we have had to see this version of the Indian democratic State.

We have seen it in the past and as groups and individuals believing in the human rights of all people, we have stood up against the State and demanded accountability. This is yet another time when we need to do it together. It is also important that we not only talk of the lives of LGBT people in the rights context vis--vis the State alone, but also work towards changing the ways in which society at large looks at issues of gender and sexuality. And for this we need to begin with expanding our mindscapes to include the multiple colours of plurality all around us, to recognise, respect, and reaffirm the diverse ways in which gender and sexuality are lived. We also need to see the intersections of oppressions and the importance of sharing struggles as well as strategies.

Shalini Mahajan
Combat Law, Volume 2, Issue 4
October-November 2003

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