You don’t always have to commit a crime to be treated as a criminal in India; sometimes just being yourself will suffice. When two cops saw me all alone in Nehru Park, it was past closing time. The park is a well-known cruising point among gay men in Delhi, which I didn’t know at the time as I was new to the city. After they caught me, they briskly pulled out my wallet to check my ID and found a condom. Their first question was, “Are you gay”? “Yes,” I replied. To which the cop threw the wallet at me and said, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself”.
Thanks to Section 377 of Indian Penal Code, I’m supposed to be ashamed of myself. I pay for a legacy of colonial rule, kept alive by Indian Supreme Court.
When I tried to resist their aggression, but both cops turned violent. And when I refused to budge, one of the cops snatched my phone and threatened me saying, “Let me call a few of your contacts and tell them what you are up to here.” I knew they had no right to do that. But I also knew they were playing on a gay man’s fear of being found out.
If you are a closeted gay man (and most Indian gay men are), calling someone like your boss, your landlord, your mother, or a business associate can shatter your life. In such scenarios, you lose your job, get kicked out of your rented house, lose your family, or lose your social status. And you can’t seek protection from the police or the law because in their eyes you are a criminal by default.
“You can’t call my contacts!” I shouted at the police hoping assertiveness might stop them. “Why not? Homosexuality is a crime, don’t you know.” said one. “But I didn’t do anything,” I said almost defeated. “Well, say that in the police station,” they replied, dragging me to their jeep. I tried to negotiate but they wouldn’t listen. Soon we reached the main entrance of the park, where the police jeep was parked. An ice cream vendor approached us. “Another one caught?” he asked the cops, staring me down. “We are just getting started with this one. We caught one at Nizamuddin the other day and set him straight.” said the cop with pride. I felt disgusted by them.
Where the governments are against homosexuality, research shows that the law enforcement agents become complicit by turning a blind eye, failing to prosecute individuals who commit violent acts against homosexuals, and seemingly allowing others to use violence as a tactic to stop homosexuality. In India, Section 377 gives homophobia a state-sanctioned seal of approval. So while people who perpetuate violence brag about it, victims of violence, instead of feeling protected, cower in fear in front of the very people whose duty it is to protect them.
Instead of tackling rapes on Delhi streets, these police men were all bothered about imagined consensual intimacy between two men. Seeing no point in fighting with them, I did what most Indians do in such situations – offered them money. They took all I had, leaving some change for me to get home. On the way home I felt deeply humiliated. There’s a reason why gay men meet in dark parks, why they don’t access health services needed by them, and why they don’t, and can’t, stand up for their rights – because they have none. Would things be different if we decriminalized homosexuality?
I think it would. When the Delhi High Court struck down Section 377, a study on LGBT community in Delhi found that decriminalization “clearly shows that the Delhi High Court judgment has positively impacted the LGBT community and has improved the quality of life of sexual minorities…Police harassment has definitely reduced after the judgment.” This is echoed by many public health and human rights activists around the world.
WHO and UNAIDS have repeatedly emphasized that criminalization of homosexuality has a dire effect on HIV prevention because homosexuals do not access health system, afraid of being treated like criminals. Similarly, a recent study in the Lancet found that “homophobia marginalises people and makes them less able to adopt preventive techniques, even if they are available.”
Although the Delhi High court ruled against Section 377, unfortunately the Supreme Court overturned the decision. I’m a criminal all over again. It reopened all the wounds. You might not know it but maybe your close friend, your cousin, your colleague, your brother, your neighbour, even the person sitting next to you might have faced humiliation and violence in their life, all because they were just being themselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. Wasn’t it Mahatma Gandhi who said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”?
The author of this post is Ravi Kanth, a development consultant, based in New Delhi.
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