Gautam Bhan, an urban planner and professor, is one of the petitioners from the “Voices” petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2004 to overturn Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In this interview, he speaks of how he was drawn into the struggle.
For me, it was when the government of India — it was an NDA government at the time — submitted a reply to the 2001 petition filed by the Naz Foundation. This was the first time the Indian government had formally made a statement on the matter.
If you strip away the legalese they essentially said:
There are no gay people in india, and even if there are, these non-existent gay people are not prosecuted. And finally they said, this is not something Indian society cares about.
We felt that if this assertion by the government wasn’t countered, the government’s assertion will become our truth.
So, we assembled the Voices Coalition of 12 or 13 groups — of which only 3 or 4 were queer rights groups — to say:
We are the people who you say don’t exist. We are the people who care about queer rights, who you say don’t exist.
Our petition was in support of the Naz foundation petition of 2001.
Court and Society
Inside and outside court, our strategy was to make an argument central to dignity and rights.
In 2004, Pushkin Chandra, a gay man who worked for USAID, and his partner Kuldip were brutally murdered in Delhi. This prompted a wave of sensationalist coverage about the so-called “seamy underbelly of gay culture” in India.
Many of us felt we had to take back the story being told about us, and so spoke up. For many of us, this was the first time we were speaking in public as members of the gay community.
We said, “If there is a murder, investigate it and prosecute the guilty. You can’t make this about gay people.”
For me, acvictory in the Section 377 case will come down to being able to tell our stories ourselves and to make the stories about rights and not about sex.
The Law Catches Up
In the mid 2000s, the legal route seemed like the only route possible – there were a handful of people who spoke publicly with their full names. This was not a place where you could imagine public mobilization.
The law seemed like a way to get our foot in the door.
The period from 2009 to 2013, when the law was read down, was a period of massive expansion for us. An entire generation of young people came out with a very different notion of their sexuality.
Ironically, the law must now catch up with society. To me, sometimes, it feels like we have won already.
Fifteen years ago, we were trying to open a window. Today, we have a chance to say, you have to respect me from the beginning of our conversation.
The starting assumption of our lives will be equal dignity, and that is what the law can give you.
The law cannot solve the question of prejudice in all of these spaces. But law can untie your hands to fight for these things with the semblance of an equal fight.
As told to Aman Sethi