MPs Greet Plea To Amend Section 377 With Jeers, Jokes: Ignorance Or Indifference?

19/12/2015 1:12 PM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 7:06 PM IST
Indian gay rights activists hold placards during a protest against a Supreme Court verdict that upheld section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality in Kolkata, India, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that only lawmakers could change a colonial-era law that bans same-sex relations and makes them punishable by up to a decade in prison. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

The love that dares not speak its name lived up to its name in Parliament.

Gay rights remain a no-no chhi-chhi area for Indian parliamentarians in general. Amending Section 377 is not even a question of rights – like marriage or adoption or non-discrimination in workplace. It is just about decriminalizing sex between consenting adults. But even that was too much for our honourable MPs to discuss. The plea by Shashi Tharoor went down 71-24 with MPs shouting “NO, NO”.

Shashi Tharoor’s private member bill to amend Section 377 was a gallant act but never had much hope of success. Private member bills rarely pass. The last one passed some 36 years ago. But the hope was it would lead to debate and opinions that were otherwise heard in the rarefied environs of a lit fest would be aired in parliament. And those who opposed the bill would have to articulate their opposition with some semblance of logic. It would have been an opportunity to see who was arrayed on which side of the issue.

Instead the bill did not even get past the starting block. It was voted out at the introduction stage instead, more shamefully drowned out by jeers, giggles and even sexual innuendos. The issue does not just make our politicians embarrassed and uncomfortable. It turns them into sniggering teenaged bullies.

It was voted out at the introduction stage instead, more shamefully drowned out by jeers, giggles and even sexual innuendos.

Harjyot Khosa of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance who was in the gallery at the time tells The Telegraph “I cannot recognize the faces of the MPs, but they said “Tharoor ko zyada zaroorat hai is bill ki”. Tharoor said he did not personally hear the jeering “but they were prepared to oppose the bill”.

Later Tharoor tweeted it was “surprising to see such intolerance”. BJP’s Nishikant Dubey said he was opposing the bill not because of “any religion, Vedas or Puranas but because of the Supreme Court judgement”. Thus Dubey tried to pass the buck to the court. Except the Supreme Court judgement explicitly passed the ball to Parliament which is why Tharoor moved his bill. Thus gay rights has become a passing-the-parcel game between the judiciary and the executive leaving gay Indians stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But while the jeering shouting MPs are being dubbed the face of “intolerance” by Tharoor, the Congress hardly covered itself in glory. It did not even try to corner the BJP on it. The Times of India reports that though Congress MPs Sushmita Dev and Rajiv Satav supported the bills, “some other party MPs were seen hastily leaving the chamber just ahead of the vote”.

Despite Sonia Gandhi’s disappointment with the Supreme Court verdict which reinstated Section 377, when push came to shove, the Congress decided discretion was the better part of valour. After all the Congress leadership has other things on its mind these days during the Christmas season. Hark the National Herald sings.

Politicians feel no qualms about booing and jeering even at the mention of Section 377. They do that because they know they can get away with it.

In the end, when it comes to gay rights, the issue remains confined still to newspapers op-eds, English talk show sound bites and literature festivals. What’s most disappointing and telling is politicians feel no qualms about booing and jeering even at the mention of Section 377. They do that because they know they can get away with it in a way they could not for any other minority group. It’s disappointing but not entirely unexpected. Why should parliamentarians be above locker-room jibes? How many of those who booed and jeered actually know a gay or lesbian person in real life? The Supreme Court judges who reinstated Section 377 certainly did not. After all they called gay and lesbian Indians a “minuscule minority”. Until that changes, and that only happens through visibility, it’s unlikely these political attitudes will thaw either.

Tharoor at least put his bill where his mouth is when it came to LGBT rights. Others in his party voted with their feet and many in the ruling party made an open display of their disdain, another instance of a majority bulldozing over the demands of a minority without even giving it a fair hearing.

The likes of Nishikant Dubey hid their own prejudice behind the law as if that rendered parliamentarians helpless with hands tied. Yet the same government also went to court to oppose the release of the juvenile convicted in the December 16 gang-rape even though he had completed his time in detention as prescribed by the law. The government brought up legitimate concerns about whether the juvenile was fit and reformed enough to return to society. The BJP’s Subramanian Swamy pleaded that he had “become radicalized” during his stay to the special home because of time spent with another minor convicted in the Delhi High Court blast of 2011. But the court brushed their concerns aside saying the law directed that the maximum stay in a juvenile home be three years and fair or unfair as it might seem, this person had completed his three years and there “cannot be any direction to continue his stay.”

The court in both cases basically said it could do nothing about the issue because the law, it felt, was clear. It could only interpret the law and make sure it was followed. It is the failings and lacunae in law that lead to bills like the Anti-Rape bill being formulated and passed. It is this juvenile’s crimes that led to calls for re-examining the Juvenile Justice Act and a revamped act was passed in May 2015.

Instead of hiding behind the law and the court, the likes of Dubey would do well to remember they are called lawmakers for a reason. Their failure yesterday was not just that they failed to stand up against discrimination against their fellow Indians but that they booed and jeered to hide their own discomfort.

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