16/08/2016 5:44 PM IST | Updated 16/08/2016 9:00 PM IST

PM Modi Left Two Key Issues Unaddressed On Independence Day

And it says something about our priorities as a nation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, India, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, India, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Whatever you may have thought of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech at the Red Fort yesterday--assuming you did listen to all or part of it, if at all--the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has already decided it was "historic". A mailer this morning from the PMO said so, and indeed, it was historic, though less for what the PM decided to say than what he left out.

Modi is not known to lack oratorical skills, nor is he shy about making tall promises--both of which were on full swing at his third address to the nation as PM on Independence Day. He ran through a long catalogue of reforms and achievements his government has brought in, the most recent being the goods and services tax, if it is ever successfully implemented across the country.

He harped on social justice being the edifice of "a strong society". He laid out a vision for a pan-Indian family of all creatures great and small, to be realised under his rule. "Whether they be Dalits, the downtrodden, the exploited, the deprived, my Adivasi brothers, the rural population, the urban population, the literate or the illiterate, the small or the big--the 125 crore of our fellow countrymen constitute our family," Modi said.

The people who don't fit into this family at all, who cannot be the beneficiary of even the most insincere form of tokenism, are the sexual minorities: gay, lesbian, bisexual, all those who identify as queer, people. Transgenders, thanks to recent reforms in the law, are now recognised as bona fide citizens of the country with some rights and dignity guaranteed to them, though only on paper and those too are imagined incompletely.

But what about the rest of those who appear under the umbrella term "queer"?

In 2013, the Supreme Court reversed an existing Delhi High Court ruling and reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), an archaic law from the colonial era, over 150 years old, which condemns sexual intercourse against the "order of nature". It effectively turns queer people not only into lesser citizens with no right to love and have consensual sexual relations freely but also into criminals.

Modi's government, like its predecessors, has done nothing to undo this state of affairs. An attempt to introduce a private bill in the Lok Sabha by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor last year to decriminalise gay sex in India was defeated by a huge margin. The inequality has not only continued but seems to be on its way to becoming institutionalised.

While the PM waxes eloquent on the reduction of prices of LED lights, holding it up as an example of India's galloping progress, a section of the population continues to live in fear of the coercive arms of law and society, as illegitimate people, simply because they choose to love differently from others. Even in the 21st century, where LED bulbs now cost as little as Rs 50 in contrast to Rs 350 because of the government's benevolence, India has a situation where men, women and those who identify as neither or in-between these two genders, are subjected to shame, harassment and stigma from society and its custodians for being who they are.

The other colonial legacy India hasn't been able rid itself of, and is currently being tyrannised by, relates to the law against "sedition", as enshrined in Section 124A of the IPC. It is invoked to this day and was, in fact, used just yesterday against Amnesty International India for organising a panel discussion where, allegedly, "pro-freedom" slogans were raised in favour of Kashmir. Amnesty International India has denied this allegation, but that is hardly the point.

In February this year, three students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were arrested for raising slogans that were also deemed anti-national. It proved to be a historic moment in India's political life, ushering in a spate of protests from across the country, opening up a debate on freedom of choice and expression, and involving civil society in a scale that turned the issue from being one of student politics to that of national importance, affecting the lives of all Indian citizens. The law, already vulnerable to misuse and misinterpretation, became an excuse to muzzle dissent.

As Amnesty International India's statement put it, as a matter of policy "it does not take any position in favour of or against demands for self-determination" in Kashmir. However, it went on to say, "Amnesty International India considers that the right to freedom of expression under international human rights law includes the right to peacefully advocate political solutions, as long as it does not involve incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence."

Seventy years have passed since India rid itself of its colonial masters, but the colonial laws which shackle its citizens are yet to fall off.

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