India voted with the US, Saudi Arabia, China and a handful of nations to counter a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Friday to abolish death penalty, which continues to be enforced by at least six countries for consensual same-sex relations, adultery, blasphemy and apostasy.
The motion was passed nonetheless, with 27 members voting in favour, 13 against, and 7 nations abstaining from the election. The US and India, which are active participants in the war against terror, didn't seem to note the irony in their support for death penalty for LGBTQ people — a move endorsed by their arch-enemy the ISIS in the parts it controls in Syria and Iraq.
India's attitude to the issue, an unnamed lawyer told The Telegraph, didn't necessarily reflect its stand on sexual minorities: the government's refusal to commit itself to opposing the death penalty probably shows its intention of not wanting to meddle in the sovereignty of other nations. Propped by a pernicious logic of diplomacy, such a line of reasoning goes against the first principles of human rights, embraced by so-called civilised nations.
The debate at the UNHRC was structured around the discriminatory application of the death penalty — on members of minority communities, including LGBTQ people, women and minors. As Pink News reported, it called for the abolition of the death penalty "as a sanction for specific forms of conduct, such as apostasy, blasphemy, adultery and consensual same-sex relations", while opposing its use on minors, the mentally-ill and pregnant women. Be that as it may, India's stance should hardly surprise anyone.
India-watchers are already aware of the country's growing fondness for the death penalty. An Amnesty International report recently showed a jump of 81% in the awarding of capital punishment this year, as compared to the last. India gave as many as 136 death sentences in 2016 as compared to 75 in 2015.
It's true that a majority of these rulings will languish for years, awaiting parole. Many of the sentenced may even be dead of natural causes by the time a final call on the judgment is passed. But none of that changes the essential fact that India's judiciary prefers to send dozens of convicted criminals to the gallows, or that such verdicts appease the public's appetite for wild justice. Indians make no bones of the fact that they are often driven by a primal bloodlust by marching on the streets holding placards, asking for the most barbaric form of punishments. Unsurprisingly, at their extreme, such demands assume the form of mob lynching.
In 2013, India's Supreme Court reversed a progressive ruling passed by the Delhi High Court in 2009, to re-instate the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a relic from the colonial rule books, which stipulates punitive measures against anyone engaging in unnatural sex. As sex against the order of nature is a nebulous and could include a range of activities, the law may penalise anyone having sex that doesn't lead to procreation.
The fight to read down this biblical injunction, foisted on India by Britain, which, ironically, now recognises LGBTQ rights, is prolonged and persists till date. Successive governments at the Centre have lacked moral conviction to remove this blight from the world's largest democracy. Shashi Tharoor, currently a member of Parliament from the opposition Congress Party, has tried introducing a private members' bill to root out the anti-LGBTQ legislation. His proposal was shot down by irate colleagues. It's a pity though that the MP didn't raise the issue in the House when his party was in power, rather than functioning as a pitiful excuse for an opposition as it is now.
In spite of its anti-LGBTQ law, the Indian State hasn't really carried out an organised crackdown on sexual minorities in the way, say, the Egyptian government is doing over the past few days, with 57 people being held for "debauchery" and "inciting sexual deviancy". It's hard to prosecute LGBTQ people using Section 377 and harder still to convict them using any evidence. Yet, the undercurrent of fear and intimidation among queer people in India is omnipresent and very real.
It's hard enough to struggle against a society, where the majority mindset condemns sexual difference. If such contempt is then encouraged by the law, the challenge to exist with dignity and demand equal rights with any other individual amplifies manifold. A report, released earlier this year, revealed a horrific truth of beatings, rape, intimidation and sundry other horrors being visited members of the LGBTQ community — with the police leading the list of abusers. While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is opposed to same-sex relations, it is in favour of granting civil rights to transgender people. Its dithering arises from internalised prejudices, especially those planted by the firebrand ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and a fear of alienating its vote-bank, both among the Hindu and Muslim hardliners.
With such a scenario prevailing over the legal, political and social landscape of the country, it's not hard to see why a majority of the youth oppose homosexuality. Even those, who, on principle, support equal rights for all citizens, and want to be allies of the LGBTQ community, without being sexual minority themselves, are deterred by the discourse of disapproval that infects the mind of the nation as a whole. Yes, India now has a right to privacy, which may be used to safeguard the rights of sexual minorities in future. But until a more fundamental shift happens to the national hunger for violent retribution — against anyone at fault or refusing to subscribe to the mainstream — it would be disingenuous to feign surprise at India's stance at the UNHRC.
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