SC ruling on Section 377 has removed legal barriers, now emotional ones must be tackled: Devdutt Pattanaik
We are not a conventional, fundamentalist state that frowns on pleasure and private acts of intimacy, says Devdutt Pattanaik
As the Supreme Court of India has scrapped portions of Section 377, effectively decriminalising gay sex in India, there’s a tremendous sense of relief that this has finally happened. It was an eventuality but we wondered when this would come to pass, and also there was a sense that this was the last frontier — if we fail here, it will never perhaps occur in our lifetime. So yes, it’s a great relief that it has.
In 2009, when the Delhi High Court had ruled to abolish Section 377, editors asked me to write articles about it. I wrote one that became quite popular — On Krishna’s Chariot Stands Shikhandi — which talks about how in the Mahabharata, a female to male trans-sexual plays a critical role in the victory of the Pandavas over Kauravas. In other words, queer sexuality was a very important part of the dharma war. My aim in writing this article was to draw attention to how queer sexuality is very much a part of Indian traditions.
Then in 2013, on my birthday, I heard this horrible judgment which overturned the Delhi ruling. I remember breaking down… I couldn’t believe India could take such a regressive step and that we were going back to colonial times and ideas — that this primitive, outdated law was being upheld.
Five years later, on my sister’s birthday, I happened to be in Delhi when I heard of the Supreme Court’s ruling. I went to the SC along with the petitioners and lawyers, and the joy in the room had to be witnessed, as the judges unanimously threw out this archaic law and read it down to its bare minimum.
So many people worked towards making this judgment happen. For my part, it was important to make the general public aware that homosexuality, bisexuality, transexuality are very much a part of Indian traditions. Therefore, I started writing extensively (about these subjects) — not so much for advocacy as for awareness. I wrote books like Shikhandi, retold queer stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, stories of Yuvanashva, Bhangashwana, of men who became women and women who became men, of kings who became pregnant, of gods who took on female forms, stories of men who fell in love with men, women who fell in love with women.
I also introduced a book called I Am Divine, So Are You by Jerry Johnson, which comprised essays explaining how religion — especially Karmic religions, religions that believe in rebirth such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism — can act as an ally rather than as an adversary (of queer individuals). We made these books available thanks to the publishing houses that enabled this, and they were received very well — revealing how mature Indians are.
We were not a conventional, fundamentalist state that frowns on pleasure and private acts of intimacy and I think some of (my) books along with those of Ruth Vanita were also presented to the SC judges. So I think this, perhaps in small measure made people aware that (queer sexuality and identity) is very much part of our culture and in some small way I hope that it contributed and helped in this judgment today.
The legal barriers have now been removed but the emotional barriers are still to be tackled — and this can only be done at the private level within families where we allow our children, our nephews, nieces, siblings, parents to tell us stories about unconventional sex lives, unconventional emotional lives, about queer feelings, thoughts and experiences. It’s only when we talk to each other and reveal the truth to each other that life will become better and I think that’s the journey ahead. The journey of acceptance, of sensitisation, of accommodation, of dealing with people who are different from us. And each one is on a spiritual journey… as we make ourselves worthy of listening to other peoples’ truth without flinching, making ourselves vessels of love. I think that’s a journey that is private and personal. The law just has made it possible to talk about it openly and this is just the first step. So many things will happen now.
As a queer Indian, I always got my strength from Hindu scriptures and I always felt comfortable with my sexuality. I would always wonder why other people had a problem with my sexuality and I realised that perhaps they have not read the Vedas and the Puranas as I have. Therefore, it has been my life’s mission to help people understand the brilliance of the Vedas, Puranas and the Ramayana, Mahabharata which tells us to live fulfilled lives, accommodating different types of sexualitites around us.
At a personal level, I never really sought legal approval. I was just careful as people can misuse or abuse the law, and one has to respect the law of the land. It was very difficult to respect a law that was completely against who you are. I am so glad that this law has gone away and I don’t have to pretend or be wary of someone who can use it to make my life miserable. Other than that, I think my life has always been wonderful.
Our country and people surprise us and in a way we had outgrown this law long, long ago… However, its presence was a reminder of the colonised mindset… of having been a British colony. I am so glad we have finally declared our independence day for the LGBTQ community that includes me. I am part of an informal group called Gay Bombay and we have always provided safe spaces for young gay men where they can talk about their sexuality and come to terms with it and not submit to parental pressure or be part of horrific forced marriages which destroy not only one but two lives forever. So we have tried to help some people… some unfortunately succumb to the pressure of marriage and that is a horrible thing. Now, hopefully, it will become much easier. We may hopefully not need safe spaces but have open spaces where people can talk about sexuality in more open terms. I am really looking forward to a new India.
— As told to FP Staff
Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro at ₹499 for the first year. Use code PRO499. Limited period offer. *T&C apply
Ava DuVernay fills an important formative gap in California’s hip-hop history through Netflix documentary This Is The Life
Ava DuVernay's This Is the Life is a refreshing portrait of a 1990s California hip-hop subculture that thrived separately from gangsta rap
Films like Kajol's Tribhanga, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare chart an interesting evolution of the Bollywood 'naari'
Films like Tribhanga and Shakuntala Devi have shown mothers, and women overall, as full and complex human beings — not melodramatic side characters, but outspoken, independent leads who are in charge of their own fates
With The Girl on The Train, and recent series such as The Queen's Gambit and Sharp Objects, creators have refused to define their heroines by their vices or flaws.