Being a criminal in my own country: Vikram Seth on Sec 377
On Tuesday two judges of the Supreme Court will consider the review petition filed about their ruling on Section 377. With time running out, Vikram Seth takes to the stage once again to speak up against a judgment he finds ethically hollow and intellectually shallow.
“The law is the foreign law. It’s homophobia that came into India (from outside), not homosexuality.”
Vikram Seth donned the role of outspoken activist, this time clean-shaven unlike his India Today cover avatar, at the Kolkata Literary Meet on Sunday to protest the Supreme Court judgement on Section 377.
Actually it was a double mother-and-son whammy. The Times of India carried a column that same day written by his mother, Leila Seth protesting the same ruling both as a mother and as a former chief justice.
“We know that (my children) are hard-working and affectionate people, who are trying to do some good in the world,” writes Leila Seth. “But our eldest, Vikram, is now a criminal, an unapprehended felon. This is because like many millions of other Indians, he is gay.”
On Tuesday January 28th two judges of the Supreme Court will consider the review petition filed by the Government of India against the judgement. One of the two judges who will consider the review petition wrote the original judgement that recriminalized “sex against the order of nature.” They will meet in camera and go over the review petition and decide what to do.
“So the happiness of millions of Indians will be decided in a matter of half an hour by two judges,” says Vikram. He says he considers it "a dereliction of duty they did not go before a full bench."
The other solution is a parliamentary one and that is even a longer shot, especially in an election year. After some studied silence on the issue the BJP has decided to support Section 377. Rajnath Singh has made that clear though Narendra Modi has maintained radio silence about it.
“Modi has tweeted about everything else in the world,” says Vikram. “ But here he’s very clear he wants to be the modernist. He’s hiding behind the pallu of these other people.”
Vikram has certainly not been hiding. He is an unlikely activist because he has guarded his privacy quite fiercely. He’s never shown any inclination until now to become a role model for anyone. He’s gently but firmly re-directed interviews that seemed to veer too far away from his writing and too much into his personal life. That’s why his unshaven post-377 mugshot on the cover of India Today made such a media splash, mostly supportive, even, he says, from people from his parents' generation.
It has also garnered him some criticism. The government is hardly likely to swoop down and arrest a writer who was just anointed among the 25 greatest global living Indians the other day by the President of India. Some found the cover too sensational, a writer of great privilege, “acting” criminal for the camera.
“The last thing I want to be is the poster boy for anything. But you have to get the attention of the people,” he responds. The portrait of the writer as the faux-felon was, simply put, meant to be arresting.
“My first reaction when I saw the takes was no one will ever sleep with me again,” he jokes. Asked if he finds it ironic that he had to give up some of his privacy in order to fight for the right to privacy, he says that's "one irony too far" and that he has not had to give up his adulthood.
The other issue is one of priorities. In a country bristling with injustices was Section 377 really such a burning issue? “Our republic has a lot of other problems,” admits Vikram. “But to borrow an American saying, we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
He knows that as a writer who has shunned the soapbox he has not been the God of Other Small/Big/Medium Causes. “One has a short life and one cannot protest everything,” says Vikram. “One has to husband one’s energies where one thinks one can do best. If you just become the standard marcher of a hundred protests, to some extent you are diluting the efficacy of what you can do.”
He says he decided to speak up because the judgment was “not just ethically hollow but intellectually shallow” marred by “poor and shoddy argumentation.” He says later that the Government of India review petition is astounding in the way it seems to "excoriate the intellectual, ethical and constitutional basis of the judgement." Leila Seth wonders how the judges can dismiss the fundamental rights of LGBT Indians because in their opinion it only affects “a miniscule fraction.”
“It would be like saying that the Parsi community could be legitimately imprisoned or deported at Parliament’s will because they number only a few tens of thousands.”
Yet ultimately it’s unclear whether Vikram’s very public stand will penetrate the private chambers of the Supreme Court where the judges will meet in camera. Vikram admits that a review petition is a “long shot” and a curative petition is an even longer shot. Judges rarely like to admit they have made a mistake.
His mother Leila seems to be telling her judicial colleagues exactly that fairly bluntly in her op-ed. As a former judge addressing sitting judges that’s quite an astounding smackdown, couched though it is in genteel prose.
“I began by saying that Premo and I had brought up our children to believe in certain values. I did not mention some others which we have sought to inculcate in them: to open their hearts and minds; to admit their errors frankly, however hard this may be; to abjure cruelty; and to repair in a willing spirit any unjust damage they have done to others.”
On Tuesday, the two judges of the Supreme Court will have to show far more courage than Vikram did by speaking up or Leila Seth did by writing her op-ed. They will have to decide if they want to just be judges, infallible and august, or ensure justice even if it means overruling themselves.
However one thing is clear. Whatever the court decides to do or not to do, there’s no closet big enough for millions of Indians who are already out.
“I am not happy to be a criminal in my own country,” says Vikram. “But I certainly plan to continue being a criminal in my own country if it should come to that.”
In March 2002, he was conferred the Padma Vibhushan award for his defense of freedom of speech and the protection of human rights
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