How they dare hate this minority

By Pulapre Balakrishnan


In the public discourse on democracy in India some respect is usually accorded to religious minorities, which is as it should be. It is altogether a different matter that in practice minorities have often been subject to majoritarian intolerance. This has ranged from questioning their loyalty to facing physical violence. Instances have included attacks on churches and the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq Saifi, respectively. Though these acts are condemnable, the response of the ruling party has been muted even as it has been delayed. On the other hand, most of India’s opposition political parties have condemned them. But it is the acts of independent intellectuals that is most noteworthy because it is free of the suggestion of vote-bank politics that political parties without exception indulge in. Thus artists and scientists have publicly protested the intolerance, and in the process restored some credibility to Indian democracy. Whether this protest has made members of the religious minorities feel more secure cannot asserted but it is nevertheless important for Indian democracy that at least some Indians have spoken-up for their numerically overwhelmed compatriots.

          Attacks on India’s religious minorities by Hindus are a recognised and recognisable form of majoritarianism that needs to be combatted. However, as we mature as a democracy, we must re-assess some of the assumptions in the public discourse on tolerance. Is marginalisation solely a function of numbers and does religious domination exhaust all possible forms of majoritarianism? Some reflection on our history will confirm ‘no’ as the answer to this question. For instance, that Kerala has more women than men has not been translated into gender equality in its governance. As for the second question, the subjugation of India’s non-heterosexual population suggests that we would be myopic in confining majoritarianism to the domain of religion.

          A rejection of the assumption that  religious majoritarianism constitutes the sole form of majoritarian intolerance in India came on February 2 when the Supreme Court heard curative petitions against its ruling on Koushal versus Naz Foundation in December 2013. Recall that in that ruling the Court had held that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises intercourse considered “against the order of nature”, did not suffer from any "constitutional infirmity”. This effectively re-criminalised even consensual sex acts between adults. It is known that the Section mostly, though not exclusively, affects men who have sex with men, robbing them of their inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Court of the Chief Justice of India referred the curative petitions to a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, signalling that the right to equality was at stake. This by itself is a victory for Indian democracy as the court in its high-mindedness had refused to reduce the matter one of mere sex acts. However, as reported in the media a dissenting note was raised on the occasion. In response to the Chief Justice’s query as to whether any party present objected to the admission of the curative petitions, objections were raised on behalf of two parties both of which are in the nature of religious bodies, though not quite comparable. These have been publicly named as the “Kerala-based Apostolic Churches Alliance (ACA) and the Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB)”.

          There is a self-contradiction involved in religious bodies objecting to the admission of a curative petition against Section 377. Religious organisations function freely because the Indian constitution protects the citizen’s right to both freedom of expression and free speech. Among these is the right to not only adopt the faith of one’s choice but also to propagate it.   By denying sexual choice to the LGBT community the ACA and MPLB undermine the source of their own freedoms, the Indian Constitution. Of course, it is not for the first time that we have witnessed the expression of intolerance by purohits, mullahs and padres. Usually they suppress women. This time they have united in their fear of sexual freedom and hatred of the other that dares to pursue it. The more important question is how it is that we have come to tolerate such intolerance.

          How is it that a religious objection to freeing India’s LGBT community can pass muster in a democracy? The origins of this inconsistency lies in the colonialist’s construction of India. The European colonialist unmistakably saw himself – women, to their credit, were mostly absent from the scene- as Christian and approached India in crudely religious terms. Ignoring India’s Christian population, one older than that in Europe, the coloniser constructed an India defined by ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ irreconcilably placed. This overarching and exclusive binary has persisted, leaving as its residue the presumption of majoritarianism being confined to the religious sphere. The binary had served the imperial interest of holding India whatever the cost to its people. Subsequently, the Indian modernists bought into this idea of India as a museum of religions, blinding themselves to gender and sexuality as possible identities. The colonialist finally left but the modernist’s sentimentality continues to harm Indian democracy.

           Individuals fashion their identity from more than one source. This simple truth has been brilliantly captured in Amartya Sen’s assertion that we all have ‘plural affiliations’. Thus Indians may subscribe to different faiths and speak different languages but share a workplace and together admire Dilip Kumar and Vijayanthimala. Further, in an instance of some relevance to recent events, these very persons may actually share lifestyle choices as in their preferred food. Equally, members of the LGBT community themselves come from different parts of India, subscribe to different faiths or to no faith at all, do not all eat the same food and perhaps most importantly come from different income classes. This should be sufficient to appreciate that the overarching ‘Hindu-Muslim’ binary is an unconvincing classification of Indians. In the context, when the ACA and MPLB object to the rights of the LGBT community they are squarely in the camp of the sexual majority. Their status as self-appointed representatives of religious minorities cannot absolve them of majoritarianism.  The interesting question is how the ACA and the MPLB have been emboldened to query the extension of freedoms to India’s LGBT community.    

          Rule by religious organisations is the outcome of a certain definition and practice of secularism in India. In a strange exoticisation we appear to have conjured-up the idea of an ‘Indian’ secularism whereby the state is to be equally solicitious of all religions. This has meant that far from a secular republic, where religion is kept out of the public space, we have one in which aging patriarchs are encouraged to dictate to the state and bend it to their will. Widely endorsed by political parties and many self-consciously ‘progressive’ intellectuals, this view of secularism has meant denying secular freedoms to citizens out of favour with the religious establishment. While the BJP with its Hindu nationalist agenda should have no particular problem in rejecting Gay rights, one would imagine that the Congress with its secular protestations had cringed when, at the first sign of the dismantling of a despicable colonial restriction on freedom following the reading down of Section 377 by the Delhi High Court in 2009, its Law Minister had rushed to Kerala to placate some Christian clerics. It is revealing of the practice of secularism in India that the same party did not consider a similar gesture towards the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that has throughout opposed the scrapping of Section 377 on grounds that Gay rights are un-Indian.

          India’s LGBT community is prepared to wait for the Supreme Court’s verdict. But it is not prepared to accept any deterrence from the VHP, the ACA or the MPLB as it rejects the sanction of religion to govern their lives. With a cool head and a warm heart it knows that culturally -Hindu Nepal recognises Gay rights, that Pope Francis has refused to judge the LGBT community and that there are Muslims batting for it in the courts of India. If this country fails its LGBT community their struggle will spill over into the global arena. When the intolerance debate was raging some months ago, the government had cautioned that the country could lose the foreign investment on which it had staked its credibility. However, if India’s LGBT community is denied its potential we would lose something far greater. We would be failing to live by maxim ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, perhaps the most valuable idea from India ever.