In the wake of the landmark judgment decriminalising homosexual acts among consenting adults, Citizen Matters Bengaluru spoke to Sanjay Bavikatte and Arvind Narrain, organisers of Bangalore’s (and India’s) first Gay Rights Symposium in an academic institution in 1998, about the long road to 2018.
Tell us a bit about your individual involvement in the movement. How did it all start?
Arvind: We were at National Law School – Sanjay and I – friends from Class 5 onwards. We would hang out together and attend discussions on human rights among other topics. It was a great place to be. I remember I had a poster in my room that said ‘Hard Work yields to Profit, Idle Talk brings only Wants!’ My room was the hub of idle talk in those days, but eventually lots came out of the idle talk. Of course, I was aware of my own sexuality, but in those days it was only alluded to, never really out in the open or articulated to anyone.
Then in 1997, NLS hosted a talk by a Justice of the Australian High Court, who spoke about gay rights as human rights. It was a fascinating topic for me, and I mentioned to Sanjay that we must organise a Gay Rights seminar. He could always offer a unique perspective on any topic. This time, he turned to me and asked to my face – Are you gay? Yes, I admitted to one of my closest friends, and then there was no looking back.
Sanjay just threw himself into the organising of the seminar. We decided to read up cases concerning gay rights from Harvard and Yale Law reviews, we wrote to people in Delhi and Mumbai, and Sanjay was at the forefront, not me – I was simply riding on his coattails.
The Law School gave us the space to do it, though they were clear that they did not want their name associated with it. Other students came forward to help us, we formed a welcome committee, a banner committee – I remember the banner they made was so huge it covered the entire entrance of the Law School! One of our professors remembers the banner to this day.
We called it the Gay Rights Symposium. It got massive coverage in all the newspapers in Bangalore, and some from other cities too.
Sanjay : It is very hard to work for something that you don’t love. Social causes can be so abstract. I jumped into organising the seminar because of my friendship with Arvind. We go back so many years, it seemed the most natural thing to do, to be involved in something he felt so strongly about. We just dived in – with neither a budget nor a plan. It was courage born of naïveté, all we knew was it seemed the right thing to do, to walk the talk.
Arvind was not yet ready to be the face of the event, but he played a pivotal role in planning it out, whom to contact, what to discuss at each session — legal issues, psychological aspects, social dimensions etc.
Everyone we spoke to, agreed to help us out. Fellow students were often confused or on the fence, but hardly anyone opposed it. Speakers like Ashok Row Kavi and Shekhar Seshadri came on their own nickel to participate in the seminar. Then there was a group of gay men that met every Thursday in Bangalore – they gave us some money to cover our expenses, somehow we pulled it off.
It brings to my mind the saying Find purpose, and the means will follow!
Do you think 1998 was a watershed year for the movement?
Sanjay– Looking back, I think the seminar was a charge, a tipping point in the gay rights movement. it was not as if people were not gay before, or were not speaking about it (albeit in closed circles) but it somehow seemed to us like everything came together and gathered critical momentum, and there was no looking back from there.
Arvind– With this symposium, we believe we brought about the first public articulation of gay rights as human rights. Of course, the Humsafar Trust had been doing seminal work in Mumbai, there was Anand Grover Lawyers’ Collective, Siddhartha Gautam had been doing great work in Delhi before he passed away, there were several others. But up until this time, most of the discourse was in the context of AIDS and HIV related issues. Now, human rights became the focus.
At Law School, we learnt about Section 300 of the IPC – Murder, Theft, Section 376 – Rape. But we skimmed over Section 377. At and after the Seminar, we brought Section 377 into focus. There were discussions on case law, interpretations, community education about the problems with 377.
When you got started, what was the level of awareness among people? How organised was the community then? Was there a gender differential — were gay men more organised/open than lesbian women?
Arvind : There wasn’t much awareness – the gay community was inward looking and not connected much to each other. Fellow students were either curious or empathetic, but not very knowledgeable.. and of course, there were more gay men coming out than lesbian women. We had one bisexual activist, and a couple of female students on campus.
Sanjay: But the feminist movement at NLS was very strong, we had regular meetings of the Gender Study Circle, so a lot of women students came to help us with the seminar.
When did you first feel that the movement had reached a sort of critical mass?
Arvind: After our seminar, it felt like an idea whose time had come. More and more people were openly speaking about gay rights in public. Thus it was a tipping point in the sense that it began to see a public articulation of gay rights as a human rights issue.
Then, in 2001 we worked with PUCL on a fact finding report on Human Rights violations against LGBT persons, and in 2003 on another report on human rights violations against the transgender community. The focus had shifted completely from the HIV/health angle to the rights angle, a much sharper focus since the health (HIV) angle covered a larger set of people.
Today, the focus is very much on rights. Of course, back then, we used gay rights to mean gay and lesbian rights, while today our understanding has evolved much further and we would talk about LGBTQ rights.
Tell us a bit about Bangalore’s first queer parade. Were you involved?
Arvind: It happened in 2008! Ten years after the Symposium!
We were out of law school by then but still in Bangalore and still friends. There were many support groups to help people accept and articulate their sexuality. I remember we stood on the steps on Town Hall, with posters that said Abolish 377!
What have been some of the key turning points in the entire movement according to you? Through all the ups and downs – 1998 to 2018 via 2009 and 2013, how have you personally seen the movement progressing?
Arvind: The judgment of 2009 was a big step in the right direction. One year after the Public Pride parade – what a moment that was! And then came the strike down of 2013. Vikram Seth called it ‘a bad day for law and love’…the verdict reduced people to just body parts and deprived LGBT persons of their dignity. But what was powerful was that people said this is unacceptable, we will not take this lying down..
Sanjay: I want to quote James Baldwin here – When a victim realises that he is a victim, he is no longer a victim but becomes a threat. When a sufficient number of people no longer see themselves as victims but as people whose rights have been violated , they cannot be wished away, they will continue to fight. The movement had already acquired a momentum of its own, and it could be slowed down but not stopped.
Arvind: On the first day of protests in 2013, one of the protestors quoted the poem Harlem by black American poet Langston Hughes, which I thought summed up the situation eloquently –
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
What do you think of the present judgment? How does the movement move on from here?
Sanjay: I want to highlight a key point. Sometimes on a certain issue, you have a pioneering petitioner who goes to court, he/she gets a great bench hearing the petition, the timing is right and you get a great decision. But here, it has been a long haul. All credit to people like Arvind, who have been a part of the movement and the journey for so many years. It is a genuine example of people’s jurisprudence.
Twenty years of not just testing the law and understanding what is possible or what is not, but also twenty years of fact finding, activism, mobilising people on the streets, writing and discussions, leading to a five judge bench, an eloquent judgment and a great moment in history.
You have to applaud the meticulousness of the judges – the judgment has taken cognizance of all this research and relied a lot on the history of the movement and all the work that has taken place to bring us where we stand today. This is what it takes to bring about change. Judges are not immune to the social pulse or pressure, they have their antennae up, they have a sense for which way the winds are blowing, both in the local and international context.
When we started out we could not say there was a movement, but now it is most certainly a movement, a groundswell of support, which will take many forms, fight on many fronts to ensure that the spirit of the verdict is maintained.
Arvind: Justice Chandrachud has articulated this very well – the fight against this law was not just because it denied LGBT persons the right to intimate expression and the right to form intimate relationships with persons of their choice, it also embeds a certain amount of discrimination and social prejudice against LGBT persons.
Just to give you an example, the Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1949 and the various tribes and communities denotified in 1952. Yet over 60 years later, members of these tribes continue to face social prejudice, alienation and economic hardships.
Similarly LGBT persons will continue to face prejudice and discrimination in the immediate future but now we have a tool to fight it with, and the Constitution backing us. That is an important shift.
In this context, Justice Nariman has also said that the Union government has the responsibility to disseminate this judgment by all means — print, online, TV etc — on a periodic basis, and a responsibility to sensitise the police and government officials in terms of the judgment.
Right after the Gay Rights Symposium in 1998, we were part of a group called Sabrang, where we organised a series of public talks. On the day the judgment came last week, many of us were saying, “Wow, see where we have come, in twenty years!!”
[Postscript: After graduating from National Law School, Arvind Narrain continued to work on LGBT rights among other human rights issues. He is a founding member of the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore. He has been a part of many fact-finding reports on sexual minorities in India and was also part of the litigation team, which argued the constitutionality of Section 377 before the High Court and the Supreme Court. He is now Director – Research and Practice, at ARC International.
Also a National Law School grad, Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte went on to do a Masters in Law at Warwick and earned his PhD from the University of Cape Town, SA. He has since practiced as an international environmental lawyer representing Indigenous peoples. He is the founder and former Executive Director of Natural Justice, an international firm of environmental lawyers. He is presently the Executive Director of The Christensen Fund, a San Francisco based foundation with a mission of supporting Indigenous peoples’ self-determination. For his work in helping organise the Gay Rights Symposium and his work with street kids, Sanjay was awarded ‘Bangalorean of the Year’ in 1998 by Bangalore magazine.
Arvind and Sanjay continue to be close friends, united in their commitment to the cause.]