There's Space For All At The Party
During my student days at Boston University, i recall being introduced to the writings of Aime Cesaire, the great African essayist, playwright,
poet and politician whose stirring prose was often a manifestation of his rage against the colonial enterprise. "It is not true that the work of man is finished", declared Cesaire, "...the work of man is only just beginning...and no race holds the monopoly of beauty, intelligence and strength and there is place for all at the rendezvous of victory.'' I'd like to think that message still resonates with marginalised communities wherever they exist, including those in the spotlight of the Delhi high court's landmark judgement on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
Decriminalising homosexuality marks a critical point of departure in the lives of many across the nation; young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor. And while full emancipation may yet be an unfulfilled desire, it is an important first step in a legitimate struggle along that long arc of justice. To be sure, there will always be a blinkered few who will opt for an over-simplistic "us versus them" dualism but this is where rational argument and nuanced analysis can and should take centre stage in mainstream Indian politics. Moral prescriptions aside, the issue here is less an examination of sexual peccadilloes than about ensuring a vulnerable minority's unfettered access to fundamental human rights enshrined in our Constitution and guaranteed to every Indian citizen.
AIDS continues to be a global health crisis and India is teetering on the brink of that abyss. It is time to accept that reality, erase the stigma and create a safe space for a free and frank discussion of sexual behaviour to enable access to quality health care for all. Legal barriers and criminalisation have for too long effectively blocked the empowerment of groups at high risk of HIV infection by denying or obstructing their right to live healthy and safe lives. It is unconscionable that in a country with one of the world's largest populations of people with AIDS, Section 377 has been used by officials to obstruct the work of legitimate HIV-prevention groups, leaving high-risk communities defenceless against infection. AIDS and the new wave of activism it engendered around the world may have fully awakened many to gay people all around them, but a tardy and still embryonic national awareness will not save the lives of those whose abridged rights make them even more vulnerable during a rampaging plague.
Legislation here can be a powerful tool in shaping a policy response to the AIDS crisis. When based on universally accepted human rights standards, and appropriately implemented and enforced, the law can support positive public health outcomes and enable individuals and communities to realise their rights without fear or favour.
Self-appointed custodians of Indian culture and the extreme right will always harbour archaic prejudices about anyone not like them but they never did merit serious attention in a free-thinking democracy like ours. Let us recognise that there are sections of Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups that have misgivings about homosexuality but also agree that it should not be criminalised. They would be the first to acknowledge that laws governing religious doctrine cannot be equated with the law of the land in a secular democracy. I find it disingenuous on the part of those who use selective text and inference to condemn someone's sexual preference while ignoring some of the proscriptions in their own teachings. Rather than pontificate on virtue and vice, we really ought to leave all value judgements to a higher power.
In the final analysis, policy and perception feed off each other and a paradigm shift in both is needed for real progress to take place. If my campaign experience across the socio-economic divide has taught me anything, it is that young India is not just a barometer of social change but a determining factor in shaping it. Indians of my generation are not afraid to speak the truth to power. That gives me hope. More so about the poor and less privileged sections of the gay community in both urban and rural India who have neither the financial nor political clout to counter the persecution, blackmail and incarceration they are constantly subjected to. For them, decriminalisation and its proper implementation could be life-altering.
So the next time you see your gay friend, relative or neighbour, think about the rights you were born into and the rights of others for which you've fought. Ask yourself if you can step out of your comfort zone to advocate for the rights of all, regardless of gender, caste, sexuality, ability, or religion, to pursue your freedom and happiness. After all, our convictions mean the most when they include those beyond ourselves. And when push comes to shove, we may still find there is place for us all in Cesaire's rendezvous of victory.
The writer is a member of Parliament.
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