After the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Suresh Kumar Koushal v. Naz Foundation (2014) overruling the Delhi High Court’s decision, the National University of Juridical Sciences brought out a special law review issue assessing the judgment. Prof. M.P. Singh, the constitutional scholar and former vice chancellor of the university, wrote an article praising the judgment for its judicial restraint, in which he described the use of constitutional litigation by sexual minorities as a case of “misplaced hope in courts”. Prof. Singh prefaced his article with a cautionary extract from Judge Learned Hand that warns us against “placing our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes”. Prof. Singh similarly suggests that what activists ought to do is to educate legislators rather than pin their hopes on the judiciary. Underlying these opinions seemed to be an unwritten rule of an economy of hope (that one could have a little but not too much of it) but the essential trait of hope is that it is greedy sentiment that demands the impossible, and the Naz judgment with its rich evocation of dignity, liberty and equality had already proven that we could not just demand but hope for the impossible.
Today, as the Supreme Court hears the curative petition on Section 377, it has an opportunity to remember its promise to be the last resort of the oppressed, to let dignity be the domain of all.
In 2015, a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru was blackmailed and threatened with being publicly outed for being gay. When he refused to pay extortion money, the private letters turned into notices pinned on noticeboards on campus. The words were sharp, relentless and inhumane: “I think it’s completely shameful, bad, immoral and disgusting. You should go kill yourself. Why do you think it’s illegal to be gay in India?”
For many queer people, this moment is familiar. It is one that many of us have faced or live in a constant fear of facing. In some ways, it is the latter that is worse. We live our lives anticipating prejudice. Even before it comes, we are constantly censoring, moving, and shaping our lives to evade it or, if we can’t, to survive it. Those of us who have the privilege of privacy scan rooms to find allies, weigh what to tell our doctors, measure out information in our offices, and seek safe spaces. Those without this privilege face a much more direct battle to be who they are: an unrelenting and legitimised public violence that falls on working class bodies in our streets, police stations and public spaces. The law is not the only force behind this violence, but it is an important one. “Why do you think,” the blackmailer asks, “it’s illegal to be gay in India?” When petitioners in the Naz Foundation case argued that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code played an important part in shrouding our lives in criminality and of legitimising violence, this letter was one of many that we wrote against in our heads. Continue reading A test of dignity and democracy