September 6, 2018, is a historic date for India. It was on this Thursday that the Supreme Court of the country decriminalised Section 377 of the colonial era penal code which condemned sexual relations between adults of the same sex. Celebrations broke out throughout the country as a community which has been facing oppression and abuse finally saw some hope of change.
This development opens up new possibilities within the context of Indian democracy. At 71, Indian democracy has accomplished one important work -it has seen an unprecedented level of social democratisation over the decades. While the State has been instrumental in making this social democratisation happen in order to feed and facilitate its own political interests, it has also come under increasing pressure to appease the socially empowered groups that have emerged as a result of this democratisation. Mandal politics of the late 1980s is a classic example.
Almost three decades since the rise of the disruptive Mandal politics, India has seen the empowerment of many of its key social groups that have put the traditionally powerful groups in a battle for survival and the State has faced more challenges to satisfy each of these groups aspiring for a better socio-economic status.
Decriminalised homosexuality holds the potential for another social revolution
Decriminalisation of homosexuality also has the potential for a similar social revolution as the one Mandal ushered in during the 1980s. Till now, people of the LGBT community have largely constituted a fringe group that has been betrayed by successive governments. No matter which party has been in power and no matter how much they squabbled over every other issue under the sun, homosexuality is one matter over which they have only procrastinated. Will the Supreme Court of India’s judgement make things different from here on?
It is difficult to make a prediction right away. The political class in India has a bizarre knack of avoiding addressing key social issues that surface with each step that a modern nation-state takes towards development. Treating homosexuals as citizens with equal rights is a necessary demand of a modern nation-state and no progressive State can afford to ignore it for long. But the political elite in India keeps on avoiding facing the reality and obstructing the phenomenon of social inclusion.
The irony is even starker with the current regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Here is a prime minister who rose to the sky of Indian politics as a new-age avatar, giving birth to a promise that he can and will change everything that India lacked or failed to do. The term ‘development’ is a deep-rooted word in his political programme. Whenever there is an opposition to Modi and the BJP on grounds of an allegation that they are promoters of a majoritarian will, the man and his taskmasters come up with a projection of a pro-development image.
Modi’s idea of development: Does it include social parameters?
But the thing is, the idea of development that Modi and his saffron party preach is ultimately an economic one. It speaks about economic reforms, digital progress, an uplift of the poor, infrastructural upgrades, etc. etc. But they hardly about the parameters of social development. For example, recognising the minority communities’ rights. Be it the right to food of the religious minorities or the right of preference among sexual minorities, there has either been a negative or an ambiguous stand. For a real pro-development regime, these exceptions are not ideal ones to have.
The ruling BJP has a conservative base of patrons and followers that never approves of a liberal take on homosexuality. There might be a little change of words here and there, a kind of de-escalation of one’s approach towards the phenomenon after the apex court’s judgment, but the overall stand on the issue is likely to remain non-conformist. The BJP cannot just ignore the voices of its conservative bases. For the matter, even the Indian National Congress, perceived to be more liberal in comparison, is afraid to do the same and it has been seen when it was in power in the past.
For Modi and BJP, the issue of decriminalised homosexuality now poses a challenge. They need to rise to the occasion that they stand for all-round development and not just a conveniently chosen one. For true democratic rulers, this task is so very important to accomplish.
LGBTs can’t be ignored any more, socially or even politically
The Indian political elite can’t really take a ‘no comments’ stance on this particular issue of decriminalising homosexuality. The LGBT community has a large section of people who are educated, rational-thinking and part of the modern economy – thus capable of giving a sound leadership to those who are not so advanced. So, if there is no visible change on the ground in their social status from now on after the top court laid down the base, this community will not hesitate in laying the path for its own political journey seeking an empowerment to serve its own interests.
Indian democracy has witnessed in the past how fringe groups can rock the mainstream through social empowerment, at the initiative of the State or not, and the same is highly likely to happen in case of the LGBTs as well. India just successfully struck out a 157-year-old rule but it has to now build on the platform it has got from its judiciary to reaffirm its identity as a liberal democracy. The next issue therefor is: how to deal with its stubborn political elite?