Gay rights

Why Apple CEO Tim Cook has good reason to turn down Modi's invite to visit India

Cook is openly gay. This puts him in danger of being jailed in India, where gay sex is a crime.

Amidst the fanfare of meeting and greeting Silicon Valley’s tech titans on his most recent visit to the US, Narendra Modi had much to be buoyant about. The ministry of external affairs reported that the prime minister had a one-on-one meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who, like Modi, also figures on Forbes magazine’s World’s Most Powerful People and Time’s 100 Most Influential People lists.

More to the point, Cook leads a mammoth revenue-generating operation ($182.7 billion as of 2014) and personally oversaw Apple’s courting of Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn to manufacture Macintoshes and iPhones in locales as far flung as China’s Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces.

Not one to be left behind, the prime minister personally invited  Cook to set up manufacturing facilities in India in line with the government’s “Make in India” policy, and even mooted the prospect of the company’s mobile payment service, Apple Pay, being integrated into the Jan Dhan Yojana scheme.

“Cook responded positively,”  MEA spokesman Vikas Swarup noted. “I think India does fit into his long-term plans.” Cook went as far as to recall his late boss Steve Jobs’ spiritual visit to India in the 1970s, thus giving the country “a very special place in the heart of every Apple employee”.

Turning a blind eye

Still, the grand affair at San Jose’s Fairmont Hotel could hardly ignore the white elephant in the room that has so far typified Cook’s leadership style at Apple: his activism.

In October 2014, mere months before the US Supreme Court’s nationwide legalisation of same-sex marriage, Cook took to Bloomberg Businessweek to announce his support for gay rights efforts, and to make public his own sexuality.  He wrote:
 “I’m proud to be gay and I consider [it] among the greatest gifts God has given me… if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy… The company I am so fortunate to lead has long advocated for human rights and equality for all… We’ll continue to fight for our values… I will personally continue to advocate for equality for all people until my toes point up."

How this position played out in Cook’s meeting with the prime minister, if at all, is not known. What is known is that the view on homosexuality held by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party could see men like Cook sent to prison were he to visit India.

Responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 2013, the BJP’s erstwhile party president Rajnath Singh plainly supported the criminalisation of gay sex. “We will state that we support Section 377 because we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported,” he said. More recently, party firebrand Subramanian Swamy went as far to suggest that homosexuality was a “genetic disorder” affecting only “handicapped persons”.

A clear position

Though the prime minister has kept mum on the matter, his government’s actions both at home and abroad could not be more clear. On the home front, there is the government’s implicit acknowledgement of the status quo, wherein the Supreme Court has placed the responsibility for repealing the law in the hands of parliament. Further afield, India joined Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, voting in favour of a failed United Nations’ General Assembly draft resolution to cut employee benefits for UN staff with same-sex partners.

As it turns out, Cook is not alone. Both in and out of Silicon Valley, he is far from being the only openly gay chief executive. The list also includes Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel and Burberry chief Christopher Bailey, amongst others. For Apple’s part, the company has long taken it upon itself to champion causes on its executives’ and customers’ minds – everything from worker rights and working conditions in Chinese factories to same-sex marriage, renewable energy pushes, and scholarships for racial minorities in the US. Simply put,  Cook made clear that Apple was committed to “advancing humanity”.

On a more personal note, Cook noted that he too had “seen, and [had] experienced [discrimination]… rooted in a fear of people that were different from the majority”. For Modi, rationalising his government’s treatment of Indian LGBT people and his fêting of foreign gay people in Silicon Valley will soon get difficult to explain.

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