As the Supreme Court hears a batch of petitions on the legalisation of same-sex marriage in India, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat on January 9 spoke in support of the queer community.
In an interview to Sangh publication Organiser, Bhagwat has said members of the queer community are human beings who should have their own private and public space, and that they have the right to live as others do – presumably, the heterosexual mainstream.
To buttress his demand, Bhagwat turned to the Mahabharata, which provided him with a “humane approach” to give the queer community social acceptance “without much hullabaloo”.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in India by the Supreme Court in 2018.
The story in the Mahabharata from which Bhagwat draws his insights is that of two supposedly inseparable gay generals, Hansa and Dimbhaka of Jarasandh. The story goes that both of them, reacting to the rumour that the other had been killed in the war, drowned themselves in the Yamuna as they could not imagine life without each other. Since the story has been narrated by Bhagwat, it is unlikely to be met with a backlash from Hindutva supporters.
As writer Devdutt Patnaik said, “If a gay mythologist [like Patnaik himself] had interpreted this story [the way Bhagwat does] he could easily have been trolled.” The allegation might likely have been for “manipulating Sanskrit texts based on Westernised ideas to create a false Hindu history”.
Is Bhagwat aware of the ill-informed statements on the subject made by his own party members over the years?
In 2016, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member Rakesh Sinha claimed during a television debate that it was only Indians of a “European mindset” who were in favour of legalising homosexuality in India. Sinha claimed that it was not Indians but actually Western people who wanted Section 377 scrapped, referring to the provision of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised homosexuality. Sinha said that this was being demanded not for human rights reasons as they dishonestly made us believe, but because it came in the way of their paedophilic and pornographic activities in India. If homosexuality was legalised, Sinha said, such perverts would not face the risk of going to jail.
In March 2016, Dattatreya Hosabale, then the deputy general secretary of the party, said that homosexuality was not a crime but it was nonetheless “socially immoral” and should be treated “psychologically”.
Vivek Dewan, a lawyer and gay rights activist, responded by pointing out that if that were true, why had there been no crisis of morality when the Delhi High Court had read down Section 377 in July 2009. (The provision was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 2013.) Hosabale had no answer.
These reactionary views have filtered down to the Bharatiya Janata Party whose mentor, after all, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is. The most visible imbroglio was when the late Arun Jaitley, then finance minister, said at a literary festival in December 2015 that it was about time that the Supreme Court scrapped Section 377 “which adversely affected millions of Indian citizens [sic] and their right to live a life of dignity and equality”.
Party colleague and Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy, dared Jaitley to express his views on the subject at a party meeting, implying that this was not the official stance of the BJP on the matter. Swamy had not been in favour of legalising homosexuality. During a show on the television channel NewsX in December 2015, Swamy snapped at Naz Foundation member Anjali Gopalan and activist Collin Gonsalves, who said homosexuality was about love and not just sex. Swamy said: “I love my dog. That doesn’t mean I can have sex with it.”
In December 2015, Congress parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor’s private member bill to amend Section 377 was supported by just 24 members while the BJP got 70 members to oppose it.
Will Bhagwat’s invoking of the Mahabharata lead the Narendra Modi-led government to change its mind about the relevance of same-sex marriage in a post-Covid-19 world that, among other things, has underscored the importance of care-giving, medical insurance and inheritance of property and wealth.
One cannot say for sure. After all, the government has yet to congratulate the queer community for their victory in the Supreme Court in September 2018. An apology for the discrimination we have faced for years is a pipe-dream.
The words of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr come to mind: “We will know who is against us, not by what they say, but by their silence.”
R Raj Rao is a writer and professor.