Elected politicians represent the queer community just as much as they represent others and that means they are accountable for protecting the rights of queer people as well, says activist Anish Gawande.

For Gawande, the founder of The Pink List India that tracks politicians supporting queer rights and is aimed at pushing for accountability and transparency from elected representatives, the hypocrisy of the government as well as Opposition political parties on the matter is unsurprising. “This is politics, boss,” Gawande told Scroll in an interview.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta on April 26 told the Supreme Court that marriage equality, or same-sex/queer marriage, should be discussed in Parliament. Since April 18, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court is hearing a batch of petitions seeking marriage equality transcending gender norms. The Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Central government has strongly objected to the demand.

The court ruling on the matter might be “detrimental” to the queer community, Mehta told the bench, as it would be “forcing something that is against the will of the people”.

But, points out Gawande, the government has repeatedly prevented Parliament from discussing the issue. “The only solution to countering such hypocrisy is to stop celebrating breadcrumbs of acceptance,” says Gawande. For him, that means re-framing the fight for rights as a demand not a favour. “Politics is about tangible demands, tangible outcomes – the rest is hot air.”

The Bar Council of India and earlier certain political voices suggested, if not insisted, that Parliament or the legislature is where issues such as marriage equality be discussed and determined. What do you have to say about that?

Let us break this into two parts: the primacy of Parliament and the supremacy of Parliament. On the first front, India is a constitutional democracy. We do not uphold the supremacy of parliament – in fact, our courts are meant to provide checks and balances to the abuse of power by Parliament – particularly when the ruling party has an absolute majority, as it does today.

Now, let’s get to the question of the primacy of Parliament. Parliament is fully qualified, and in my opinion better qualified, to make laws on marriage equality. But, as we’ve shown through research done over the years by Pink List India, the government has repeatedly prevented parliament from discussing the issue.

The government must stop being hypocritical. Claims of legislative intent to discuss marriage equality cannot be accompanied by a decade of legislative inaction. At some point, the courts have to step in. We cannot wait forever.

At the Supreme COurt during the hearing on marriage equality, in New Delhi on April 18. Credit: PTI.

Do you think the opposition to letting our fundamental rights be decided by Parliament, coming mostly from the LGBTQIA+ communities itself, is to do with the binaries of left and right politics? You’ve been tracking political parties for a long time now.

You know, Sharif, in 2019, Pink List India was naively started with the idea that everyone supporting LGBTQ+ rights is progressive. This wasn’t the case then, and this certainly isn’t the case today. You will find a surprising amount of support for marriage equality from even within the BJP itself – so this isn’t a Left-Right issue.

What do we do in such a scenario? Of course, we must be wary of letting LGBTQ+ rights be used as part of larger pinkwashing projects. At the same time, we need to engage with those in elected positions of power to expand (or, at the very least, prevent a backsliding of) rights.

In my opinion, any ethical engagement with politics today requires us to frame our fight for rights as a demand rather than a favour. Once elected, our politicians represent LGBTQ+ Indians just as much as they represent straight Indians. They are accountable to us, accountable for the protection of our rights – regardless of whether we support them or vote for them.

This is, of course, an idealist’s opinion … But I am a hopeful believer in parliamentary democracy even when it seems to be failing us miserably.

Are you surprised at the near silence from the Opposition parties on marriage equality? While a TMC [Trinamool Congress] leader made a point in favour of love and our choices, his own party is guilty of mismanaging trans rights and the implementation of the NALSA judgement [that held a progressive stance on self-determination of gender].

These are two separate questions. The first concerns a larger silence of opposition parties on marriage equality. To be clear, the CPI [Communist Party of India] and CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] have come out openly in support of marriage equality. Other parties, including the TMC, have hinted towards a party-wide support for the issue. The rest, including the BJP, have maintained a studied silence and refused to take a stance.

Once the matter is in the courtroom, we must wait for a verdict before asking parties to respond. I am unsure as to whether we are ready for a public debate in the political arena on the issue before we have well-formulated demands. Recently, I was terrified when Navneet Rana, an independent MP from Amravati, made statements against live-in relationships and gay and lesbian couples at a rally in her constituency.

Do we have the bandwidth or the resources to counter statements like hers at the grassroots level? No. We need to first build queer institutions and collectives. We need to work at the community level before authentically engaging with politicians and political parties.

The second part of your question points to the hypocrisy of political parties on LGBTQ+ rights. Are you surprised? This is politics, boss. The only solution to countering such hypocrisy is to stop celebrating breadcrumbs of acceptance. Use statements by leaders to hold them accountable to substantive policy reforms. Use these statements to get them to support horizontal reservations in parliament. Politics is about tangible demands, tangible outcomes – the rest is hot air.

Queer rights groups ahead of the Supreme Court hearing. Credit: PTI.

Is there a need for more queer voices in politics? Is that the answer? In a conversation with me Shashi Tharoor [Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram] said our representation is important but to win votes on queer rights is not possible or realistic.

I am increasingly disillusioned with the idea of representation. Just a few years ago, we created the National Council for Transgender Persons. What happened? We created several Transgender Welfare Boards in states across the country. What changed? You cannot grant representation without also relinquishing actual political power.

More importantly, the diversity within queerness means that no representational politics can accommodate the diverse needs and demands of the community. A better idea is to come up with a coherent queer political platform, a set of demands that can be shared by other progressive movements.

I am excited to see the LBIT Network’s petition, and the Apnon Ka Bahut Lagta Hai report on natal family violence, making their way to the Supreme Court. Our conversations must be framed around a larger war on love, one that we fight alongside all those in this country to dare to love across caste, class, religion, and gender. That’s the only way to build a solid foundation for a sustainable movement.

Where to from here? Always the courts or a mix of activism, consensus building, protests, literature and so on?

I see a lot of people complaining about why there is not enough consultation before queer issues are taken up by lawyers or judges. But, listen, the courts are theoretically open to all. Neither you nor I can prevent someone from filing a petition on any issue before the court.

Once these cases move through the courtroom, they generate a buzz. Whether we like it or not, the marriage equality petitions have reinvigorated a sense of queer community – and also highlighted fractures within this community and its various exclusions. We can either see this as yet another moment of fragmentation. Or we can see this as an opportunity to come together, to build upon this momentum and demand a wider bouquet of rights: horizontal reservation, more ART centres [antiretroviral medication that treats the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS], more counselling facilities.

All this being said, the fight needs to now go beyond just the courtroom. We need to ask ourselves: decades after the first Section 377 petition [which decriminalised consensual homosexual sex], how many Naz Foundations exist today? How have we capitalised on our hard-won legal victories?

My chosen battlefield is electoral politics. That’s the area I know best, and where I can contribute most. I am excited to see the magic others create in a whole host of other fields across the country.

Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal and the director of the Rainbow Literature Festival.

Also read:

What route could the Supreme Court use to legalise same-sex marriage?

Will the Supreme Court be able to legalise same-sex marriage in India?

‘Want to live and die together’: Meet the people battling for same-sex marriage rights in India