As the magnanimity of the Supreme Court’s judgement striking down Section 377 of Indian Penal Code sinks in, I remember the many people who were stigmatized by this provision that criminalised homosexuality, yet remained hopeful of change. They came to me over the years seeking legal help to deal with blackmail or extortion they faced for being gay, or bisexual. I hope they are at peace today and the judgement will help ease their mental agony.
One of the first such persons to approach me was a 60-year-old man named Hira who was being blackmailed by his young partner, Anmol. Hira was married and one of his daughters was to getting married in a few weeks. He had met Anmol online and would often pay for him to fly down to Mumbai and stay in a hotel. A few months into their affair, Anmol started demanding that Hira leave his family for him, or pay a large sum of money. If not, Anmol threatened, he would expose their relationship to Hira’s family and friends.
Hira was shaken. He did not want to approach the police, fearing his daughter’s in-laws would call off the wedding if they learned about his affair. There wasn’t much we could do legally but thankfully an email from a lawyer – me – telling the man to stop threatening Hira or face legal consequences did the trick.
Asmit was barely 18 but he was determined to leave his parents and stay with his lover, a businessman from North India who was nearly 20 years older. One day, Asmit left home without telling his parents and reached my office with his partner. He was closely related to a Maharashtra politician, Asmit said, so the police would already be searching for him. He wanted protection. Leaving the city was not an option as he had not finished his education and did not want to leave college in Mumbai. If they were a heterosexual couple, I could have advised moving a court for protection. Moreover, the age gap between Asmit and his partner meant they would raise suspicion wherever they went.
I told Asmit that first and foremost he must inform his parents he was safe and thus get the police off his back. He did so, but his mother was distraught and could not fathom why her son had left home. Then, we decided to make a leave and licence agreement to show Amit was his partner’s tenant, so that their neighbours or the police would not get suspicious. But when we went to a local court to have the agreement notarised, the notaries smelled something was fishy and, for the first time ever, I found no notary was willing to clear the agreement. Finally, I had them appear before an administrative magistrate, who, after grilling Asmit, signed the agreement. Asmit then started living with his partner as his tenant.
Brutalised by the system
I dealt with many such cases, each a story of two people who merely wanted to love and be with their partner but found that they were up against a society and a state that criminalised their relations. I remember two young girls from Mumbai who had fallen in love and gone away to Delhi, after which the father of one of them filed a case of theft against the girls. When we moved a Mumbai sessions court for anticipatory bail, the judge asked whether the organisation I worked for was supported by all gay organisations from across the world. I was shocked and before I could respond, the judge said he had done research and found that was really the case. I never understood what he meant by gay organisations and how that was relevant to the matter at hand.
Then came another shocker. He asked whether I knew “what these girls as a couple do?” I could only remind him the prosecution’s case was of theft, not about what the girls did or did not do. He adjourned the case for a few days so that the girl could come to the court and speak to him in his chamber. I felt it was not a good idea and let him reject the application. We then moved the High Court, which granted the plea without asking any of these questions.
I often wonder how such cases would have gone had Section 377 not been there. Or whether blackmail would have been possible at all? Or if those who did succumb to blackmail would instead have fought back as others did?
Several years ago, a friend called to say he had met somebody at a mall and taken him home. When he woke up the next morning, that person was gone, and he had stolen his computer, mobile phone tablet, some watches and a few dollars. My friend refused to file a police complaint.
In a similar case, we managed to track down with the police’s help the man who had stolen valuables from my client after spending the night with him. We got everything back but we did not register a case.
A young man met someone on a dating app and gave him details of the hotel he was staying in. In the middle of the night, a few people barged into his room, threatened to have him prosecuted under Section 377 and robbed him. The young man only complained to the police after he saw a picture of one of the robbers in a newspaper article saying he had been arrested for extortion.
Sometimes, gay people faced blackmail from ex-partners. In one case, a couple broke up and one of them outed the other to all his relatives and colleagues. There was very little we could do legally in such situations other than threaten prosecution, which usually did not work.
Will the Supreme Court’s judgement change all this? I am not sure. But the situation did change after the Delhi High Court first decriminalised homosexuality in 2009. Blackmail and extortion went down drastically and the victims often fought back because the law was on their side. It is, of course, easier to fight back if you are not seen as a criminal.
Some names have been changed to protect identity.
Vijay Hiremath is a lawyer and activist who works in the field of human rights.