Courtesy: Pravartak Isssue No. 1 (2.12 – 15.12.91)
(This is Part II of the long essay titled “Reminiscing ABVA’s Struggle for Gay Rights in the Twentieth Century – A Brief History of That Time” I had penned in 2018 just before the Supreme Court judgement legalizing adult consensual homosexual acts in private. That essay is available here & here.)
On 22nd November 1991, ABVA (AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan/ AIDS Anti-Discrimination Movement) released ‘Less than Gay’ – A citizens’ report on the status of homosexuality in India. It was co-authored by seven ABVA members. Publication of one thousand copies of this report was done at a total cost of Rs. 11,000/- only (approximately US $ 135/- in all!). This report listed a sixteen point Charter of Demands which included inter-alia:
“Amend the Special Marriages Act to allow for marriages between people of the same sex (or between people who may be inter-sexed, or have undergone sex-change surgery, and any others). All consequential legal benefits of marriage should extend to gay marriages as well, including the right to adopt children, to execute a partner’s will, to inherit, etc. Same-sex couples should also be entitled to the legal benefits that accrue to their heterosexual counterparts of common law marriages.
No presumption as to fitness or unfitness for custody of a child or visitation rights shall arise based on sexual orientation of either parent in such a situation.
Alternatively, legally recognize and encourage friendship agreements between single people of the same sex as a valid way of organizing family life.”
About 25 journalists attended the press conference at the Press Club of India, New Delhi. The coverage in the national and international press was fair with a few corporate newspapers even front paging the news. We have reproduced the coverage in the ‘The Telegraph’ issue dated 23 November 1991; this daily paper reported that ABVA had written to the Petitions Committee of Parliament for implementation of the demands. See facsimile above.
While researching for ‘Less than Gay’ we relied on real life case histories as narrated to ABVA members by the victims. Just one such case history is being reproduced below:
“Till Death Do Us Part
“We met nearly ten years ago. She was working as our acting hostel warden while I was training as a paramedic in a medical college hospital in Delhi. Initially, she was affectionate towards me and would often call me to her room after the day’s work was over. I was about ten years her junior. I had heard that she was lesbian and had had a steady girlfriend who had since left her. She stood out from the others because of her “male” appearance – jeans, short haircut and mannerisms.
“I developed a liking for her and we eventually became good friends. At her suggestion I started to cook meals for both of us in her room itself. This ensured us the privacy we badly wanted as we did not now have to go to the hostel dining-room. She expected me to do the household work – room-making, cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes for her. She would insist that I keep things ready for her when she returned from her official work in the late evening hours. I readily complied because we developed mutual love. She would however always boss around like the men do in our society. I was over-worked because as a student I also had my studies to pursue.
“We had developed physical intimacy in the form of kissing, petting, hugging, breast-sucking, fingering, and cunnilingus. She would also attempt to have penetrative sex with her erect clitoris. Our lovemaking would continue till she got an orgasm. We would go out together for movies and dinner parties and make love in the night. Sometimes we would smoke and drink alcohol. She would however resent it if I as much as made attempts to be friendly to males in a healthy way. She was very possessive of me.
“After I graduated and started to look for a job, we decided to get married since we could not live apart any longer. But would our family members, friends and co-workers accept our decision? Would our relationship get social and legal sanction? We were riddled with doubts and I lacked the confidence and courage to take such a step. Yet we felt we should declare to each other that we were married. One evening we went to a mandir and got the blessings of the deity. When we returned to the hostel, she applied ‘sindhoor’ on my ‘mang’. It was the happiest day for us. We never informed anyone else about our mutual pact.
“Things went on well for a year. I got a job and became economically independent. One day, on my return from work, I found her in a compromising posture with a young girl in her room. She had been drinking liquor but was otherwise quite conscious. When I protested, she rebuked me and turned me out of her room.
“From then on, our relationship soured. I felt cheated. I even attempted suicide, leaving a note written in my own blood to the effect that I loved her and she had ditched me. I was unconscious for three days following the suicide attempt. But I revived. My parents had to bribe the police to get the medico-legal case “withdrawn.” Luckily, the press did not come to know of this incident. I left my job to work in another set-up. My family members were very supportive and that provided me with the strength to go on. The pain and agony of it will always linger on in my memory.
“I must add that every year there are at least three to four lesbians who can be counted in the batch of freshers at my alma mater. I have suffered a great deal but still have no answers to some crucial questions:
Why can’t two girls get married? Why does society not recognize, support and sanction lesbian relationships? A heterosexual relationship may also sour like ours did. But there at least society is aware of marriage and break-ups. In our case, the most traumatic thing is that the world is neither aware of our “marriage” or of the end. I had to face the pain more or less by myself. Many other women like me must have attempted suicide and even succumbed to such attempts. How many more must undergo this trauma silently? And why?”
(The writer adds: “I recently became aware of ABVA’s activities and read its two documents “Women and AIDS” and “Blood of the Professionals”. I could muster up the courage to write my experience because I know an ABVA member well and respect the member’s involvement in voluntary work.)”
A large number of quotes/stories from the media – both commercial as well as alternate – were documented in our report. Just a very small selection of these is being reproduced below:
“The Marriage of Lila and Urmila: A Test Case
“In December, 1987, policewomen Lila Namdeo and Urmila Srivastava of the 23rd Battalion stationed in the outskirts of Bhopal, capped their year long friendship by marrying each other. The wedding consisted of a simple ritual of exchanging garlands, a gandharva vivah, conducted by a Brahmin in a Hindu temple at Sagar. Their parents, who had consented to the wedding, were also present at the ceremony.” (Trikone, Mar. 1988)
These constables became frontier women in the country’s social landscape with their courageous unusual marriage. Their act provoked a sensational stir as the nation struggled to grasp the implications of a public lesbian marriage. The male psyche, with its belief about the power to penetrate and thus satisfy women, was dealt a hard blow. Activist organizations, including most women’s groups, remained tightlipped. Yet, how could lesbianism in India still be denied? These women after all were not upper class, westernized women. They belonged to a small town in Madhya Pradesh and chose to solemnize their companionship. “Joda bana liya (they are now a couple)”, said one of their colleagues. (TOI, Feb. 23, 1988)
Particularly shameful was the hypocritical silence of the intellectual class on the human rights of these women. Lila and Urmila were discharged without a show cause notice. “We were kept in isolation and not given food for 48 hours. We were coerced into signing papers which we had not read. We were given some cash and our company commander, R.L. Amravanshi, accompanied by three havaldars deposited us at the railway station in the dead of night. They warned us against returning to the barracks.” (TOI, ibid)
As if these human rights violations were not enough, the two women were subjected to a medical examination by Dr. B.K. Mukherjee, the Director-General of Police (DGP), Madhya Pradesh. When questioned whether the women had “displayed any lesbian tendencies,” the DGP responded: “No, this is absolutely false, we got them checked medically and found nothing.” (Illustrated Weekly, Mar. 20, ‘88)
What exactly did Dr. Mukherjee hope to find? Do lesbian women grow something special to mark their identity? Further, can such demeaning check-ups, under police and medical authority, be considered ethical or legal?
The bureaucratic response to the lesbian marriage was a curious mixture of denial and hostility. R.L. Amravanshi, Commandant of the 23rd Battalion stated, “This sort of behaviour will not be tolerated by us.” Narendra Virmani, Inspector General of Police (IGP), in charge of Special Armed Forces, Madhya Pradesh claimed, “Such women don’t make good officers.” Yet, he held, “that kind of physical relationship that could be between a man and a woman or even in a person with homosexual tendencies, that was absent here. There was not even touching, kissing, nothing.” Once again, contradicting himself, the IGP said, “this has never happened before … it is the first time…” (Illustrated Weekly, ibid)
Did they or did they not touch and kiss? How does the IGP know one way or another? Is it any of his business to pronounce on such a private matter? How does being lesbian in any way affect a woman’s performance as an officer of the Indian Armed Forces?
It is common knowledge that whatever happens between men and men, and women and women, emotionally and sexually, regularly happens between men and women also. Why then should gay marriages not be recognized as legally and socially valid? Marriage offers social prestige and substantial legal benefits to citizens allowed access to it. How then can some citizens but not others be allowed this privilege? Is there any reason why gay marriage should not be permitted that does not equally apply to a heterosexual couple that is physically incapable of having children?
Further, why should the definition of marriage be confined to the legal solemnization of a sexual relationship? Shouldn’t friends not in a sexual relation to each other be allowed to marry, with the legal consequences the status brings?
Isn’t it time that jurists, civil rights organizations and women’s groups have a public debate on these questions?
Friendship Agreements – A Humane Solution
While the government, bureaucracy and citizens’ groups have yet to say anything in response to the above questions, two young village women from Baroda district have shown the way by entering into a “maitri karar” or friendship agreement. “The women, Aruna Sombhai Jaisinghbhai Gohil, 31, resident of Vadia village, of Savli Taluka and Sudha Amarsinh Mohansinh Ratanwadia, 29, of Varsada village in Naswadi taluka entered into the agreement before a notary public here.
“This is the second maitri karar in Gujarat between two women. In a signed statement at the city court, the two declared that they had known each other since 1978 when they were together at a teachers’ training school. Since then, they had been working as teachers in different parts of Baroda district, and were now based at Vadadhali village.
“During all these years, the two women had been living together. Since they did not wish to get married and wanted to continue living together, they decided to enter into this friendship contract, the statement signed by them said.” (Indian Express, May 6, 1987)
Not So Lucky
Unfortunately, not all women are as lucky as the two women from Gujarat in finding the social support or economic independence to resist marriage with men. For instance, in October 1988, two nurses of a local hospital in Meghraj (population: 10,000) in north Gujarat committed suicide. “The reason: unable to bear the pangs of impending separation, Gita Darji and her spinster friend, Kishori Shah, both 24, ended their lives by hanging themselves from a ceiling fan in the hospital’s staff quarters. It was the third lesbian relationship to surface in the state this year…
“When the police began their probe they found a diary containing suicide note signed by Kishori and Gita – in which they said they did not blame anybody for their action – and two sets of letters. Close friends since they did a nursing course together at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, the two stayed together at Meghraj though they were allotted separate flats. In a letter to Gita, Kishori writes: “I can’t live and sleep without you.” The letters also reveal that Gita’s husband Manoj – whom she married last February – abhorred the relationship between Gita and Kishori. Some months ago, he complained to her brother Dashrathbhai, who made Gita apply for a transfer out of Meghraj.” (India Today, October 15, 1988)
The following incident from Cochin was reported in Gay Scene (Nov-Dec 1980): “Mallika (20) and Lalitambika (20), both students of pre-degree course of Keralavarma College, were very much in love with each other. When the examination result came out, it was found that Mallika had failed and Lalita passed. This was too much for the girls to bear, for separation was inevitable. So they decided to commit suicide. On 29 June they tied themselves together and jumped into the strong currents of Cochin channel from a ferry but a sailor and a fisherman, somehow, managed to reach them in time and were able to save them after a long fight in the surging waters.
“The police charged them with attempted suicide and found among other things a letter and a greeting card. The front of the double-fold greeting card had a silhouette of a kissing couple with the backdrop of a flaming sunset – inside it had a note from Mallika: “Lali, After all everybody knows about our love, so here’s a thousand kisses for you, in public…” Lalita scribbled back, “Come to me, I shall take you in my arms. I shall cover you with kisses. You shall sleep in my bosom and afterwards, maybe, we shall have a little quarrel.”
“The letter dated 27 June was meant for the parents. Lalita wrote: “I cannot part with Mallika … now we are destined to go to different directions. I am not persuaded by Mallika to do this … bury us together.” It is reported that relatives of the girls are still unable to grasp the implications of the relationship. Mallika’s elder brother is reported to have said that the girls have agreed to ‘try and forget each other.’”
The same issue of Gay Scene reports another incident: “on 30 November 1979, in Ahmedabad, unable to live in separation after their marriage less than a year ago, two childhood friends, Jyotsna and Jayashree ended their lives together jumping in front of a running train. The police recovered the mutilated bodies of the two women near the Gandhigram station. A joint letter by the two shows that they had entered into a joint suicide pact.”
How many more women coming from non-urban backgrounds have to die before Indian society acknowledges the existence of lesbianism in every social and economic strata and gives support to lesbian relationships as valid and healthy? Lesbian women often get married before they become aware of the true nature of their sexuality, some may marry in an effort to suppress it, and others marry for reasons unrelated to their sexual orientation – from economic necessity or for the social benefits brought by the appearance of married life. However, given that so many women (and some men) are driven to suicide at the prospect of marriage, and even after it, must we persist in peddling it as the only normal way imaginable to humans of living and loving?”
Ground Conditions Ripe for a Sexual Revolution!
Learning through these case histories ABVA was compelled to raise the demand for same-sex marriage as many same-sex couples all over the country were yearning to get married/live as life partners or attempting to commit suicide in desperation – some even successfully. ABVA found that the ‘conditions ripe for a revolution’ existed in the realm of sexuality and sexual orientation; the need was also to construct an alternate way of organizing family life.
ABVA’s learning was from the experiences of ordinary same sex couples who had dared to do in the 1980s – in full public glare – what the intellectual class in India feared to theorise and articulate in the 1980s and 1990s.
Same-sex Marriage Demand Exported from Indian Soil to the Rest of the World
When ABVA raised the demand for same-sex marriage in 1991, no country in the whole world had legalized it either through the judiciary or parliament. It was only about 10 years later that the first country on planet earth legalized same-sex marriage! Yes, it was the Netherlands which had legalized it in 2001. The first reported same-sex marriage took place in India in 1987! Many lesbian couples in the absence of a legal framework entered into friendship agreements. To say that same-sex marriage demand is a western concept is to deny our own rich cultural and social diversity.
As Parliament Stone-walls Debate, ABVA Again Reaches Out to Victims
In the last 32 years we have been petitioning the Union Home Ministry; elected members of Parliament; senior leaders of parliamentary parties and Speaker, Lok Sabha. Why blame just the present dispensation at the Centre, the entire spectrum of political parties maintain a deathly silence on the issue of same-sex marriage. The debate in Parliament on gay and lesbian issues has been stalled all along. So we again focused on what the victims were trying to convey to society. Hence in 1999 ABVA undertook a fact finding on the reported suicide pact of Mamata-Monalisa in Orissa, an eastern state of India. The two members of this fact finding team were Jagdish Bhardwaje (now deceased); and Arun Bhandari. Dr. P.S. Sahni joined the two in preparing the report titled ‘For People Like Us’.
A Glimpse of the Life of Jagdish Bhardwaje: Sold his Blood for a Living!
ABVA through 35 years of its existence has been a non-funded, non-party organization. Jagdish Bhardwaje, had co-authored ‘Less than Gay’; as also ‘For People Like Us’. He was very active in CALERI (Campaign for Lesbian Rights) for the full year of its functioning and had contributed pieces for its Report ‘Lesbian Emergence’ too. Jagdish Bhardwaje had documented his life story and struggle in a 1991 Report titled ‘Blood of the Professionals’ which can be accessed here.
We will let Jagdish Bhardwaje (see inset) speak for himself:
- In 1981, I had my first encounter with life on the Pavement after my scientific instrument business flopped in an attempt to diversify. Just as poverty knocked at the door, love flew out of the window, as my marriage went to rocks with a legal divorce. I was too moved with the subsequent turns in my life. I left home to move away from my surroundings to gain mental solace, but as luck would have it, just before I could leave Delhi, my home town, I had an attack of typhoid and hit the pavement. This life was much in contrast to my ‘jet-set’ upbringing. It is here that I learnt to laugh in pain. This society with its undercurrents had many painful miseries that people accepted and lived contentedly with, compromising with their fate. In pursuit of their existence, people practise many horrifying acts. The Professional Blood Donating is just one of them.
- I have travelled as a professional practically all over the country; donated blood in different banks, met hundreds and thousands of donors, lived with them, and helped quite a few to come out of this profession to join the mainstream. With what I have gathered in a decade of my observations (1982 -1991), I am putting it briefly, as I feel that the myths about professional blood donors be cleared, and the continued treachery meted out to them in the name of scientific reasoning be exposed.
- The act of professional donating is equated with prostitution openly by the establishment. The fact that their blood has been responsible for bringing smiles into many homes where darkness had loomed large, does not help them to gain any respectable acceptance. In an interview with the ‘NEWSTRACK’ (April ’91) the former Director of National Institute of Virology, Pune, Dr. M.P. Gupta states:
“The professional blood donors are a wretched lot – wretched of the society. The prostitute sells her body, these donors their blood.”
Again, Dr. Gupta, the Director of the Red Cross Blood Bank, Delhi says:
“The professional blood donors are the very dregs of society.” (H.T. – Sunday Magazine, 24.2.1985)
It may be noted that complex surgeries have been possible due to the donors’ blood, or else many of the surgeons’ knives would have rusted with disuse.
- If the professional blood donors could tell their tale of woes, even a stone would turn to cry. They brave their misfortune stoically, till death comes to them to get them away from this world. The nobility of their act of donating blood may be judged by God alone.
- We do frequent visits to various Gurudwaras where we get free “LANGAR” (Community Meals) twice a day. Sewadars do pass sarcastic comments on us that we don’t do any “sewa” (Service) and just eat free meals. But they don’t realize that we can’t lift a sack full of vegetables/ flour, as we are always fatigued. Many of us sleep at night shelters or railway stations or even inter-state bus terminals or pavements, where a regular space is kept reserved for us. One of us reaches back to this place early in the evening and sees to it that no outsider occupies our usual space on the corridor/ pavement. Jokes are cracked there at night. Deaths are mourned. Happy events are celebrated.
- The fatigued conditions lead to an overall exhaustion of the body; persistently donating blood under such conditions gives physical disability that becomes permanent. The most common of the problems being the cramps in the arms and legs. The arms become disabled not only due to fatigue but due to repeated punctures in their peripheral veins with blunt 17 number needles, broadly used all over the country. It is only as an exception that disposable IV sets with finer needles are used. As a consequence the eyesight is also affected. The donors’ memory gets affected due to which in general they lose account of time and date, creating problems for their own lives. High doses of iron lead to ulceration in their stomach/ intestines that draws them to their end. Heart failure due to low blood pressure is another cause of death.
- It was on a biting cold morning at a Blood Bank, after I came out with 14 pricks to bleed a bottle (each time the blood would coagulate in the improvised I.V. set’s tube; three sets were changed to get one bottle of blood) that the amount of humiliation I received from the technicians had worn me out and that I was urged by the senior members of the Rh negative group, to form a Union.
- For the first time a movement by the blood donors of the capital to demand for a social status and voice other grievances started off. The movement had started gaining tempo as the media came to focus on the issue.
Jagdish died in June 2007 with medical ailments like diabetes and chest tuberculosis. He had no money to pay for his rented room in east Delhi. His landlord was gracious enough to perform his last rites. His ashes were stored in an urn for a long time in a locker at the crematorium. His family members in Delhi and in Gujarat had distanced themselves from him. His domestic help conveyed the news of his death to activists in Delhi and outside Delhi.
An apt remembrance for Jagdish is by Ashwini Sukthankar in the ‘New Internationalist’ published on 5 October 2000:
“I have in front of me a citizens’ report on the suicides of a lesbian couple in an Orissa village, brought out by Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, one of the Campaign’s constituent groups. Written by two heterosexual men, the report is titled, touchingly, For People Like Us.”
It of course refers to the two members of the fact finding team.
Again Sandhya Luther had commented in ‘Lesbian Emergence’:
“In this hallowed land of silences where could the Indian Lesbian find a voice? The seed of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights was sown when we were mobilising for the protest: – a small, vocal, non-funded group we approached put forward a startling condition for being participating. “If this protest is about democratic rights you’ll find enough allies, but unless it is specifically about lesbianism, we will not join”. It was startling because I was listening to two men articulating this…”
The two men alluded to are Jagdish Bhardwaje and Dr. P. S. Sahni!
The First Fact Finding Report on Lesbian Suicides in India
ABVA released the report ‘For People Like Us’ in 1999; extracts from Hindi translation of this Report were reproduced in the report prepared by CALERI titled ‘Lesbian Emergence’ in the same year. The expenses for the Fact Finding Team’s Orissa visit were around Rs. 3400/- only (approximately US $ 42/- in all!).
Why the need for this fact finding report:
“Around the end of last year (i.e. 1998) ABVA received a letter from an activist* named X working in an NGO named Y* based in Cuttack, Orissa stating:
From the book ‘Less than Gay’, I got your address. Whether this address still exists or not I don’t know because the book was published in 1991and now it is 1998. Still with a hope I am writing this letter and seeking your immediate attention/intervention. This letter is meant to rescue a lesbian who is in danger now.
Mamata – Monalisa story came to lime-light when both attempted suicide. Aged 19 and 24 respectively they fell in love with each other five years back. They knew that society would not accept their relation and afraid of this they filed an affidavit before the court to live together and help all similar lesbians and widows.
When Monalisa’s father got transferred to another place far from their previous place (Monalisa’s father is a Govt. employee) both became panicky. This un-expected parting became intolerable to both and they tried to commit suicide by consuming some poisonous substance. Also both cut their respective veins. The incident happened at Mamata’s residence. Fortunately, Mamata was saved due to immediate attention of family members but Monalisa died on way to hospital. Mamata is now in Cuttack Medical College. She is under the treatment of doctors of Female Medical Ward of S.C.B. Medical College, Cuttack, Orissa.
Now local people are demanding the arrest of Mamata. As the incident happened at Mamata’s residence the general opinion, including that of media, is that she has killed Monalisa. From local media I got these facts and thought it better to inform you.
My interest – I am not a gay. But after reading ‘World of Homosexuals’ by Shakuntala Devi and also ‘Less Than Gay’ I know it (homosexuality) is natural. Also I know about gay/lesbian movement around the world.
Take my support as a form of solidarity to your struggle.
Hope you would take immediate steps to save her life.
Note: *The identity is being concealed as in a subsequent letter he mentioned facing difficulties in his NGO on account of our letters and telephone calls pertaining to the Mamata-Monalisa case!
Meanwhile The Humsafar Trust, a Bombay based NGO had flashed the message on the internet and informed ABVA through a letter that:
“Lesbian groups from USA and other countries are willing to help. We are also in touch with Lawyer’s Collective, a Bombay based NGO, in case we can help Mamata get legal aid. Can you help in following up this case?”
ABVA wrote to the activist X in Cuttack expressing shock at the tragic death of Monalisa and the trauma inflicted on her friend Mamata. More details were asked for. Besides we wanted to know what sort of intervention the families/friends of Mamata and Monalisa wanted us to take in Delhi.
ABVA also wrote to Mamata (this letter we learnt later was received by Mamata’s family members; apparently Mamata is not aware of our letter) extending our support and solidarity and assuring her that ABVA could pursue the matter with the powers that be in Delhi. Since there was no response to our letters, telephonic communication was established with the activist, as well as with Mamata’s father from Delhi itself on 21.1.99. Much later Mamata’s father wrote to ABVA:
“Thank you for your sincere co-operation and understanding. My daughter Mamata and her friend Monalisa were fast friends and thereby unable to withstand each other’s separation. More over four days before (i.e.6.10.1998) the incident of suicidal attempt, they sought the help of Court for a Notarial Certificate of Partnership Deed for living together. On 10.10.1998 both of them left behind a suicide note. The final result was death of Monalisa and rescue of Mamata. The news had been published on 11.10.1998 and 12.10.1998 in Oriya dailies (SAMBAD, SAMAYA). The first report is original and true; the latter is politicised and false. Monalisa’s family filed an F.I.R. with the police charging Mamata with murder under I.P.C. 302 and I.P.C. 306. The D.S.P. and Circle Inspector (Cuttack Sadar) handled the matter to supervise the case and came to the conclusion that it was a matter of normal suicide under Sec. 309 I.P.C. and is a bailable offence.
Now the case is under Crime Branch of Police. It is quite impossible for me at this age and considering the mental trauma, to meet your noble organisation in Delhi. For your information this is not a matter of homosexuality.”
Dt. 21.1.99 Yours
Sd/- DHRUBA CHARAN MOHANTY
(Father of Mamata)
We reproduce below activist X’s belated reply dated 23.1.99 to ABVA stating:
“Actually we two friends went to Mamata’s village last month to assess the situation. Though we could not meet Mamata but we met Mamata’s parents and Monalisa’s brother. Their suicide has created enemity between the two families. Monalisa’s grandfather has filed the F.I.R. suspecting it as a murder case and local police has investigated the matter.
Mamata’s brother, Dilip Mohanty is Cuttack District Youth Congress President. Opposition leaders allege that he has high level connections and is influencing the investigating agencies. So now Crime Branch is enquiring into the issue – that I am hearing. Mamata is now at SATAYU HEALTH HOME, Cuttack. When we tried to meet her the authorities did not permit us. Rather we were told to come with a permission letter from Dilip. We have heard that Dilip is not entertaining any media people or solidarity groups because opposition parties has sufficiently maligned his reputation. On learning this we did not contact Dilip. Only family members are permitted to meet her.
We took this incident seriously and wanted to write an article on it. This was our purpose of visit.
As Mamata’s brother is a political man we find it difficult to get space even to express our solidarity. We fear how Mamata would be able to lead a stable; life after release from HEALTH HOME. Police and neighbours may create problems for her. In Orissa social organisations have not taken it seriously. Media has highlighted the relationship as un-natural. People think of it as perverted.
My phone number is of my office. So am facing difficulty when you are disclosing the intention.”
On 24.12.98 ABVA had raised the issue at the weekly meeting of CALERI (a newly formed Delhi-based group, Campaign for Lesbian Rights) and comprising of about 29 organisations as well as concerned citizens. An appeal was made suggesting that some organisations should send a fact-finding team to Orissa. It is worth mentioning that CALERI was formed in the wake of a public demonstration at Regal Theatre, Connaught Place, New Delhi on 7.12.1998. The demonstration was to protest against the violent attacks and acts of vandalism resorted to by Shiv Sainiks (a right-wing outfit) in Bombay, Delhi and other parts of the country. The Shiv Sainiks wanted a ban on the film, FIRE, which allegedly hinted at a lesbian relationship.
Around the time Mamata – Monalisa case came to light, the media front-paged the issue of gang-rape of Anjana Mishra in Orissa. Some women’s groups held a public demonstration at Orissa Bhawan in New Delhi to protest against this crime, but there was a total silence on the Mamata -Monalisa case. Why this discrimination?
The Politics of Discrimination
The answer has been provided by CALERI. At its 25.2.1999 meeting it circulated the actual, unedited version of Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s quote from the HOLOCAUST currently widely used by trade unions, secular – liberal – democratic groups and revolutionary organisations in a censored form:
“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade-unionist. Then they came for the homosexuals, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a homosexual. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
Count the number of activists and organisations you know who have used the quotation in a censored form in some politically correct article published in a progressive magazine. It has been used in leaflets distributed by Marxist – Leninist groups struggling for a structural change in society or for total revolution.
The Politics of Silence
The demonstration against the ban on FIRE brought the political hypocrisy of most activist groups to the fore. Not surprisingly Shabana Azmi (a part-time activist) and Nandita Das (a one-time activist) who played the lead roles in FIRE refused to take a public stand in favour of lesbianism. Deepa Mehta, the Director of the film – thankfully with no pretensions to being an activist – publicly asserted that lesbianism is a distortion in society. While film personalities like Dilip Kumar, Mahesh Bhatt and others petitioned the Supreme Court for the film to be exhibited unhindered in movie theatres. M.Ps in Parliament, too, voiced similar concerns. Yet there was deathly silence on the issue of lesbianism itself by both the film personalities and the People’s Representatives! Historians in the next century would not be able to figure out what was the issue at stake in FIRE and the stand taken on it by Kuldip Nayar, Shabana Azmi and other MPs even as they were passionately urging Parliament to allow uninhibited screening of FIRE. Soli J. Sorabjee, the Attorney General of India, appearing on behalf of Union of India is reported to have volunteered to the Supreme Court that security would be provided to those film personalities receiving threats from Shiv Sainiks. The Supreme Court chose not to take a stand on the issue of lesbianism.
It is against this background that ABVA decided to send a Fact Finding Team to Cuttack.”
The fact finding team was able to access the legal documents got prepared by Mamata and Monalisa through their legal counsel. We reproduce them in their entirety.
The Report ‘For People Like Us’ carried a Charter of Demands at its end:
“ABVA urges the Indian Govt. to take cognizance of the following demands:
- Institute an Inquiry into the Mamata – Monalisa case and bring the facts before the public through the National Commission for Women (NCW).
- Provide best medical treatment to Mamata at State expense. She needs to be airlifted to AIIMS, New Delhi for Plastic Surgery/ Hand Surgery on her wounds around the hand and wrist.
- Withdraw all cases against Mamata to put an end to her harassment at the hands of the police.
- Have the Press Council of India issue guidelines for respectful and sensitive reporting in cases where relationship of 2 people of the same sex are involved.
- Legally recognize and encourage friendship agreements between single people of the same sex as a valid way of organizing family life.
- Alternatively, amend the Special Marriages Act to allow for marriages between people of the same sex (or between people who may be inter-sexed, or have undergone sex-change surgery, and any others). All consequential legal benefits of marriage should extend to gay marriages as well, including the right to adopt children, to execute a partner’s will, to inherit, etc. Same-sex couples should also be entitled to the legal benefits that accrue to their heterosexual counterparts of common law marriages.
No presumption as to fitness or unfitness for custody of a child or visitation rights shall arise based on sexual orientation of either parent in such a situation.”
Campaign Gathers Support
Barring a few rare exceptions it was only ten years after ‘Less than Gay’ was released that authors and academicians documented ABVA’s efforts for same-sex marriage in their works (books, academic journals). SACW (South Asia Citizens Web) and Countercurrents.org have consistently supported ABVA’s efforts for LGBTQIA rights including same-sex marriage. SACW has a separate section on Sexuality Minorities. Countercurrents Collective published on 15.08.2020 “A People’s Manifesto for Ecological Democracy” which included the following inter alia:
“All the laws that criminalise or discriminate against the LGBTQIA community should be abolished. India should pass laws that allows marriage among same sex and LGBTQIA communities.”
ABVA’s Campaign Continues
- ABVA has been consistently communicating with elected members of Parliament; Petitions Committee of Parliament; Union Health Minister; Union Health Ministry Officials; Opposition MPs every time there was a change of Central Government. In fact before General and State elections we had been sending requests to political parties to include Gay Manifesto in their Election Manifesto. We have extended support to transgender aspirants who have dared to fight elections.
- The issue was raised in a day-long public meeting organized by ABVA in 1992 at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. The theme of the meeting was ‘Politics of Sexuality’. Deliberations were held in a hall filled to capacity. A one-time heterosexually married woman (and lesbian) – shared her experiences amongst others. Full audio tapes of the meeting are available with ABVA.
- On 25 November 2022, ABVA released the 2nd Edition of ‘Less than Gay’ in which the Charter of Demands was reiterated and sent a copy of the report to the Home Secretary, Govt. of India for implementation of the Charter of Demands. Coincidentally the day this 2nd edition was released also happened to be the day when the Supreme Court heard the same-sex marriage petitions for the first time!
- My interview with Namrata Kolachalam, an American journalist based in Mumbai doing a radio piece for ‘The World’, was conducted through Zoom on 23 December 2022.
My philosophy all along has been that Parliament alone is the forum which could legislate on same-sex marriage. ABVA has been petitioning the Parliament to implement its Gay Manifesto since 1991 which includes the demand for same-sex marriage. In the interview I (a lawyer by profession) had emphasized that the “issue needs to be debated in the Parliament.”
During hearings of the same-sex marriage petitions by a 5-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India, the Chief Justice has reportedly articulated that Parliament alone can legislate on same-sex marriage!! This echoes and is in consonance with my own views. Full interview is available with ABVA Collective.
- An article written by me and published in Countercurrets.org on 14.01.2023 titled “Demand for Same-sex Marriage Pending Since 1991 – Indian Parliament Continues to Stonewall the Debate” stated:
“After the 2018 judgement of the Supreme Court several petitions were filed by same-sex couples in 2020-21 in various High Courts to legalize same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile Justice N. Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court is ensuring that the Union government, State government as well as allied entities put in place the systems required to ensure a dignified life for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and others (LGBTQIA+) community. As a result a series of interim orders have been issued by the judge. The State Government has in December 2022 assured the court that a policy for protection of the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community would be notified in three months. (The Hindu, 09.11.2022)
It was only in April 2022, a Member of Parliament Supriya Sule from Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) introduced a private member’s Bill in Lok Sabha titled “The Special Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2022” to amend the Special Marriage Act, 1954 to include same-sex marriage. Another private member’s Bill titled “The LGBTQIA+ Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2022” was introduced by M.P. Dr. DNV Senthilkumar from Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Both these Bills introduced in the Parliament have not been debated so far.
Meanwhile some couples in November 2022 have gone to the Supreme Court seeking legalization of same sex marriage. Besides on 6 January 2023 the Supreme Court of India transferred to itself all petitions on the issue of same-sex marriage pending in various High Courts. The judicial process should start at the bottom rung of the judiciary for any relief. The Supreme Court should have allowed the various High Courts to first adjudicate on the issue. This would have ensured nationwide debate at the state level judiciary, legislative assemblies, people and media. By transferring the petitions to itself it has short-circuited the process and set a bad precedent once again. Recall that when ABVA had filed the first petition for repeal of S. 377, IPC in 1994 it simultaneously urged all activist groups in India to flood the various High Courts with similar petitions.
ABVA is of the opinion that this could convert a broader political struggle to a narrow, legalistic framework. ABVA strongly advocates a continuous, peaceful democratic struggle of like-minded organisations and people for getting the Charter of Demands implemented. The judiciary has a very limited role in this regard. The Indian Parliament should be forced to debate all issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community. So far Parliament has resisted this move leaving it to the courts to adjudicate the matter. Parliament should legislate on same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court rules on the issue. This is the least atonement Parliament could do for human rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in India.”
The full article is available here.
- On 16.03.2023 as a last ditch attempt ABVA wrote an open letter to the Speaker, Lok Sabha, Parliament of India Re. same-sex marriage bringing to his notice that:
“In the case pending regarding same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court of India the Solicitor General has urged the court to let Parliament legislate on the issue – a long pending demand of LGBTQIA community.”
The Speaker was requested to use his power to get a debate in Parliament on this issue of urgent public importance.
- On 30.03.2023 ABVA sent an appeal to Member Countries of G-20 Summit 2023 in India impressing upon the hon’ble members that:
“Under India’s Presidency the G-20 Summit 2023 must resolve to get same-sex marriage legalised in each of the 20 member states. Many of the G-20 countries have up to two decade old record of allowing same-sex marriages introduced by legislation or through court rulings. Their rich experience of 20 years could contribute to a healthy discussion on the issue…
The AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan – based in New Delhi, India – which spearheaded the gay rights movement since 1988-89 brought out this Citizens’ Report (‘Less than Gay’) which summed up ABVA’s vision in the very first chapter ‘Why This Report’. Quote:
“… shouldn’t India be the focal point of a world-wide gay movement in the future?”
ABVA made the demand of same-sex marriage 12 years before any country in the G-20 group had legalised it! Canada did it in 2003-05.”…
In a world facing economic recession, the act of legalizing same-sex marriage worldwide would unleash forces favorable to the ‘pink economy’. In India the LGBTQIA population is said to be 80 to 100 million and this could further boost the fastest growing economy in the world – to wit India. Who knows that the gains of the pink economy could be very significant even as raising of repo rates by central banks globally have reached a stage where scheduled banks are going bankrupt and inflation is still not under control and there is the added burden of economic recession.”
- On 27.04.2023 ABVA sent an open letter to the Chief Justice of India and his companion judges stating:
“The organization ABVA (AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan) was formed in 1988-89 and has spearheaded the gay rights movement in India since then. All our activities have been documented and can be accessed at http://aidsbhedbhavvirodhiandolan.blogspot.com/….
Our experience of over three decades indicates that irrespective of the party in power at the Centre there is no intention to address the LGBTQIA issues.
So ABVA was forced to bring out another document in 2021 titled “The Struggle Will Continue Till Parliament Debates – Nay Concedes – The Gay Manifesto, 1991 New Delhi, India” which can be accessed here.
Through this letter we wish to appeal to you that gay rights movement in India be not ignored when the final judgement in the pending petitions is pronounced by the Hon’ble Court.”
- Again in May 2023 ABVA issued a press-release titled “Same-sex marriage pleas in the Supreme Court of India: LGBTQIA Community at the Crossroads” which was published in Countercurrents.org and SACW. It cautioned that:
“a minor concession being offered to the LGBTQIA community by way of welfarist steps. A government committee would be constituted to address the issues which could at best benefit a small section of the LGBTQIA community.”
ABVA suggested that:
“The Court having opened its mind on not granting same-sex marriage right, there is a greater need now to build a powerful movement and occupy Parliament Street, New Delhi to ensure the ‘Gay Manifesto’ to be debated and conceded by lawmakers in the Parliament. Sacrifices will have to be made in a long drawn-out struggle.”
Recent Media Coverage
Covering the same-sex marriage hearings, Ramya Maddali wrote in the magazine ‘Outlook’ on 29.04.2023:
“Beginning with the AIDS Anti-Discrimination Movement filing the very first petition seeking the decriminalisation of homosexuality to the clutch of petitions for ‘marriage equality’ currently being heard, the legal basis for “marriage equality for all,” in the words of Sr Adv Jayna Kothari, has been paved in steady increments.”
In the magazine ‘The Week’, June 2023 Ritcha George in an article titled “Pride Month 2023: Events to Watch Out For In Indian Cities” wrote:
“Pride Month in India
The onset of the Pride movement in India is associated with the discourse around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, an antiquated impact of the British era that criminalised homosexuality. The impact continued in spite of Independence and the implementation of Article 24 which promises equality to all. The first protest for gay rights in India took place on August 11, 1992, outside police headquarters in Delhi’s ITO area. The protests were led by AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), in opposition to the police who had arrested men from Central Park in Connaught Place on the suspicion of homosexuality. Thereafter in 1994, ABVA filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377 of IPC in the Delhi High Court and this is considered to be one of the first legal protests against the government repression of the LGBTQIA+ community in India.
In 2014, transgender were officially recognised as a “third gender,” and in 2017, the Supreme Court recognized sexual orientation and was protected under the fundamental right to privacy. After this, a revolutionary ruling struck down a colonial-era law and decriminalised homosexuality in 2018. In 2022, the top court ruled that unmarried or same-sex couples were entitled to welfare benefits. Furthermore, in 2023 the Supreme Court is actively hearing petitions that seek to legally validate same-sex marriages.”
Judges Dilemma: “To Be or Not to Be”
With the overarching patriarchal, heterosexually oriented Indian State looking over its shoulder has the Supreme Court bitten more than it can chew? It would have been judicious if the Supreme Court had let the various High Courts in India – where same-sex marriage petitions were pending – to adjudicate on the issue first. But Chief Justice of India, as the master of the roster, was in an apparent hurry to adjudicate on the issue. Otherwise it rarely happens that petitions come up for final disposal before a specially constituted Constitution Bench within 6-7 months of filing of those petitions. Why is the alacrity shown by the SC in listing the same-sex marriage petitions filed as recently as November 2022 not shown for all the constitutional matters filed prior to it? Some constitutional matters are pending in the Supreme Court for several decades. After all the Supreme Court is the court of last resort and not the first.
In any case the Supreme Court judgement on same-sex marriage pleas is expected to be pronounced after the summer vacations. The Supreme Court in this round of litigation is unlikely to grant the marriage equality in law sought for by the LGBTQIA community.
ABVA has been crying hoarse that it is for the Parliament to pass a law for same-sex marriage. And unless there is a sustained, powerful movement on public streets all over the country, Parliament would not oblige. A few LGBTQIA people have indeed been getting ‘married’ all along even though without force of law but with a measure of social sanction in some of these ‘marriages’.
The awaited SC judgement, whatever it may be, will not bring any fundamental change on the ground. In fact a declaration from the court will still need legislation from Parliament to make even an iota of difference. Benefits – if offered – in the form of pension, gratuity, provident fund; nomination for banks, insurance cover etc will impact less than 10% of LGBTQIA community. A classist idea which will divide the LGBTQIA community and break its unity for future struggles.
Indeed a long journey but still miles to go!
Shobha Aggarwal, Member, ABVA
(With inputs from P.S. Sahni, co-founder member, ABVA.)