Whether or not Karan Johar comes out is a choice that should be left to him. It shouldn’t be a burden on him because of his privilege and influence.
I want to begin this with a disclaimer: I identify as a straight cis male. I can only attempt to understand the pain and the challenges that queer people face. Having said that, I speak as someone who considers himself an ally. I want to respond to Apurva Asrani’s post here about Karan Johar’s recent statements here. Apurva Asrani is someone whose work I have tremendous respect for. I write this with all the humility at my command and with an earnest intention of learning if I go wrong.
The crux of Asrani’s problem with what Johar said in the excerpt from his book appears to revolve around this part of Johar’s statement:
“Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. If I need to spell it out, I won’t only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this. Which is why I Karan Johar will not say the three words that possibly everybody knows about me,”.
In summary, Asrani argues that Johar’s statement is a) incorrect insofar as the interpretation of Section 377, Indian Penal Code is concerned b) regressive, cowardly and will push queer people back into their closets c) and that, in fact, more people, including Johar, need to come out.
At first glance, Asrani’s criticism about Johar’s interpretation appears to be correct. It is true that you cannot be arrested for merely saying that you are homosexual. However, Asrani is clearly unaware of the fact that even identifying as homosexual leads to tremendous harassment, blackmail and extortion at the hands of the police. A simple Google search will reveal plenty of such instances, but for starters please see this article in The Caravan and this report of Human Rights Watch, which document in great detail the harassment that homosexual people face in India. So, the only fault in Johar’s statement is the specific bit about being ‘arrested’ which, given the frequent harassment that homosexual people often face is, quite frankly, only a hyper-technical difference.
Later, in the same piece Asrani also says “Just for the record, I don’t know of a single urban, gay man or woman arrested for having penetrative sex.” Here is a report in the Deccan Herald which states that about 750 cases were registered and 600 people arrested under Section 377 of Indian Penal Code in 2014. While it is true that Section 377 is frequently used in matrimonial cases, as pointed out in the Caravan piece, the year 2014 — the year after the Supreme Court recriminalized 377 — witnessed a spike in the cases being filed. Sonal Giani, an advocacy officer at Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai based NGO that promotes health and human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities describes this spike as ‘alarming’ in the Caravan piece.
The mistake that Asrani therefore makes is that he proceeds with the presumption that ‘arrest’ is the only harm that people who come out as queer need to worry about. As the facts show, this is a dangerously incorrect assumption. So, while Johar may be incorrect in his belief that coming out may lead to arrest, he may actually be doing everyone a favour by raising awareness about the fact that coming out most certainly can lead to harassment at the hands of the police.
The second part of Asrani’s argument is focused on how people like him and Johar need to come out. He argues that there is a greater burden on Johar to do this given the privilege he enjoys in the society. He believes that Johar’s conduct reeks of hypocrisy since he repeatedly keeps making indirect allusions to his sexuality anyway. My response to this is twofold: firstly, I feel that putting aside Johar’s example for a moment, it is unfair to cast a burden on the oppressed to fight oppression. It is unfair to say ‘you must fight this injustice in x particular manner’. Yes, eminent personalities ‘coming out’ about their sexuality certainly goes a long way in eliminating stigma but it should be the choice of the person who belongs to the oppressed community to make that choice. Secondly, let us examine whether given his privilege, does Johar run any risk by explicitly ‘coming out’? In the same excerpt from Johar’s biography, he is quoted as follows:
“The reason I don’t say it out aloud is simply that I don’t want to be dealing with the FIRs. I’m very sorry. I have a job, I have a commitment to my company, to my people who work for me; there are over a hundred people that I’m answerable to. I’m not going to sit in the courts because of ridiculous, completely bigoted individuals who have no education, no intelligence, who go into some kind of rapture for publicity”.
Is there a risk of FIRs being filed despite Johar’s stature? I answer this with two reported instances – an FIR against Aamir Khan for a remark he made about India/Indians being intolerant and another against Karan Johar, actors Ranvir Singh, Arjun Kapoor, actresses Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt, and many others for their participation in the AIB roast show reported here. Yes, neither of these FIRs is under Section 377 but the point I am making is that frivolous FIRs can and are often filed even against celebrities. The fact that none have been filed yet with reference to Section 377 is no guarantee that one will never be filed.
Another criticism against Johar is that if he is indeed so worried, why does he keep making indirect references and jokes about his sexuality. The premise of this argument seems to be-either keep completely shut, or come out with an unambiguous and explicit admission. The fact is that in the eyes of an incompetent, bigoted judge, an explicit admission will have far more force than indirect allusions. Moreover, it is implicitly cruel to dictate how an individual must talk about his sexuality or the manner in which it should manifest in his personality, especially given the oppressive climate we live in.
Asrani also seems to blame Johar for the regressive judgment of the Supreme Court where the court observed that homosexual people are a “minuscule minority”. He cites this to urge Johar to come out. I don’t think that the failure of the Supreme Court to uphold the constitution and understand that fundamental rights are guaranteed to every individual, can be attributed to anything Karan did or said. It will be too optimistic to assume that courts will be moved even if every celebrity in India comes out. It is also pertinent to note here that The National Aids Control Organisation, a division of the ministry of health and family welfare filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that there are 25 lakh men who have sex with men in India. This did not persuade the court. Asrani concludes with repeating that it is not a crime to be homosexual in India. He asks, “How many will they arrest?”
As I have pointed out earlier, institutions such as the police and the government have myriad ways besides a formal ‘arrest’ to harass people. If this argument was sufficient to diffuse any fears about being persecuted by the state, there would be no need to fight for the decriminalisation of Section 377. Finally, given the times we live in, it is naive, if not perilous, to ask “how many will they arrest”. I, for one, wouldn’t want to tempt this government.
Dushyant is a lawyer based in Delhi.