They mock me if I fall silent
I’m done for if I dare speak
– From Kafi 16, Madho Lal Hussein.
On November 29, a few thousand people will walk in Delhi to celebrate queer pride. As they do so, they will be reinforcing their right to love. This event is particularly poignant in times of love-jihad and intolerance. As they march, they will be walking a well-plotted path in the sub-continents history, which has celebrated and accepted expressions of same-sex love in the past. A history that was systematically decimated by our colonial rulers to end our diversity and plural traditions, one that we are also actively working to destroy today.
The story of Madho Lal Hussain, one of the most celebrated and revered medieval saints of the Indian subcontinent, is an illustration of this tradition. A Sufi, Hussain’s passionate love for a young Hindu man named Madho is well-known. He loved him so fervently that he came to be known as Madho Lal Hussein. These lovers, Madho and Shah Hussein, lie buried next to each other outside the Shalimar Gardens. Each year thousands congregate at their mazaar to commemorate their love – both spiritual and worldly.
Rereading Shah Hussein in these intolerant times, when one may as easily be killed for professing love that questions societal boundaries as easily as one may be for eating beef, is particularly comforting. Though neither of these acts are criminal either by law or by historical tradition.
Ironically, recent claimants to the sub-continent’s golden past and historical traditions often obfuscate the truth about its greatest tradition of accepting love in all its diverse forms. There are numerous stories of same-sex love across religious cultures in the Indian subcontinent. We have always celebrated love in every hue and form and considered it a path to the divine. The story of Madho Lal Hussain makes many transgressions that would barely be tolerated today in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, yet his story endures and, if we look closely, guides us through our history.
Still negotiating their colonial baggage and history, nations in the Indian subcontinent seem determined to accept notions of Victorian morality instead of understanding and celebrating their own traditions of love. The right to love, the right to dissent and right to question seem now more at risk within these countries than ever before. Ironically, they deny their traditions of tolerance and diversity, unable to recognise that we had achieved a certain inclusiveness that the West is only aspiring for today.
A Hindu loving a Muslim, a Dalit loving a Brahmin, a man loving another – crossing such boundaries can be punished in numerous ways by law and by society. But none are more severe than a denial of love itself; if we are not allowed to love freely, how do we negotiate other rights? What do they really mean?
In that crowd on November 29, there will be parents, lovers, friends and supporters. The press will be jostling for mesmerising images. The crowd will carry on unperturbed because they couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks of them. There are those that will be forced to wear masks – that does not mean that their right to love has been curtailed. That they still chose to walk merely reaffirms it.
The right to express same-sex love may not exist today but the ability to love always will. A court may give or take a right, a society may not grant equality and acceptance, but the human condition seeks what it wants. If it wants love, it will seek it no matter how illegitimate you make it.
Archaic laws, intolerance, prejudices and ignorance will not stop this seeking. Instead they will spur it. In times of growing intolerance, a parade like this will only reinforce the right to love, to live in equality and with freedom. It’s a protest against a deliberate inequality that society inflicts on millions that are different. It’s also a reminder to those intolerant ones that expressions of love are diverse.
Those that will watch from the sidelines may be startled; few others may look away in disgust or in apathy. How the onlookers view this parade is insignificant. It will not matter to those who participate in it. Like Shah Hussein they are used to derision toward expressions of their love.
Love will thrive, even in these intolerant times. The more you forbid it, the more fervently we will love. Here, too, Shah Hussein provides hope and courage when he writes: Let’s live, next to the lover let’s live; Litany of sins, heaps of mockery, let’s bear it all living close to the lover.