Section 377, Aligarh and the Curious Case of Dr. Siras

As it considers curative petitions seeking the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Supreme Court must realise that acts of prejudice which provoke hate crimes and push people towards death need to be redeemed by the law.


Manoj Bajpai as Dr. Ramchandra Siras in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh

As  Aligarh, Hansal Mehta’s film on the death of a gay Aligarh Muslim University professor is about to be released, both curiosity and controversy are back over the issue. The film’s trailer has already created a buzz around it, and there is excitement from progressive sections. Manoj Bajpai, after acting the role of a maverick criminal in Gangs of Wasseypur, is back playing Siras in the film. The trailer shows him portraying a restrained and agonised character with raw intensity and poise. Slated for release on February 26, the film’s trailer has run into a hurdle, receiving an ‘A’ certificate from the Central Board for Film Certification, which will affect its promotions, including visibility on television. The trailer is evocative but there is no scene or dialogue that remotely provokes strong sexual connotations. It is clear the film’s subject matter itself has led the censor board to take such a step.

Not allowing the film to be introduced to viewers and filmgoers without the ‘A’ tag, is to corner it in advance, since it is based on a sensitive issue that still suffers from large-scale prejudice in this country and where the law has not stood up to defend its presence and rightful practice.

Ironically, homosexuality is taboo in this postcolonial nation with a history and culture where gay love and poetry have been no less than legendary. It is rather a painful farce to hear conservative harangues against gay love in the media and elsewhere.

The criminalisation of homosexuality in India came with Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by British colonialism. Today, it has become an article of faith for people of different religious moralities in India, in a strange show of colonial-minded solidarity with backward masters. If political sovereignty, logically and otherwise, means the sovereignty of thought and existence, the country should stand by its open culture – embracing all kinds of sexualities within its ways of life. Instead, queerness is always under threat and anxiety, having to justify itself in public to assert its rightful place in the world. Every year, the Pride parade unfurls the enchantment of seven colours on our streets to remind us that sexuality is a many coloured thing, not a monochromatic idea of heterosexual imagination. It brings to mind Amir Khusro’s use of “rang” or colour in his love poems as a metaphor to depict the overflowing of amorous feeling. It is time the Supreme Court grants the colours back to India’s sexual life and courting culture.

When, Prof. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, an author and linguist in Marathi literature, was found dead in his residence on April 8, 2010, the case was shrouded in controversy. Siras had been suspended earlier by the university for being gay. He faced an enormous degree of intrusion as his private life turned into a spectacle for public consumption. Six years after his death, it is heartening to see an actor of Manoj Bajpai’s calibre and acclaim, not only talk about his playing the professor with excitement but also speaking out clearly against criminalising sexual preference.

On February 2,  the Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on curative petitions seeking the reversal of its 2014 verdict re-criminalising homosexuality. Siras’s death – the ugly story of what went down in Aligarh some six years ago – is a reminder of what’s at stake.

The question of  shame

When Siras’s body was discovered, the police and others said it couldn’t be murder as the doors were locked from inside. As if locked doors were such a conclusive clue. The farce of prima facie evidence has been used to transform countless murders into suicides. Suicide is the official euphemism for murder in India. It has become the most convenient cover-up story. What comes readily to the investigating police officer’s lips is “suicide” whereas the most obvious possibilities of deliberate poisoning or other subtle ways of stage-setting a murder as suicide doesn’t seem to occur to the qualified gentleman. Such a defensive strategy raises more suspicion than hope. Worse is the tacit assumption that suicide is an angst-ridden private act whereas even legitimate suicide cases are socially instigated.

The lure of shaming others publicly now has a lethal weapon: the spy-camera. The spy-camera, used to shame something ethically private before the eyes of the public, gets into a dangerously unrestricted territory of manipulation. It ends up being a bizarre syndrome where neo-perverts exploit others for money or revenge. The film Love, Sex and Dhoka showcased how women are used as tools into unknowingly performing sexual acts before a hidden camera for the sake of profit. Other people are made victims of hate because of their queer sexual identity. Their sexual practices are termed ‘immoral’ by the moral police who comprise religiously conservative, heterosexual goons.

This psyche was exemplified by those students who surreptitiously filmed Siras’s consensual sexual act, as if Siras being gay posed a threat to the paranoid norms of the hyper-masculine, heterosexual brigade. They decided to strike back at the professor with a fascist mindset. It was a premeditated act by the students in the name of stirring up an utterly reactionary public scandal. They saw themselves as representatives of the entire heterosexual community’s moralistic concerns. This seemed to legitimise their act. They gave the impression, as if acting in the larger interest kept them outside charges of private motivations. But what is most private is the pleasure involved in shaming. The pleasure of shaming occurs in the individual, even though it is shared in the larger realm of public consumption. The pleasure of shaming comes from the desire to humiliate. Humiliation is instigated by the breakdown of altruistic ties among human beings. In such an exceptional situation, hate wages war against shame.

Shame is the irreducible, ethical essence of a human being. Humiliation is aimed at the dis-possession of the other’s shame. But it includes the violator’s shamelessness. Shamelessness is the most consciously violent mode of terrorising shame. Humiliation is the most venomous form of shamelessness, while erotic shame, always exposed to the possibilities of assault, is the most vulnerable part of our solitude. Kafka had painfully discovered “the violation of solitude”(to use Milan Kundera’s phrase), chased by the state’s secret police. Siras had discovered a similar kind of violation in the shape of a bunch of heterosexual moralisers hell-bent on exposing his private life to public gaze in the name of social duty. What is common in both cases is the desire to humiliate the victim and try and ensure that “the shame of it must outlive him”, to quote the last line of The Trial.

The question of justice

The question of justice takes on a different dimension after the victim’s death. It shifts the whole responsibility to the public who are concerned about the victim receiving justice at the hands of the state. Siras symbolised a collective cause – of gay rights and a respectful place for sexual minorities in Indian society. The question of justice in Siras’s case encompassed a larger justice which is awaited in favour of the gay cause in India.

“Murder is not the crime of criminals, but that of law-abiding citizens,” said Emmanuel Teney, meaning we cannot make easy distinctions between criminals and law-abiders. People follow the law to keep their own hegemonic interests intact. The law itself is a product of and run by the dominant class. It suits this class to be within law. But once the hegemonic order is threatened by people who challenge their social, cultural and sexual norms, the dominant class takes recourse to violence outside the law, in the name of another law. It is the notion of justice before justice – a pre-judicial justice, violently meted out by the moral vanguards of society. It challenges modern law and the foundation of its secular institutions. These institutions have to be predisposed in favour of the victimised crusaders and act against such criminal law-abiders. Or else these institutions of justice would be accused of being complicit in fostering prejudice.

Siras’s case was a reminder for the law to push its horizons further in order to expand its vision of justice. It asked of law to empower those identities struggling to gain a foothold in our society. In a democracy, people should have the right to have sex, ideas and values according to their human dispositions. The state of hypocrisy and denial in our society can’t be cajoled by the institutions of justice. It will be a national shame if people who want to live truthfully are made to live in fear.

Acts of prejudice which provoke hate crimes and push people towards death need to be redeemed by the law. Until then, justice will elude the victims of endless violence.

[This article draws upon an earlier piece by the author published in Humanities Underground, on December 2, 2012]

Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.