RSS Ambiguity on Homosexuality Masks Larger Problem of Indian Polity

In light of the recent statements by RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale, The Wire takes a look at the lack of political will to decriminalise homosexuality among India’s leading political parties.

New Delhi: Speaking at an event on Thursday, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) joint general secretary Dattareya Hosabale said that he thinks homosexuality should not be criminalised. “I don’t think homosexuality should be considered a criminal offence as long as it does not affect the lives of others in society,” he said.

In doing so, he was echoing fellow RSS ideologue Ram Madhav’s stance on the issue, who had said during an interview in 2014 that “…while glorification of certain forms of social behaviour is not something we endorse, the penalising and criminalisation aspects need to be looked into.”

However, soon afterwards, Hosabale posted several tweets to clarify his opinion of homosexuality, saying that he thinks it is “immoral”, and needs “to be treated as a psychological case”. In an almost exact echo of Madhav’s interview, he insisted that while homosexuality should not be criminalised, he believes that it should not be ‘glorified’ either.

While this can be seen as a softening of the RSS’ stand on the issue of LGBTQ rights, it is also reflective of the problematic nature of the way the issue is perceived in India’s general political landscape.

The BJP’s stance

Unlike the RSS, its ideological mentor, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has neither been clear nor consistent about its stance on Section 377, the colonial-era law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While this ambiguously worded law can be applied to any non-procreative sexual act between two consenting adults, it disproportionately impacts marginalised LGBT communities in India.

In July 2009, the High Court of Delhi had struck down Section 377. This was widely hailed as a historic verdict which effectively decriminalised homosexuality in the country. In December 2013, the Supreme Court of India overturned this ruling. Home Minister Rajnath Singh — who was then the BJP’s President — had said that the party supported the Supreme Court’s judgement. “We support Section 377 because we believe that homosexuality is [an] unnatural act that cannot be supported,” Singh had said in a statement.

However, several party leaders have spoken out in favour of decriminalisation. In July 2014, then-Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan had spoken in favour of the human rights of LGBTQ people as being the government’s responsibility.

In a television appearance in January 2015, the party’s Maharashtra spokesperson Shaina NC had said that the party supports the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Mumbai’s BJP chief Ashish Shelar, and their Rajya Sabha MP Piyush Goel have both spoken in support of LGBTQ rights.

In June 2015, It seemed that Law Minister Sadanand Gowda had also spoken in favour of decriminalisation, but after the story broke in the media, Gowda denied it and insisted that he had been misquoted. Senior party leader, Subramaniam Swamy, supported Gowda’s denial and tweeted that the party thought of homosexuality as “a genetic disorder.”

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, on the other hand, said in 2015 that the Supreme Court’s order was “not correct”.

Considering that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a studied silence on the matter, and that the ruling party has made no efforts to support the amendment on scrapping of Section 377 through Parliament, statements such as Jaitley’s can be seen as as the expression of an individual opinion or an attempt to appeal to a liberal constituency.

The Congress’s role

But Jaitley is not the only politician that can be accused of paying lip service to the issue. Although the Congress’s 2014 manifesto, and subsequent statements by senior party leaders including Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and P Chidambaram have all been against criminalisation, the party has not been proactive about implementing its stated stance.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor announced in November 2015 that he was going to introduce a private member’s bill in the Parliament, seeking to amend Section 377 to decriminalise sex between consenting adults.

Tharoor attempted to introduce this bill into Parliament twice, once in December 2015, and again this month, but both times, the bill was not tabled. Members of his own party, who could have helped to push to table the bill, were absent.

In the aftermath of this failure, Tharoor tweeted, “Bitter disappointment as my attempt to introduce my bill to amend Section 377 defeated again. Several MPs who’d promised to vote in favour absent. So bigotry & homophobia on the BJP side met indifference & prejudice on the Opposition’s. Will have to leave it to the Supreme Court to resolve.”

Even more damning, the party had actually supported the criminalisation of homosexuality when P Chidambaram was Home Minister before it changed its stand.

Stand of smaller parties

Opinions among the various regional parties, too, are divided. While the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as well as the Aam Aadmi Party have been unequivocal in their opposition to Section 377, the Samajwadi Party has consistently held that it considers homosexuality “unethical and immoral.”

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanimozhi, the Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien, the Biju Janata Dal’s Jay Panda have all advocated for decriminalisation.

BJP’s ally PDP and the Shiv Sena have taken no clear stance on the issue. The Nationalist Congress Party’s stance has also gone back and forth, although some MPs in Pune, including representatives of the Shiv Sena and the NCP, said they would support the amendment of Section 377.

The lack of political will, only punctuated by statements from a few individual leaders, and parties with limited political power, is clearly reflected in the Parliament’s failure to even table Tharoor’s bill.

Facing hostility and indifference at the topmost echelons of India’s political spectrum, India’s LGBTQ citizens and their allies are now looking to the Supreme Court for the striking down of Section 377. The apex court had agreed to re-examine its 2013 decision this February.

In light of the general political apathy towards the decriminalisation of homosexuality, stray statements, heavily qualified by the ultra-conservative pracharaks of the RSS are only likely to add to the noise.