Muzaffarnagar: On a government nowhere to be seen

Muzaffarnagar was a laboratory ahead of Lok Sabha polls. Four months have gone by after the worst communal mayhem in western Uttar Pradesh and hundreds of riot victims in Muzaffarnagar are still staring at an uncertain destiny. Death and despair is what defines the lives of victims spending their nights facing the fury of a relentless winter in relief camps.

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I spoke to Badri Narayan, Professor of Social History and Cultural Anthropology at GB Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad’s Jhusi on riots, governance in UP and how communal cauldron may change electoral  on December 27, 2013 for Deccan Herald.

Riots happened in August and the victims remain a hapless lot. Has governance completely broken down in UP so that one cannot get relief in such situations? 

You might have seen how administration dealt with riots. It shows that governance is in bad shape. You are hearing everyday about Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav scolding this minister or that bureaucrat saying they should not do this or that. I am not able to understand why they are not able to do provide relief to Muslims, who are one of their core bases. Why are they not able to help them out? It means governance is not in their hands. Either they do not have expertise or they are just inefficient.

Didn’t the victims deserve a better deal?

Those in camps are facing a very bad time. In this severe cold, they are without proper blankets, not enough water and no toilets. People are suffering from diseases and some have succumbed. As the government has failed in attending to their problems, now the leadership is talking against victims. Mulayam’s recent remarks that those staying in relief camps are conspirators belonging to Congress and BJP shows that desperation. The whole discourse has turned for worse.

UP government also came with compensation for Muslims, which invited criticism from Supreme Court. Is SP playing the communal card? 

SP tried to do communal politics. In UP, Muslims have become anti-SP now. They are inclined to move towards Congress. But Congress is not able to capture this segment, as they have no visibility at the grassroots. Muslims are known for strategic voting. I feel, in eastern UP where the Congress is strong, Muslims will vote for them and in other places, they may vote for parties like SP or BSP, which can win against BJP. BSP this time will improve the votes they get Muslims.

People know what happened in Muzaffarnagar. But the question is why Muzaffarnagar riots happened?

It happened because of SP and BJP. Both are eager to perform well in this key state in the general elections. Mulayam is eager as he has ambitions of becoming Prime Minister. It appears that there was some consensus on mobilising Muslims and Hindus. But the grammar of communal riots is that we cannot control riots once it becomes big. Those who organise communal riots believe that they can control its pace. But when it flares up, they cannot control. May be, they wanted to have small tensions but when it happened, it happened in a big scale. On SP side, you have Azam Khan delivering fiery speeches and on the other, the BJP-RSS using the plank of honour of women for mobilisation. First time, you witnessed riots in the villages.

BJP was very worried that they wanted to mobilise Hindus through Hindutva plank by creating small-small communal movements, riots in UP. It was their tactics. They created small-small communal tensions in UP, which is a very key state for the Parliamentary elections. They were very anxious how to mobilise Hindu/Hindutva votes. Development is okay but you cannot emotionally charge people everytime using it and get people out of their homes to vote for Modi. Development cannot alone win votes. So it was development with Hindutva.

So they decided to play the Hindu-Muslim game. Thats why Giriraj Kishore and all went to meet Chief Minister. Akhilesh Yadav even could not sit infront of them. They got a lot of respect from Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Then there was the RSS’ Beti Bahu Bachao campaign. This is an old RSS tactics. Using women’s honour for mobilisation, that Muslims are insulting our women, having relationship with Hindus, that they are doing this and they are doing that. They made it an emotional issue for any Hindu, or any Muslim or anybody. First time, in the villages you witnessed riots. Riots are an urban phenomenon.

You mean to say that Muzaffarnagar riots may have an effect on the Lok Sabha elections in UP, especially among Muslims? Will it consolidate Hindu votes also?

Already RSS is trying to disseminate the message of Muzaffarnagar riots. Statements coming from certain VHP leaders points towards that. Then there is mobilisation in the name of Modi, an image spread by media of a man of development. That image may be spread to rural areas also. Then they will also play the backward caste card to project Modi among rural masses. I will call this a political narrative based on ‘development+’, which means development plus hindutva plus backward caste card. The riots may have an effect across UP and there may be resonance in other states too, especially among Muslims.

The riots had broken the ages-old Muslim-Jat relationship in the sugar belt. There are many theories about political realignment in UP that Jats have moved on to BJP from Ajit Singh’s RLD. Has the relationship between Muslims and Jats have broken?

You should understand the mechanics of communal riots. The conflict always happens with those who are your neighbours and not with those who are far. They were intimate neighbours and they had love and hatred for each other at the same time. That hatred part was mobilised by BJP. This harmed the social fabric. It will take long time to repair that relationship.

Amidst all these, how is BSP placed? 

BSP support base in UP is strong enough. But in western UP, they are also in loss because Balmikis and Jatavs, a core base of BSP, are becoming sympathetic towards BJP. Mayawati understands this and that is why she is very anxious about it. But her base in eastern and central UP is intact. But the kind of mobilisation, if the Brahmins and other upper caste, who supported Mayawati in the previous elections, may move towards BJP, that could be a loss for BSP.

With Delhi elections throwing a surprise, do you foresee an AAP surge in UP?

No, I don’t think AAP will be successful in UP. AAP is a middle-class phenomenon of metros. In UP, you do not have such an audience.

PS: India has witnessed 725 communal incidents this year till November 28 in which 143 were killed and 1978 injured. Uttar Pradesh was at the top of the list with 250 incidents in which 95 were killed and 113 injured.

(An edited excerpts of this interview appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spotlight Section on Decemb er 29, 2013)

‘We cannot allow government into our bedrooms’

A Friday afternoon (Dec 20, 2013), nine days after Supreme Court recriminalized a colonial law dealing with “unnatural” sex, I walked into the office of Naz Foundation in south Delhi’s East of Kailash to find out from the NGO’s founder Anjali Gopalan what it meant by the Supreme Court. Anjali, a former journalist who was in students politics alongside Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, started the legal fight along with the LGBT community on the issue way back in 2001. Now with the Supreme Court verdict it has come full circle for her.

Anjali is calm. She sits for a relaxed chat on a sofa in her basement office along with one of her pets. Hours before, the Government had filed a review petition in Supreme Court against the Section 377 order.

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It has been a legal fight for last 12 years. LGBT community tasted success in 2009 with Delhi High Court verdict but isn’t it back to square one now?

 The fact that we are back to square one is disheartening. Because when we talk about the Delhi High Court judgement it is so situated in our Constitution, it talks about inclusiveness, it talks about non-discrimination and when I read that judgement I felt it was such a well-thought through and written judgement. With the judgement what happened was homosexuality got decriminalised. And because of decriminalisation, a lot of young people found the guts and courage to be able to come out. It is not an easy situation at the best of times. So, for something like this to happen, people come out, talk about openly, take the risk and talk about being homosexual. And now we have come to this. Four years down the line, suddenly the Supreme Court says, sorry go back into the closet, you are criminalised again. I had gone through the judgement, it makes such a difficult reading. It is so impossible to understand. But more than that the hard part is it is so sad that in this age an apex court is taking a regressive stand. We are talking about rights and people’s existence. Basically by this argument you are putting everyone who is not a majority….it has far reaching implications on the lives of many many people. And making assumptions like, you know, even to say something regressive comments like that there aren’t many numbers of gay people. What does it mean? If there aren’t numbers, does it mean that you can stamp them out of existence. Is that what they are trying to say?

Supreme Court has said there is not much merit in your (Naz) argument about harassment and that police records show less than 200 cases in all these years.

The stand that even there are 200 cases is an issue. Here we are talking about consenting adults. We are not talking about rape. If there is no consent, it is a rape. We are not condoning that by any stretch of …I think our biggest problem is what is in the mind of people who sit in positions where they can make decisions affecting thousands of lives. People equate homosexuality with paedophilia. Somewhere at the back of their mind, this assumption is there. One of the most common responses is what will happen to all these young boys. My point is paedophilia exists, most of the cases that have come to the fore are that of heterosexual men molesting (minor) girls. I do not say that homosexuals do not molest young boys. But I am saying that it is across the board. It is not only homosexuals who are paedophiles. So are heterosexuals. I think that we need to understand that. We are not talking about sex with two consenting adults. We are talking about molesting a minor. And no one condones that. Not us. Not anybody in their right mind can condone it. But to always equate the two…?

The common response I get from people is that to accept homosexuality, everyone will become homosexuals. That it will encourage homosexuality. This comes from a very deep seated fear of not knowing how to deal with something you have no idea about. How is it possible that everyone is going to become homosexual just because you accept homosexuality? Does that mean that the world is largely homosexual? And that is what we are worried about? Where is this fear coming from? Somewhere we have to understand that just because we accept homosexuality, it does not mean that all men are at risk. Just like among heterosexuals. You need to understand that even if you are a heterosexual, you do not find everyone among the opposite sex attractive. So it is not logical the kind of responses we get.

It appears that there are many prejudices against LGBTs.

People have the right to think what they think. I am not taking away that right. There are many things the way we think, whether it is the religion or your God, whether it is what we believe to be moral. I am saying if that is good for you, please follow that. No one is asking to take it away from you, from your sense of what is right and what is wrong. But here, this is a secular country. This is not a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim country. If you are in a secular country, we have to accept rights, which are equal for everyone. It is as simple as that. And if you do not like people who are homosexual or you do not like homosexuality, do not promote in your congregations. No one is asking you to do so.

This fear that everyone is going to become homosexual where is that coming from. It is such a deep seated fear I can’t tell you. And I have been told about what will happen to the population. Is it really what we need to worry about? That is least of our problems.

There is a lot misconception. How are you going to counter it? How do you educate people?

There is a lot (of misconception). Therefore it is very important for us to continue engaging people, forming larger coalitions because it is not just a fight for LGBT by LGBT. It has to be a fight by larger democratic forces. It is not a fight for one community for itself. It is not a fight of one community against another. It is a question about your right to exist. Your right to be not seen as a criminal just because of whom you are. Your right not be put in the same bracket as robbers, murderers, thieves and rapists just because you are gay or you belong to LGBT community. I respect the stand others take against the LGBT. I am not forcing them to change their stand. But when it comes to the law and protection, when it comes to equality and inclusiveness, then I think we have to be really careful.

If you see the list of petitioners against LGBT community in the Supreme Court, a majority are religious institutions or associated with them. 

What are they scared of? My heart to goes out to them that they are insecure in what they believe in. If you are so insecure in what you believe in or in your God or the religion that you want to, then you need to look within and see what it is. Where is that fear coming from? I think all these religious guys know that there are enough people in their own religion who belong to the LGBT community, who are in their own way religious and believe in their Gods. It is not as if they do not have a belief system, that they are some barbaric human beings emerged out of nowhere with two horns and a tail. So I just think we need to learn to respect diversity. As a culture, we are taught to discriminate from the time you are in the womb. I think it is part of our genetic makeup. We are taught to discriminate. Now it is time to teach our young people, to learn to respect. And I am saying, respect (others with their) differences. Unless we do that we will continue being this regressive society that we have become.

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You referred to culture. Indian culture is one thing that is thrown at the LGBT community to say that they are wrong and that homosexuality is abnormal. How true is this? How do you defend this argument?

There are a lot of references to homosexuality and homosexual ways of living in our mythology. This law you should remember it is from 1860. It is from the British era and the terminology of the law is that of Judeo-Christian traditions. It has nothing to do with Hinduism. Only thing you need to do is to step back and go back to Mahabharata where there are a lot of references. You look at the whole story of Lord Ayyappa. Why go far? Then you look at Vatsyayan. I do not from where this argument is coming from. And the moment you say any of these things, the gurus if they are gurus, look at the state of these gurus today. Look at Asaram (Bapu) and his son (who faces allegations of sexual assault) or whoever. So I do not know, when you say all these things, they say it is not part of our traditions. No matter what you say they will say this. I accept that way of thinking long as they do not take away the rights and dignity of someone.

LGBTs say Section 377 takes away their dignity, privacy and all rights. Also, criminalisation of the community also has a risk in as it creates problems in the fight against HIV/AIDS. What will happen if the law is not changed?

The thing we will have to ensure that the law does change. We will have to ensure that the keep up the fight till this regressive law is removed. Because, we cannot allow the government into our bedrooms. I just have a problem with that. Denial of rights, that every citizen in this country takes for granted, the right to marry, right to adopt, the right to inheritance. It is so sad that because of this regressive environment we live in and this negative environment we live in… I will give an example. You may be living with a person in a homosexual relationship for many years. You were in a very caring, loving relationship with that person and if that person lands in a hospital or dies, the family can completely deny your existence, you are not even allowed to grieve. You are not allowed to go into a hospital to take care of him. So can you imagine the level of discrimination that exists and denial just because you are not a straight couple. All of that is taken away from you even if you are in a committed relationship. Don’t forget, in a culture that values marriage, that if you are not married, you don’t exist. It is very difficult to live as a single person in this culture. So by denying people every basic right we can think of and unfortunately, in the case of this HC judgement all that happened was that homosexuality was decriminalised. We hadn’t even started talking about rights.

What is been interesting is the response of many people, the wave of rage that was observed last Sunday (Dec 13,, 2013), in so many cities across the world. People came out and protested against this judgement. Many cities in this country protested. It wasn’t just LGBTs but from every walk of lives. So this is an indication of what people are feeling. Even the courts do not have the pulse and the response of media fabulous. Somebody told me only the English media which supported LGBT. I pointed out look at Tamil media, Malayalam media. So to say it is wrong to say that only English media is pro LGBT. First for all, language media has been very supportive. That tells us something. So I thing we are missing the plot somewhere.

Many parents are coming in open to support their children who have a different sexual orientation. Is it that things are changing?

One of the reasons initially why we challenged the law was because of parents. I do a lot of counselling of parents of homosexuals. So the response of the parents was that if it is so normal and natural, why it is seen as a criminal act. You have to give them that space to feel safe to acknowledge it. Lots of parents have taken a stand and come out in open to support their children. Many were party to the Supreme Court case. That is why I don’t understand when the Supreme Court has said what it has said now.  It is not making sense to me at all.

Political parties like Congress also support your stand. Is there a change in awareness among parties and people?

Many parties are supporting our stand whether it is the Congress or AAP. It may be because a lot more young people have come into these parties. And I have been able to watch their thoughts because change will happen through younger generations. If you look at the experience of other countries and Spain is a very good example. They are religious Christian country but they recently legalised gay marriages. This came out when their Parliament got a lot of young people. That’s when changes happen. The average age of our Parliamentarians is on the older side. They have a certain ideas.

In 2001, when you started the legal fight what was the mood of people towards homosexuality. Did it change with the 2009 High Court judgement? And in 2013 December how do you see the changes?

With the July 2, 2009 HC judgement, one good thing happened. With that judgement and the kind of response we got from the media, this was an issue which was discussed in every drawing room. No longer could we take the stand that homosexuality is alien to India, it is a western phenomenon or it doesn’t happen in India or it is just the western educated people who are homosexuals. We could not slip it under carpet anymore whether we like it or not. Which is why it is really difficult for people to step back. But Supreme Court now says, yes you were decriminalised at one point of time but now are you are criminalised again which I think is wrong. It is very difficult to swallow. How can you tell all the people, sorry now you are criminals and putting their lives at risk. Can you imagine what will happen? I can imagine the most horrifying scenarios. Tomorrow if someone has something against two men living under a single roof and a complaint by you can land him in jail. Harassment is going to be unbelievable because with the 2009 judgement the police got reined in. That must make them so angry. Can you imagine how viciously they will behave now? It is not as Supreme Court said that there are no big numbers. FIRs are not filed. Because, the police is harassing you. taking money from you. Why they file FIRS.

You fear that it is going to be really difficult for LGBTs?

For me it is an issue of only rights. You cannot deny the rights. Another thing the Supreme Court said is that they are very few in numbers. How did they get that fact from? No one knows what the numbers are? But even if you say, LGBTs are ten per cent of the population it is a huge number. This is the apex body which is supposed to uphold the rights of people. Even if it is one person or 100 million, how can you differentiate?

An educated person like Yashwant Sinha dragged this judgement into a diplomatic row between India and the US, saying the foreign diplomats who are gays should be arrested using the judgement. Your comments.

I wish they stop embarrassing us. They sound like archaic, backward, Neanderthal people. How dare he say something like that. It is very sickening.

Next plans?

Most probably, our plan is that we will also file a review petition. So we will do that. We will continue to work with communities to change their mindset. One is law. To bring about any kind of change, we need to change law. Other is values and ethics and if we believe something is right, then it is important for us to explain to people why we believe so. So just because someone disagrees, I think it is fine to disagree, because just as we believe something is right and they believe is wrong but it is very important for us to make people to look at the issue with a different lens. And a good example is Sati law. After the law changed that practice, it took some time for the people to understand why that law was a good law. It happened but. So I think it is also a question of understanding the issue better. So we have to continue doing that.

How hopeful you are? If the law does not change? 

I am always hopeful because if I lose hope, then I stop functioning. We do the work we do not because we are gaining out of it. We believe in something. And therefore you to continue to believe in what you believe, by fighting for what is right, there has to be hope.

(Edited excerpts appeared in SPOTLIGHT section of Deccan Herald on December 22, 2013)

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