Section 377: A Spectre of the Raj

“MSM ke saath toh zabardasti hoti rehti hai,” says Ajeet Kumar matter of factly, as he sits before me in my hotel room, and tells me how he was recently raped by a group of men, including uniformed policemen, at the train station in Kanpur.

Ajeet, or Tony as he is nicknamed, describes himself as MSM, a clinical abbreviation of the term Men who have Sex with Men. It sounds like a box one ticks on a government form, unflinching and unfeeling. And yet, Ajeet has no better term to describe his sexuality.

There is not a trace of pity or anger in his voice, as he recounts his story. The details are horrific, but even more horrific, is the detachment with which he says it. His tone, more than his words, tells me that growing up and living in small-town India as a gay man, he has seen worse.

Tony does not remember how many men were there that night. “Teen-chaar,” he says, though there could have been more. The train station and bus stations in Kanpur like its parks and riversides are cruising points for the city’s queer community, and Tony has been a regular there ever since he realised as a teenager that he was what the locals called a “gaandu”.

What happened at the train station was not new; it was only the most recent of his encounters. Tony has never filed a police complaint. Even if policemen were not involved in his rape, he knows he would have just been shooed away. The police alternate between the role of perpetrators and mere silent spectators. They’ve never been protectors for the likes of Ajeet. And thanks to Section 377, they never will be.

Ajeet aka Tony was raped by policemen at Kanpur Railway Station. Thanks to Article 377, he could not file a complaint.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Enacted by the British colonial regime in 1860 to criminalise “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, the law was rooted in the colonist’s Judeo-Christian religious morality that abhorred non-procreative sex, and classified what MSMs like Tony did under unnatural offences: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment…”

Lacking precise definition, Section 377 has been subject to varied judicial interpretations over the years. Initially covering only anal sex, it later included oral sex, and still later, penile penetration of other orifices like folded palms. The law made consent and age of the person irrelevant by imposing a blanket prohibition on all sexual acts that did not include a penis and a vagina. And just like that homosexual men and women found their sexual expression and identity criminalised.

Couple this with another Raj legacy, police brutality, and we have a force intent on meting out punishment that uses Section 377 as a tool to harass, extort, and blackmail the LGBTQ community and prevent them from seeking legal protection from violence. Reports claim that within months of the reinstatement of Section 377, an article in the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested 127 gay men.

As a result, Tony and millions of MSMs like him scattered over small-town India cannot ever be called rape victims. They are simply bodies available for the taking.

Chachi (right) is a mother figure to many in the LGBTQ community of Kanpur, including Tony (left).

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Early in April 2010, the death of a gay professor at the Aligarh Muslim University in UP made national headlines. Shrinivas Ramchandra Sira, an award-winning poet, was also a gay man who kept his sexual orientation a secret for the two decades he spent at AMU. And all his fears proved right. The world around him didn’t let him live for more than a couple of months after he was dragged out of the proverbial closet by an intrepid local reporter. A sting operation by a television channel caught him in flagrante with a local rickshaw puller and aired the footage. An unofficial death warrant was signed.

The professor was fired, the rickshaw puller was picked up by the police, and the local media launched a witch-hunt against the pederasts who were polluting bharatiya sanskriti with their deviant sexuality. The event underlined the simmering homophobia rampant in the country, especially small-town India, particularly Uttar Pradesh where a katta (gun), mooch (mustache), and a large brood of children are integral to a man’s identity.

Tony is a slightly built, clean-shaven man who doesn’t conform to these markers of male identity. He had known for a few years that he was gay. He had dropped out of college after the uproar which followed the reveal. In the urban slums, which make up much of Kanpur’s sprawl, and were home to Tony and his family, an alternate sexuality was not talked about, let alone accepted.

Disowned by the only support system he knew, Tony turned elsewhere for love. Chachi, a 52-year-old gay man and community leader known as the “Sapnon Ka Saudagar”, became his mentor.

Chachi too is a slight man, a saffron tikka dominates a thin face, and the aroma of paan follows him everywhere. Another thing which never leaves his side is an old lanyard announcing that he is a member of an AIDS outreach programme run by the UP government.

He was the one who introduced Tony to condoms and the looming threat of HIV. He was also the one who introduced him to Khutni, the ciphered language, spoken by the queer community to fly under the radar in a world where coming out is not an option for most.

To demonstrate, he takes us to Nana Rao Park, a green acre, which sits at the very centre of the city. The evening is stepping into twilight and small clusters of men can be found all over. The old ones are snoozing, the young ones are bent over their mobile phones or participating in a noisy, expletive-laden game of football.

Tony points to an older man, his head hennaed to an almost neon shade of red, and says, “Yeh koti hai.” He then points to a group sitting on a bench nearby, “Woh dekho giriye baithe hain.” When one finally approaches the other, these will be the words of introduction.

In Khutni, koti is the man who prefers to be the recipient of the male organ during intercourse, or bottom in popular parlance. And giriya is the other half, also known as a top in anglicised circles.

Tony says he’s versatile – he can switch between both the roles, and the identities that come along. The actor in him comes out when he explains – at one moment he is gruff and at another his face softens, his hands become languid and he is at once coquettish and coy.

He personally does not frequent the park anymore. The action has moved to more “high-tech” venues, he says, the Facebook pages of the Kanpur Gay Club. The pages were a revelation, here men put out brief messages, requesting trysts. The preferences were spelt out, pictures attached, and phone numbers shared. Unlike the world outside, this is a safe space that the community has found to express and indulge in their loves and lusts. You could post a message here and an hour later, a suitor would come knocking at your doorstep.

Thanks to these “high-tech” venues, Tony has a fulfilling sex life, even though the threat of the police looms large. Being detained and questioned by the police is almost a daily routine for Tony and Chachi. They are usually let off after a few questions. The provocation could be anything, a condom found in their bag, a mannerism considered too feminine or simply “hilna-dulna” like they say in common parlance.

But surely, “hilna-dulna” is not covered under Section 377. Tony laughs it off and says, 377 is not the culprit here. “Inko nahi pata 377 ke baare main. Poocho toh kuch nahi aata.” According to him, it is pure homophobia, not the legal sanction Article 377 gives it, which is central to these humiliating episodes.

The call to abolish the archaic law may have become the war cry of the community, but in large swathes of this country, the number and its implications mean nothing.

It is a humbling realisation. We may denounce the British for their legacy, but it is we who perpetuate it. Even if India decriminalises homsexuality, like it was in the UK in 1967, life for Tony and Chachi will not change. They know they will always live in the shadow of fear.

But that doesn’t stop them from living. Or loving.