India’s Supreme Court Ruling

section-377.jpg
On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. The section – enacted in 1861 when India was still a British colony – effectively criminalized gay sex.

India’s LGBT communities erupted in euphoria. The Indian and international press joined in the jubilation with one BBC headline ringing, “India’s Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Sex … ”

The Supreme Court’s decision marks an important beginning for India’s LGBT and for the country. For India’s sexual minorities, it represents a victory in a long struggle against an inhumane and draconian law. For India, the ruling holds the promise of a new era where India starts to step out from the shadows of its colonial past.

I too was euphoric after reading the headlines only to confront a few sober realities.

First, the Supreme Court of India ruling has not legalized gay sex. It has declared that the law discriminated against LGBT sex is unconstitutional. The law is still in force and cannot be repealed or amended except by an act of Parliament.

Second, as long as it remains on the books, the section will continue to be invoked. Certainly, a better off and well-informed gay Indian will now challenge a policeman who tries to lay a charge. But those LGBT Indians who are poor, working class or villagers are less likely to contest the enforceability of the law.

Third, the ruling leaves untouched the more basic challenges facing India’s LGBT communities. In particular, the ruling does not recognize India’s LGBT communities as legal persons who can claim basic rights or freedoms as any other Indian. It has brought India’s LGBT persons out of the shadow of criminality, without making them persons under the law.

If anything, the Supreme Court ruling stands for the same principle that Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made back in 1967 that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Tushar Mehta, the Assistant Solicitor-General for the Government of India, has otherwise made it clear that the Government of India will construe the ruling narrowly so as not to accord legal status to the LGBT citizens of India in terms of marriage, property rights, government benefits or inheritance.

India’s LGBT communities have just won their first battle against the state, but their war for recognition as equal citizens under the law has yet to begin.

The Gay Faqir

shahhussain.jpg
Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. His love for a young man, Madho Lal, is legendary. Shah Hussain and Madho Lal are buried side by side at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

When I read Shah Hussain for the first time, I felt like I was looking back at myself five hundred years ago. Reading his work, as a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then recently put off to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

‘Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Ke Leeye – For Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’ a poem by Amna Buttar

‘I read the story and frankly I don’t see a point to it. Her poetry tells her story poignantly and eloquently. This story is more like yellow journalism and is demeaning to the legend called Nasreen Anjum Bhatti.’

Amna Buttar
.

نسرین انجم بھٹی کے لئے

میرا اندر اور میرا باہر
سب تمہارا ہے
میں نے اپنے آسمان کو
اور
اپنے پاتال کو
الفاظ
کے موتیوں میں
پرو کر
تمہارے گلے میں مالا ڈال دی ہے
سوئمبر تو نہیں تھا
مگر پھر بھی
بس اتنی_ بنتی ہے
تم سے
میرا بھرم رکھنا
.

Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Ke Leeye
By Amna Buttar

Mera andar aur mera bahir
sab tumhara hai
main ne apnay aasmaan ko
aur apnay pataal ko
ilfaaz ke motiyon main pro ker
tumharay galay main mala Daal de hai
soimber tau nahin tha
magar phir bhi
bus itni beenti hai
tum se
mera bharm rakhhna
.

Amna Buttar is a poet and politician who works as a physician with New York University (NYU).

Amna wrote this poem after reading a story recently published and launched in Lahore that attempts to degrade and demean the Late Punjabi author Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and others. View details at the link below:
uddari.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/thinfest-promotes-gutter-literature-in-punjabi
..

Thinkfest Promotes ‘gutter literature’ in Punjabi

Thinkfest 2018 chose to promote a sub-standard work on the life of Punjabi author, radio artist and arts activist Nasreen Anjum Bhatti. There was an intense demonstration of solidarity with the late author by people who were there to protest against this choice.

Nasreen Anjum Bhatti reads from her first collection of poetry ‘Neel Karayaan Neelkan’.

The aware Punjabi writers and artists have described the story as ‘yellow journalism’, ‘tabloid literature’, and, of course, ‘gutter literature’.

The text proceeds to carry out ‘character assassination of progressive Punjabi writers such as Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Shaista Habib, Zubair Rana and Fauzia Rafique’, and it does so in a misogynistic, homophobic and degrading manner. The story is penned by Nain Sukh aka Khalid Mahmood in his book called ‘ayi buray de wa’. The so-called story is a collection of inaccuracies where there are as much as FIVE factual mistakes in FOUR lines of text- about one of the writers attacked who, incidentally, is still alive to point them out.

Uddari fully supports Naeem Sadhu, Lahore’s Feminist Collective, and other individuals and organizations that are getting together to stop this attempt to legitimize yellow journalism as literature, and to resist this onslaught of conservative patriarchal mindset that demeans and degrades women, lesbians, gay men and religious minorities.

Down with the erstwhile ‘friends’ who are promoting and supporting this abusive and filthy text, and who are insisting that it should be accepted as Punjabi literature.

Fauzia Rafique
https://gandholi.wordpress.com/
frafique@gmail.com

Also view
‘Nasreen Anjum Bhatti Ke Leeye – For Nasreen Anjum Bhatti’ a poem by Amna Buttar
..

Film Review: Aligarh

aligarh-still1-759

Directed by Hansal Mehta

Starring: Manoj Bajpayee (Ramchandra Siras); Rajkummar Rao (Deepu Sebastian); Ashish Vidyarthi (Anand Grover).

Aligarh is a drama based on the true story of Ramchandra Siras. Siras was dismissed from his position as Chair of Modern Indian Languages from Aligarh Muslim University in 2009, on charges of homosexuality. Mehta’s film is both a sensitive look into Siras’ life and a nuanced critique of how Indian society marginalizes homosexuals in the name of morality.

At the heart of Aligarh is Manoj Bajpayee’s portrayal of Siras. Bajpayee bears Siras’ soul and isolation whether in his barring himself up away from the world or listening to Lata Mangeshkar on whiskey-filled nights.

He also reveals Siras’ quiet charm in his conversations with Deepu, the journalist who interviews Siras after his dismissal from Aligarh. When Deepu asks Siras if he is gay, Siras speaks of his sexuality in terms of metaphor. This is a way for him to leave behind the world of “gay” and “straight” for what matters. But it’s also how Siras makes sense of himself in a society which has no vocabulary for his experience.

Through the courtroom scenes, demonstrations and Deepu’s investigations, we see how the issue of homosexuality in India has become at once political, legal, cultural and moral. But for Siras, it isn’t about politics, activism, collective morality or social censure. It’s about living a life of quiet dignity denied to him.

Art and Obscenity: The Case of Manto

images

Written by Randeep Singh

The Urdu short-story writer Manto was charged with obscenity six times for his short-stories, three times in India before 1947 (‘Dhuan,’ ‘Bu,’ and ‘Kali Shalwar’) and three times in Pakistan after 1947 (‘Khol Do,’ ‘Thanda Gosht,’ and ‘Upar Neeche Darmiyaan’). He was fined only in one case. The charges of obscenity haunted him nevertheless until his death: “I am not a pornographer but a story writer,” he would defend himself.

Under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code and the Pakistan Penal Code in Pakistan’s early years, a book or writing would be considered obscene if “it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect … if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

The book or writing would not be found obscene however if it was “justified as being for the public good on the ground that such book, … writing… is in the interest of … literature, art … or other objects of general concern.”

Manto wrote about his experiences at the trial and appeal hearing of “Thanda Gosht” between 1949 and 1952. A witness at trial for Manto, Syed Abid Ali Abid, the Principal of Dayal Singh College, testified: “from Wali to Ghalib, everyone at some time, has written what is generally labeled as obscene. Literature can never be obscene. And, what Manto writes is literature.”

One witness, Dr. Saeedullah, gave Manto the title of “musavvar-e-hayaat,” the painter of life. Soofi Tabassum, a professor of Government College, deposed that “immoral writing is where the sole object of the writer is to undermine morality” and that “Thanda Gosht” did not affect public morality.

In Manto’s testimony, “Thanda Gosht” was a story “telling human beings that they are not separated from humanity even with they become animal like.” Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which had also been charged with obscenity, “Thanda Gosht” was a serious story filled with melancholy. As for the potentially corrupting influence of his stories on the public, Manto remarked, “my stories are for healthy people, normal beings, not for minds who dig  up carnal meanings in innocent and pure things.”

The case of Manto is relevant to the question of what is art and what is obscenity. The following questions are worth considering:

  1. What is the artists’ intention in writing the story (to arouse sexual excitement etc.)?
  2. Is the sexual element of the story the primary or dominant value of the story or is it subordinated to the writer’s aesthetic goals?
  3. How does the reader experience the story? Does it appeal more to his or her aesthetic judgement or mostly to his or her senses and carnality?
  4. Does the aesthetic experience of reading the story do away with the reader’s “practical, operational” ways of viewing its characters and situations as if they were real people or situations?

If the story’s primary or overriding goal is to sexually arouse the reader, then the work can be considered obscene. If the story’s primary or overriding goal though is to use sexual or erotic scenes for some larger artistic purpose related to theme, setting etc., the story can be considered literature. A story moreover may have sexual situations or scenes which by themselves may be considered obscene but which have some meaning in the story’s overall context.

In “Thanda Gosht,” Manto tells the story of Isher Singh, a Sikh, who tried to rape an already dead Muslim girl, a heap of “cold flesh.” In “Khol Do,” a brutalized, unconscious  girl on the verge of death, Sakeena, opens her shalwaar qameez after the doctor examining her utters the words “khol do” (‘open’) to a nurse to open a window. The suggestion of raping a corpse or a girl opening her shalwaar on hearing the words “open (it)” by themselves may have been obscene; in their proper context, they illustrate the extent to which women were brutalized in the Punjab in 1947.

Manto was not only holding up a mirror to the dirt, hypocrisy and puritanism in Indian and Pakistani society; he was showing a way out of it. Ismat Chughtai wrote in her memoir “Kaghazi Hai Pairahan” that Manto’s “flinging it (dirt) about makes it visible and one’s attention can be called to the need of cleaning it.”  His stories unsettle us because they take us to the darker corners of our psyche, to desires repressed and to the ugliness that results. South Asia still struggles with the brutalization of women, sexual repression, sexual abuse, a growing AIDS menace and with discussing sex or sexuality openly.

Manto is still holding up the mirror to ourselves.

Further reading:

Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Aziz Akhmad, “Manto Ka Muqaddama: Obscenity Trial”:  http://pakistaniat.com/2009/09/29/saadat-manto-trial/

The Homosexual Desi in “Dedh Ishqiya”

Dedh-Ishqiya-Movie

Written by Randeep Singh

Dedh Ishqiya is no “Brokeback Mountain” in Hindi cinema. The story of its two gay characters – Begum Para (Madhuri Dixit) and her lady-in-waiting Muniya (Huma Qureshi – is just one ingredient in the masala. The scene where the Begum remembers how she became estranged from her husband, a homosexual Nawaab, could have made for a more complete, compelling film. Instead, it’s a thirty second narration while elsewhere we’re treated to a Tarantino-style shootout to Begum Akhtar’s ghazal “Woh Jo Ham Mein Tum Mein.”

As a film on (homosexual) love however, Dedh Ishqiya is commendable. First, it shows desi gays as human beings. Prick them and they’ll bleed, tickle them and they’ll laugh. The Begum says that her husband the Nawaab, was not into women and that after his death, the Begum herself found comfort in the arms of her lady-in-waiting Muniya. It’s not clear whether the Begum was in fact homosexual – it’s almost implied that she became one – but that ambiguity aside, the Begum and Muniya, are gay and human.

Second, Dedh Ishqiya does not resort to stereotypes or sensationalism respecting the homosexual desi. Girlfriend (2004) had to have its “hot” lesbian love scene and Dostana (2008) elicited laughs from straight guys “playing gay.” In Dedh Ishqiya, the Begum and Muniya love one another even if that love is confined to the four walls of their mansion. When speaking of Muniya in one scene, the Begum recounts, “woh hamaari saathi, hamaaari hamdard aur ab hamaari jaan bhi hain” (‘she’s my companion, my sympathizer and now my darling, my life too’). The desire between the two is subtle but palpable whether it’s in Muniya’s intense gaze at the Begum or Muniya’s massaging the Begum’s arms.

Third, Dedh Ishqiya shows its homosexual characters making a new life for themselves. In a Thelma and Louise style sendoff, Muniya and the Begum drive off into the sunset, pawn off an essentially priceless necklace and use the money to set up their own dance school (the Begum was once an accomplished dancer). It’s an ideal situation in an otherwise than less ideal society and culture for homosexuals. I could not help but feel though, when listening to the closing song, “ Hamri Atariya Pe Aa Jaa Re Saawariya” (‘Come on to my rooftop darling’), the song was an invitation to gay desis to come out and sing.