Anjali Gopalan: “We’re one of the most depraved societies in the world”

Anjali Gopalan from Naz Foundation talks about legal battle against Section 377 , as well as recent episode of sexual abuse of minor girls at a government-run shelter home in Muzaffarpur

NH photo by Vipin
NH photo by Vipin

Dhairya Maheshwari

Anjali Gopalan, a human rights crusader whose Naz Foundation has been spearheading the legal battle against Section 377, the divisive part of the Indian Constitution which bans homosexuality, talks about the issue, as well as recent episode of sexual abuse of minor girls at a government-run shelter home in Muzaffarpur, mob lynchings, gangrapes and the deep-rooted prejudices in the Indian society.

In an interview with Dhairya Maheshwari, Gopalan says that current levels of violence against minorities and women, and cruelty towards underprivileged sections of the society are reflective of those in power.

Excerpts from the interaction:

Q. You have worked with HIV-affected patients both in the US and India. How differently do societies in the two countries view people affected by HIV?

A. Well, at the time of moving back to India in 1994, there was a strong resistance to accepting that HIV could be an issue for us. What I mostly used to hear at the time was that since we are very model and nice people, a disease like HIV couldn’t affect us, which was a very strange reaction as compared to what I used to hear in the US.

There was no information being circulated among the public by the government. The way of thinking was extremely limited.

As far as challenges in the US go, they were quite similar in the 1980s. Hospitals wouldn’t readily respond to calls for help from HIV patients, since it was mostly seen as a gay disease. It wasn’t taken seriously by the society for the same reason. But it changed over time. The main difference between them and us now is that rights of people are taken much more seriously there than in India. The institutions taking care of dying people, the palliative care and the society in general are more empathetic in the US than they are here.

However, India, as a society, has also come a long way, though a lot still needs to be done.

Q. Who would you credit for this change in outlook in both these countries? The government or the society?

A. The winds of change have always come from the community. It is not in the nature of governments to drive change. Change only happens when people come together through a legal framework or put pressure on the government.

Q. If that’s the case, how would you deal with a government that is seen as protecting the status quo? For instance, you have been involved in a protracted battle to decriminalise homosexuality. On the other hand, several politicians from the ruling party have described homosexuality as being against Indian culture.

A. Not all politicians are alike. They all don’t talk in a similar manner. However, if we have a strong law and a mechanism to ensure that it is being followed, it won’t matter what they say. We need strong laws to protect the interests of sexually marginalised people, else it won’t be possible for them to function in such a hostile society. As long you have a law, there is some protection.

Q. How active has the government been in supporting your work on homosexuality and HIV?

A. It has been moving back and forth, depending who has been in power. The stands the government takes on these issues is a reflection of ideals of those who are in power, really.

I never really expected anything significant from the Government of India. At this stage, the government says that they will leave decriminalising homosexuality to the courts, which to many people hasn’t been an encouraging response. But I am glad in a way that they at least didn’t say that they would go with the 2013 Supreme Court judgment upholding the constitutionality of Section 377.

Having said that, I don’t think that the government should interfere in this aspect of our lives at all. The government shouldn’t be in our bedrooms.

‘Violence, sexual abuse, lynchings reflective of those in power’

Q. What is your stand of the current political leadership? What do people in gay community and those suffering from HIV feel about this government?

A. Look, the very fact that we are seeing the kind of things - lynchings, rapes, child sexual abuse, animal cruelty, etc. - is frightening and affecting everyone in the society.

The levels of violence and cruelty are unprecedented to me. These things really make me question as to where we are headed as a society, culture and a country.

Q. You spoke about cultural and moral degradation in our society. Who do we blame?

A. We have nobody to blame but ourselves. We have the resources. In fact, some of us in this society, say the Ambanis, are over-resourced. I mean, Ambani living in a 27-storeyed house doesn’t make any sense to me. But they don’t want to give back to society. That’s also another loophole in our culture, that we are not generous enough towards the disadvantaged sections of the society.

Just contrast this with Bill Gates. Here is a person who has set aside a fraction of his wealth for his family and given away the rest to charity. What a wonderful gesture that is.

We, on the other hand, despite our religions preaching us to do so, are mostly averse to giving.

Q. You mentioned Muzaffarpur. Is sexual abuse in government shelters common in India?

A. Well, child sexual abuse is pretty rampant in our society. Even in our families, parents often exploit their own children. Many a time, those involved in sexual exploitation happen to be family members or relatives, or someone known. This is a major reason keeping the authorities from acting against such people, since it is relatively hard to act such people. India has lost its moral compass as a culture. We are one of most depraved societies in the world.

Q. Who would you hold responsible for the Muzaffarpur tragedy?

A. This, more than anything, proves what I have been saying. Reports from Muzaffarpur said that people would hear screams of traumatised girls from the shelter home every evening. Imagine the frightened girls thinking what would happen next as night descended. I just feel like doing something to the man. If you hear a child screaming and you don’t check on them, who would you blame? It is nobody but the society. This whole thing had come within the purview of authorities a year ago. So, what were they doing all this while? Why was the government silent? I would like to reiterate that this is the reflection of the kind of politicians we have.

Q. You run a shelter home yourself. Are these shelter homes regularly audited by the government?

A. To start with, all shelter homes have to get licences. There is a long process. For private organisations like ours, the CWC (Child Welfare Committee) gets weirdly difficult. But in the case of Muzaffarpur, I assume since the owner was connected to a local politician, the CWC kept silent. There is a law in place. There is a Juvenile Justice Act in place. But everything seems to have been overlooked, as is the case in the country for those who wield any kind of influence.

For players like us, we don’t get a penny from the government. Yet, we are discouraged by the CWC which makes stringent requirements. The government homes, like the one in Muzaffarpur, on the other hand, get big-time support from authorities. Yet, there is no accountability. So, it all comes back to who has the requisite political clout.

Q. How could we prevent such tragedies from taking place?

A. Regular and fair auditing by authorities is one way to go about it. But then, you must act after an audit happens. In Muzaffarpur, information about the abuse was possibly known a year before it surfaced in public, yet no action was taken. Those in power must lead the way. If they don’t, it is just a sad reflection of our society and the choices we make. The legal mechanism also has to be strong.

In this case, I would strongly urge that every person involved should get a maximum jail term. The politicians, under whose watch this happened, should also not be allowed to go scot free. Them getting away without adequate punishment would be the worst possible outcome because they’re the ones who made it happen.

Another problem lies in our judicial system. If it takes years to get justice, then that won’t help the victims. We also need a support system for the girls who went through the experience. They have to be helped by the government and society to rehabilitated them back in the society. Implementation of what’s on the paper is another major problem of our society.

‘We are one of the most sexually active societies in the world’

Q. Even as more awareness is being created in public on HIV and homosexuality, some observers reckon that public backlash has also increased proportionally. Do you believe that has been the case?

A. I don’t believe that people weren’t aware of these issues in the past. Ours is one of the most sexually active societies in the world. As long as it is not an issue of rights, we are accepting of such things. As long as it is men, we are accepting of these things.

It becomes an issue when people start asking for their rights, or they start resisting the societal pressures as to what’s the proper way of living, getting married and having children. For gay women, they challenge patriarchy like nobody else in the society. It is a big statement for a lesbian to say that they don’t need a man in a highly patriarchal society like ours.

I think we have reached a critical stage where we need to understand that we can’t deny anyone their rights just based on their sexuality. We can’t deny them their rights because of who they love and who they want to spend their rest of their lives with.

And we are seeing this gradual change happening in our society. From the court hearings to decriminalise homosexuality, we have witnessed a huge change in public perception. I, for one, see a huge shift from the way things were 20 years ago. Does that mean that our society has started to accept homosexuality? Certainly not. But that is precisely why we need the law to change which will lead to attitudes changing ultimately.

Look at the case of Sati, which was widely practised at the time. Nobody could imagine from the writings at the time that Sati would be abolished. So, change does happen, but it takes time. Law and ethics don’t go hand in hand. One is slower than the other.

Q. How do you raise awareness about the issues you are working on- homosexuality and AIDS? What’s the reaction to your campaigns in urban and rural areas?

A. A major part of our work involves training other organisations, both urban and rural, so that they could incorporate these issues in their activities. The services we provide, on the other hand, are mostly Delhi-centric. But for us, training is the main driver of change, since what happens through training is that you get people to look at their own attitudes and see the other side of the picture, to which they may have been prejudiced against previously.

Many of the times, people in our training sessions are agents of change themselves. When they incorporate the new perspective in their outlook, that’s when the change starts to happen.

Q. Is there any difference in outlook towards homosexuality and AIDS in urban and rural areas? Are people living in rural areas more conservative in these matters, as compared to urban dwellers?

A. Frankly, I don’t see a major difference. Even in urban areas, people can be pretty closed about issues, while some people living in rural areas sometimes show a great deal of understanding. It is very difficult to say that the urban mind is more open than the rural.

What I really feel is that issues such as homosexuality and HIV are still a taboo in our society as they are linked to sexuality. As a culture, we have never talked about these issues openly. What has been lacking is an environment to talk about these issues.

What we have found is that once people are triggered to discuss sexuality, it becomes difficult to make them stop. Here, sex education in schools can play a part. Some age-appropriate information on these issues could really make a difference as to how they grow up to see the issues.

Q. Could sex education at a younger age help check the rising incidence of rapes and other forms of violence?

A. Elementary manners like respecting girls and not looking down upon someone who is from a different caste must be taught and imbibed into our younger ones at an early age to help change societal perceptions. This is among the root causes why discrimination still exists in our society. It is also behind the rampant violence against women and others, be it lynchings or gangrapes.

Gangrapes are not heard of in any other culture, or they are not as alarmingly common as they are in our society. What is it about our people? So, these are the things we must start looking at. I believe, ultimately, it is about education.

However, we should also address the question as to what is it that makes an individual rape a woman. It has got to do with power, and is not entirely sexual in nature. Rapes are a symptom of deep alienation that exists in our society.

Q. How far has the government’s campaign of 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' gone in improving the status of women in our society?

A. You must note that it is during the time of 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' that all these things are happening. Just coming up with slogans without doing anything for the beti is pointless. Our betis are getting raped going to school, they are getting raped in schools. They have absolutely no access to any kind of help. For me, 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' is just a slogan which hasn’t done anything great. The government needs to take a step back and look at what’s been going wrong with the society.

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