Marriage equality verdict: ‘Law seeks control, love seeks freedom’
The marriage laws will have to change—if not today, then tomorrow, says Sameera Iyengar
There’s a play on queer life in India doing the rounds in Mumbai, and about to go on tour very soon. It is named Be-loved. In the first few shows, the director, Sapan Saran, and one of the actors, Kalyanee Mulay, flagged off the performance with a mock-argument around how to pronounce the title. Was it ‘be loved’ or ‘beloved’? Each insists on one of these, and leaves it with us, unresolved.
As the play unfolds, we realise it is perhaps both—referring as it does to every person’s right to be loved, and to choose their beloved (or beloveds).
Drawing on the powerful words of 17 writers working in Hindi, English and Gujarati, Be-loved explores the canvas of queerness in India. It explodes in celebration of myriad forms of love and diverse expressions of queerness, even as it acknowledges the struggles and difficulties that queer people face daily just trying to be themselves.
Through theatre, music, poetry and movement, the play takes audiences on a journey across history and geography, showing us different facets of queerness—the desires people feel, the creative and courageous choices that they make, the pain they live through, and the love they find ways of holding on to or letting go of.
Be-loved began playing to primarily queer audiences through Gaysi—a media platform and safe zone for queer desis formed in 2008—on whose request the play was created. It has since reached out to mixed audiences, who have responded powerfully to the play’s delightful and playful assertion of love in all its forms. After each show, audiences hang around, not wanting to leave the space of the experience that has enveloped and moved them, opened their hearts and minds.
A number of people—both queer and allies—have made it a point to come back and see the show with their parents. They tell us stories of fathers who began watching with discomfort but ended up wanting their friends to see it too; of mothers who cried silent tears as the play revealed that their daughter was not alone.
A young woman member of the audience reflected on how the play reminded her how much there was left to do for queer equality. And in her post-show response, actress Vidya Balan asked into the camera, “Hum pyaar par itni pabandi lagate hain, kyun? (We put so many restrictions on love. Why?).” Why, indeed.
On 17 October 2023, the Supreme Court of India unanimously ruled against legalising same-sex marriage in India. They gave some important directions to the State and the police on protecting queer people from various forms of violence and discrimination—directions that will lend legal weight and value to queer activists’ fight for justice, rights and equality. But on the question of granting the status of marriage or even civil union to queer people—people who are loved and someone’s beloved—the answer is still an outright ‘no’.
The Supreme Court has also agreed with the government of India’s stand that it is not for the courts but for the legislature to decide on bringing in same-sex marriage. The current government’s stance against same-sex marriage has been blindingly clear right from the beginning, so currently, for us, that is that.
Hum pyaar par itni pabandi lagate hain, kyun?
Since we call ourselves a democratic nation, let us for a moment step away from all the discussion around technicalities that have been brought up in the court proceedings, and instead ponder the nature of democracy.
One of the essential aspects of a democracy is equality, that is, everyone is seen as equal in the eyes of the law. Every single one. Simply put, it is the responsibility of a democratic nation to ensure that all its citizens have equal rights and opportunities.
It is furthermore the responsibility of this same nation to recognise how and when people are marginalised, to protect them against marginalisation, and to support them actively so that they can step out of this marginalisation and claim their equal space with every other person in the country. It follows that it is the job of people involved in the legislature, executive and judiciary to ensure this equality.
Queer activists, responding to the Supreme Court’s judgement, have made clear their determination to continue the struggle. We have already experienced their resilience and tenacity, leading to the eventual reading down of Section 377 in 2018.
They will hold the arms of the government responsible for upholding democracy, and so must we. In the last section of Be-loved, which explores a historical court case surrounding the murder of a student by his ‘friend’, the character playing Justice says (I paraphrase), “Law seeks control, love seeks freedom. Any law that has been created without understanding this is a failed law. If not today then tomorrow, it will have to be changed.”
The current marriage laws in India seek to exclude, to control which union is legitimate and which is not. Love has no exclusions—it embraces all expressions. The marriage laws will have to change, if not today, then tomorrow.
(SAMEERA IYENGAR is a Mumbai-based theatre person and creative producer. The next show of Be-loved is on 29 October at G5A, Mumbai)