Warning: This is going to be a loooong and serious one.

In Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, LGBT rights activist Rasha Moumneh tells author Shereen El Feki that there’s no point asking for changes that look good on paper or in the legal system if social attitudes don’t reflect the change in attitudes.

“I find it very difficult to see how far an LGBT rights discourse would go in a culture that places so much emphasis on the family, for example. I don’t see how far that could go without work on women’s bodily autonomy and women’s bodily integrity. And LGBT organisations have historically never worked on these issues because they are primarily headed by gay men. I generally don’t think this is an appropriate model for the region. No one is going to decriminalize homosexuality while women are still being punished for adultery. It’s absurd; it’s not going to happen. Without tackling the issue of sexual autonomy as a whole, nothing is going to move forward.”

Writing about LGBTs and their lack of rights in Egypt and the Arab world, El Feki features activists who aren’t looking to confront society with alternative sexuality, but rather emphasise the issues that heterosexual women and men share with the LGBT community. The point, as Moumneh says in that quote, is that if the way society thinks and operates don’t change, gains in legalese are worthless.

I’ve been thinking about this the last few days, while a new drama was being enacted in Delhi by the ruling party, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). On Monday, news came in that chief minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal and other party members were going to embark on a public protest as a response to the reaction to this attempted raid.  The protest, or dharna as we call it in Hindi, elicited this response from stand up comedian Rohan Joshi:


Yaar tu hi CM hai, aur dharna tu hi karega toh phir kal se koi JNU mein admission kyon lega?” (trans: Dude, you’re the chief minister. If you’re also the one protesting, then why will anyone want admission in JNU?)

[JNU = Jawaharlal Nehru University, reputed to be the breeding grown for Left-leaning, activist types.]

It’s either damnably difficult or ridiculously easy to be a comedian in India. On one hand, there’s material landing on your lap with every other news report. On the other, how do you top the ridiculousness of a political establishment like ours?

While it’s a relief to be able to laugh from time to time at our political players, there’s no avoiding how frightfully disheartening all this is is. In a political arena crowded with corruption, opportunism and ineptitude, AAP embodied hope and a viable alternative to the Right-wing BJP for many. It mushroomed out of a popular movement that articulated people’s frustration with the status quo. Enough with self-serving politicians and apathy, said AAP’s cheerleaders. It was time for change, they roared.

This has been the mantra in large parts of the country. We’re seeing a rise in voter turnouts and these surging numbers have all voted for change. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress routed the CPI(M) in Bengal even though she came with absolutely no I-can-run-a-state credentials. The spectre of genocide that shadows Narendra Modi has become fainter and fainter as Modi’s promises to bring change to India have become louder and louder, systematically cementing his image as the opposite of Congress (seen by many as dynastic and corrupt). In Delhi’s local elections, AAP stunned everyone by winning 31 of the 70 seats. When Kejriwal became chief minister of Delhi (with a little help from Congress, which supported AAP since 31 isn’t enough of a majority to form a government), there was jubilation all around. Democracy had won, it seemed.

It’s been a little more than month since that Delhi win and democracy suddenly isn’t looking like a very smart idea, given the way AAP is going about its business. Last Wednesday, Delhi’s new law minister Somnath Bharti tried to conduct a surprise raid in a south Delhi neighbourhood. Bharti said he had information about a drug and prostitution ring operating there. The Delhi police, notorious for being corrupt, lazy and brutal, said they wouldn’t raid anyone because the narcotics law doesn’t allow raids at night (this is supposed to ensure the safety of women or some such thing. I haven’t read the actual law). At this point, Bharti and the AAP workers took matters into their own hands. Their targets: “Africans”.

This is one victim’s account:

“‘We were returning from a party, when our taxi was stopped by a few men. They started shouting at us, calling us names. The police were in fact supporting us. They held us captive inside the car for over three hours,’ one of the women told The Indian Express.

‘The men hit us,’ she said, pointing to bruises on her face. According to the women, the men then took them to a hospital. Some police personnel accompanied them, the women said. ‘We asked the men where they are taking us. They said we would have to undergo a medical examination to check if we had consumed drugs. We were taken to the hospital and a series of tests were conducted,’ she claimed.

Urine samples were taken and their private parts also probed, she said. ‘They took our urine samples, put some machines on our body and also cavity searched us. We felt humiliated. We kept telling them that we have not consumed drugs. They then asked for a blood sample which we refused to give,’ she said.

Another victim’s account mentions that AAP workers forced themselves into her home and harassed her.  In both accounts, the women say the Delhi police saved them from the AAP workers. It’s a grim day when Delhi constables, notorious for abusing their powers, come across as the good guys. A couple of the policemen spoke to the press and corroborated the women’s stories.

Bharti’s basis for the raid: all black people (“Africans”) are drug peddlers and lowlife. Race was all the evidence that Bharti needed. He claimed he had complaints from neighbours that these people were Nigerians who were running a drug and sex racket. As it turns out, the tests conducted on their urine samples proved negative for any drugs. Bharti later claimed he had a letter from the Ugandan high commission in India asking Bharti to arrest a Ugandan sex worker. I’d question how this justifies harassing four Ugandan and two Nigerian women who are not sex workers, but this is irrelevant because the Ugandan high commission denies having sent any such letter.

Faced with media outrage at this racist behaviour, Kejriwal responded with more outrage. Here was Bharti, a minister, going out on a wintry Delhi night because citizens had complaints that the Delhi police hadn’t answered, said Kejriwal in Bharti’s defense. Bharti was the good guy, the Delhi police were the villains. Suddenly, the issue wasn’t the racist bias that powered the raids on the Ugandans and Nigerians or the dangerous vigilantism of AAP, but the corruption and incompetence of Delhi Police. The next thing we knew, a muffler-wrapped Kejriwal was protesting on the streets of Delhi and encouraging the public to go against the city’s police force, uncaring of what a catastrophic law and order situation Kejriwal’s own government would face if citizens followed his suggestion.

The drama of the dharna ended today with the Delhi Police agreeing to send the two officers that AAP has been ranting about on leave and Kejriwal calling off his protest. But there’s little relief in this because the real cause of despair lies in how this whole mess began — with Kejriwal and AAP’s alarming narrow-mindedness and ignorance. When Kejriwal said “tendencies of rape” begin with drug and sex work, when Bharti determined people were raid-worthy because of their skin colour, when no one from AAP was hauled up for their behaviour on the night of the raid, AAP reflected the opinions of a vast number of Indians who not only don’t know better, but are also opposed to ridding themselves of their prejudices. It’s so much more comfortable to place the problems in our society upon external influences — the “Africans” who peddle drugs, the West that corrupts our morality with its hyper-sexual modernity, the police that isn’t under the local government’s control. For those who were hoping AAP was progressive, this is a massive blow. For cynics like me, this is confirmation that the surge of popularity that people like Kejriwal and Modi enjoy comes from the fact that these politicians hold up and further demonise the bogeymen with which the masses are familiar.

And by “masses” I mean numbers, not ‘class’. That Tarun Tejpal — who can’t be considered ‘mass’ in terms of any hierarchy based on either wealth or a feudal hangover — will offer his “victim” being Western as defence against rape charges is proof that our conservatism runs deep. Tejpal’s lawyer has said that the “social background of the victim, her persona, sense of understanding and values are relevant factors in deciding the (bail) application“. According to him, “She cannot be compared to a girl from tradition-bound non-permissive society of India who would be extremely reluctant to make such revelation in fear of being shunned by the family or the society.” So basically, if you’re like “a woman from the western society” and not traditional, you’re up for some non-consensual sex.

It’s the kind of argument you expect to hear at a village council in the armpit of north India; not from the former editor of a magazine with a progressive and Left-leaning liberal outlook.

The commonality between AAP’s racism and vigilantism, and Tejpal’s defense is its regressive conservatism. This is what’s coming to the fore as more and more people India exercise their democratic right. This is an electorate whose intellectual growth has been stunted by a ghastly and largely-ignored education system. The aim of political players has been to keep the electorate in the dark because who knows what they’ll expect if they saw the light? To a large extent, the family and social network still provide the infrastructural support to the individual. There’s little faith that the systems in place will aid an individual, but there is great conviction that they can victimise the unfortunate.

In the age of booth-capturing, the electoral results showed what the most powerful party wanted to see and the intelligentsia, with its apathy and liberal worldview, remained somewhat disconnected from politics. They served as India’s ambassadors, creating a reputation for India as a largely progressive member of the global South. What’s emerging with rising voter participation is an uncomfortable truth: by and large, we’re a conservative, regressive, frustrated, patriarchal society and we’re bring in politicians who mirror these anxieties. Yes, some of our laws have struck critical blows at caste, communalism and misogyny (though this year’s ridiculous Supreme Court judgement to keep Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code is a massive crack in that reputation). But the unpleasant question that we have to ask ourselves is whether Indian society, in practice and in thinking, is up to speed. And if it isn’t, how do we get to that point of equivalence when all our national leaders are promoting narrow-mindedness? Or is it just plain stupid to think that’s even possible?

(The image is of an installation by Jitish Kallat. I think it’s called Anger.)

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