There are few things more misleading than the “Two-India” theory that pits modern versus traditional, urban versus rural, Westernised versus Hindu. And yet the Two-India trap is real, its steel jaws snapping shut on any cluster of citizens who demand more rights without being numerous enough to constitute a voting bloc…
One year ago, after a young woman died from injuries sustained when she was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, protests erupted in the capital and other cities against institutional apathy regarding violent crimes against women. Conservative sections ofIndia pushed back immediately. Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the right-wing Hindu R.S.S. party, offered an extreme version of the Two-India theory: He said rapes were a phenomenon particular to “India,” not “Bharat.” By “Bharat,” the Hindi word for India, Mr. Bhagwat meant rural and traditional India, not Westernized and urban India.
Statistics prove him wrong: Violence against women is as prevalent in many rural parts of the country as in urban areas. But the 63-year-old Mr. Bhagwat was addressing the many of his generation who like him believe in something called Indian culture. Indian culture is ancient and fragile, and apparently always under threat from Westernised modernity. The shrill Two-India argument also dominates discussions of what rights should be granted, or not, to India’s growing L.G.B.T. community.
In 2008, large gay pride parades were held in several cities here for the first time. At the one in New Delhi, I asked a marching grandmother why she was there with her granddaughter; she said, “I’ll come back every year until I can attend her marriage with her girlfriend. They have no right to say who she can love.” In 2009, when the High Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a Victorian-era law that criminalised specific homosexual acts between consenting adults, many more had the courage to come out. And when that ruling found its way up to the Supreme Court earlier this month, L.G.B.T.-rights groups expected no change.
But the Supreme Court declared that Section 377 should stay on the books, dismissing the “so-called rights of L.G.B.T. persons.” One of his Lordships told journalists that no one in his family or circle of friends was gay. The BJP, which has often invoked those two contrasting Indias, is upholding the conservative line. It argues that homosexuality is unnatural. That may have pleased the party’s traditional supporters, but on Twitter and elsewhere, many who had seen the BJP. and its leader, Narendra Modi, as prophets of a new modernity were dismayed. Some said that they would not vote for the party in the general election to be held in a few months.
The BJP may have calculated that the L.G.B.T. community is too small to sway the election. But the ruling Congress Party, which is struggling from a general lack of direction and corruption allegations, is taking no chances. Party leaders condemned the Supreme Court’s decision, and, the attorney general, citing the “widespread anguish” the ruling has caused, asked that it be subjected to review by a different set of Supreme Court judges. “The world is fast changing,” he said. “Law does not and cannot remain static.”
Much has indeed changed over the last decade. The mainstream magazine ‘India Today’ put the writer Vikram Seth — who has claimed his right to love whom he pleases — on its cover under the headline “Not a Criminal.” L.G.B.T. Indians and their supporters poured onto the streets in anger, dismay and fear at the Supreme Court decision. On 15 December, hundreds carried “No Going Back” signs through the streets of New Delhi. Gautam Bhan, one of the strongest advocates for L.G.B.T. rights, drew roars of approval when he named various small towns — Gorakhpur, Solan — and asked the crowd to clap for their L.G.B.T. friends from those places: The need to make one’s own sexual and lifestyle choices now cuts across India’s otherwise formidable geographic, class and status barriers.
When Mr. Bhan yelled, “Let’s hear it for Gorakhpur!” I was standing next to two men in their 20s. They came from a small town nearGorakhpur, and they’d been dating secretly for a few months, comfortable in the anonymity of the capital. They took off their silver masks and yelled back their assent. Then, noticing the many cameras around, they put their masks back on. They represent the growing number of Indians whose lives belong to neither of the two Indias so often invoked by the conservatives — neither traditional and disapproving Bharat nor urban and Anglicized India.
Like so many young Indians who have started to make their own lifestyle choices in the last four or five years, these two men came from one of the many Indias in between. The way they held each other would make some politicians and Lordships squirm. But that day the crowd nearby made space around them so that they could hug in comfort.
(Nilanjana S. Roy is an essayist and critic, and author of the novel “The Wildings.”)