The rather 'hard-hitting' images of women being slapped by police officers in Meerut, under the guise of 'Operation Majnu', created something of a flutter in the media and in the Parliament. This incident may be seen as the latest in a series of manifestations of a growing conservatism regarding sex, sexuality and gender in some sections of Indian society.
From the furor around Khushboo's statements on 'pre-martial' sex in Tamil Nadu, to the closing down of dance bars in Bombay, to the MMS scandal in Delhi, to the Central government's response in the writ petition challenging the colonial anti-sodomy law, Section 377 - what has been repeatedly brought onto the negotiating table is an idea of 'Indian morality'. Repeatedly, this 'Indian morality' has been marked as 'traditionalist', 'conservative', 'not ready to accept homosexuality' and the like.
But the Meerut incident marks a significant departure from this trend. The sting operation has backfired (which poses the bewildering question - what exactly were the police thinking when they invited the national press to witness their brutality?), two policewomen have been suspended, the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Women have both taken up the case suo moto. The media and politicians across the spectrum have for once opposed the 'moral policing', providing us with an intriguing situation where the statements made by Sushma Swaraj resonate with those made by Brinda Karat. Do 'our children' not have the right in 21st century India, an inflamed Sushma Swaraj asks the Parliament, to mingle freely in public parks?
This situation raises at least two immediate questions. First, what is the nature of the 'conservatism' being debated in instances such as this? Has the police stepped out of bounds this time? And if so, what are the 'acceptable' limits of the State's interference in the intimate lives of citizens? Second, what kind of space is the public park? And if what is being defended is the right to privacy, and perhaps to intimacy, in parks, what is the nature of this intimacy being defended? In order to address these questions, let us take a look at the setting - the public park.
The public park is a fascinating space. From joggers and morning walkers, to lovers seeking a little solitude, to the everyday person taking a brief sojourn from the drudgery of the working day, the park is the 'public space' where privacy is granted to those who do not otherwise have the luxury of a safe private space. Intimacy here is not just accepted, but expected. Walking through a park we avert our eyes from sweet couplings, as though honoring an unspoken contract of mutual respect for each other's privacy. The public park therefore emerges as a precious space for socializing, for relaxing, and significantly, for romance. And this is perhaps what is being vociferously defended in the face of the Meerut intrusion.
But this public space also belongs to another group of people. Queer people - specifically gay men, kothis and hijras - who are perhaps worse affected by societal disapproval of expressions of intimacy. If private spaces are difficult to come by for heterosexual love, they simply do not exist for a vast number of same-sex desiring people. As such public parks, or 'cruising areas' as they are also called, are often the only spaces where queer people may meet other queer people. The public park, in other words, is as much a space for socializing and romance for heterosexual couples as it is for same-sex desire. This is one of the reasons that a large part of the government's 'outreach' work for HIV/AIDS prevention amongst 'men who have sex with men' is located in public parks.
So whom is this public space being defended for? And what is the nature of the right to intimacy that is being defended? While 'Operation Majnu' may not be a one-off instance vis-ï¿½-vis heterosexual couples, the experience of harassment, extortion and sexual assault at the hands of the police force is an aspect of everyday existence for queer people in parks. This implies that homo-socializing is constantly shrouded in fear of violence - something that HIV/AIDS experts tell us fuels the spread of the epidemic by making access to safer-sex information and condom use negotiation impossible.
As a matter of fact, a few years ago outreach workers of an NGO carrying out HIV/AIDS prevention work amongst men who have sex with men in a park in Lucknow were arrested and charged with 'abetting' offences under the colonial Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Here is an instance, then, of how the police's role of moral vanguard in public parks has life-threatening consequences that affect the entire community. But what was the response of the media and of the politicians in this case? Not surprisingly, perhaps, rather than expressing anger at an intrusion of basic human rights, we saw a concerted media and political campaign against the victims of the police violence. This is a manifestation of a political resistance, or perhaps hesitation in recognizing and respecting the right of people to be different.
What is at stake here is a right to equality, as much as the right to privacy and access to public spaces. When asserting that 'our children' have the right to privacy, to leisure, to romance, then, let us keep in mind that a significant number of 'our children' may be inclined to love others of their own sex.