A few weeks ago, the Indian Supreme Court re-criminalized sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex. The Supreme Court overturned a 2009 decision by the Delhi High Court to strike down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which came directly from a British colonial law from 1861. Section 377, which was just reinstated, states:
377. Unnatural offenses — Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.
As Prerna Lal states about the recent ruling, “the Indian Supreme Court has re-criminalized gay sex in India, rendering almost 20 percent of the global LGBT population illegal.” As a result, LGBT Indians and their allies in India and around the world have taken to the streets, signed petitions, and engaged in creative actions through social media, showing their outrage about this backwards decision.
But what has the Sikh response been? I have previously written about the homophobia rampant in our community and how ironic it is, given our Gurus’ deep commitment to equality and social justice. In the days after the ruling on 377, I wondered if any Sikh activists committed to LGBT equality would come out of the woodwork. I also wondered about the Sikh response to the ruling in India and if any Sikh institutions publicly supported or lobbied for this ruling. Embarrassingly, Sikh institutions have publicly campaigned against LGBT equality in the past, including supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the US a few years back.
Enter Kanwar Saini, aka Sikh Knowledge, a young, openly gay hip hop artist in Toronto. In protest of 377 and as a part of a social media campaign, Saini posted a photograph of him kissing another man on Facebook, which went somewhat viral and led to a lot of discussion and debate about Sikhi and gay rights. Facebook removed the photo from his page for 16 hours, quite possibly due to a whole lot of homophobic Sikhs reporting the picture to Facebook as offensive.
Saini recently appeared on CTV discussing the incident and his response.
I am always amazed by Kanwar Saini’s courage in the midst of so much hateful backlash from within our community. As simple of an act as it was, the photo he posted made a large number of Sikhs very uncomfortable. This discomfort is important to reflect upon and question. So much can be learned from this discomfort if we sit with it, think about it, meditate upon it, consider how it relates to the values our Gurus stood for, and at times, lost their lives for. I hope and expect that the photo did lead to this reflection for many. Unfortunately, it also illuminated the persistent anti-gay hysteria that still runs quite deep in our Punjabi Sikh communities.
The issue here has nothing to do with someone’s very subjective viewpoint on what is and isn’t natural. That is a useless discussion that should have ended hundreds of years ago, or at least with the end of British rule of India. The issue here is about freedom. The Indian state is once again standing in the way of freedom. As Sikhs, there is really no grey area when it comes to fighting for freedom, for standing with the oppressed. As I’ve said before, oppression is oppression. The Khalsa was created to obliterate it.