Is this how change happens, then, a change that is at once social and personal, political and inward, sometimes unmanageably collective, sometimes inscrutably individual? Perhaps it is time to take a larger and longer look, backward as well as forward, to come to some sort of a view — if not an understanding yet — of what has been happening in India over the last year or so. The starting point of this arc of recent history could be the Delhi gangrape followed by the victim’s death, last December. The chronicler would then have to move on to the other key moments in this trajectory. First, a young female journalist’s alleged encounters with a senior male journalist in a hotel elevator. Second, a young female law intern’s alleged encounter in a hotel room with a senior, male, former judge of the Supreme Court. The aftermath of each remains legally unresolved. But, in both, the eruption of sexuality in semi-private spaces has led to the radical re-examination of crucial public institutions: the judiciary and the so-called ‘fourth estate’.
Finally, there was the unpleasant surprise of the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, followed by the Centre’s petition asking for a review of the verdict. An unprecedented number of Indians are speaking up unanimously against the injustice of this ruling, irrespective of their sexual orientation. This is not so much because Section 377 implicates all consenting adults, gay and straight, practising certain kinds of non- procreative sex. It is more because the nature of this law’s violation of fundamental human rights is widely being seen as a taint in the history of a modern democracy. This is pushing the protests against the law towards a mass movement — as with the reaction to the Delhi gangrape — beyond the pale of ‘minority’ activism.
Such a sequence of upheavals keeps returning the critical citizen to two complex relationships. First, between the freedom, dignity, privacy and security of individuals, on the one hand, and the power of the State, in its legislative and executive capacities, on the other. Second, the relationship between and within the sexes, as played out in the most private as well as the most public of spaces. With both relationships, what is at stake are not only questions of legality and governance, but also the unruliest of human instincts: sexual desire and brutal aggression, together with their frequent, and often ungovernable, interchangeability.
To talk of instinct is not to undermine the primacy of reason. A democracy, its laws and their enactment have to be founded on not only rational principles, but also a nuanced, historical and unprejudiced understanding of the specificities of difference, good and bad, within a larger commitment to equality. To keep its tryst with modernity, India must now expand its notion of “the order of nature” so that this nature may also hold within it the compulsions of the order of history.