The Top 5 Social Impact Moments of 2013

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Disclaimer: This post is an edited version of iCALL Psychosocial Helpline’s Newsletter for December 2013 with the same title. To view the complete newsletter click here. To know more about iCALL Psychosocial Helpline, visit their webpage here, or like them on Facebook

The year gone by was one which was dotted with several moments which have changed the fate of several social movements in India. As 2013 draws to a close, here is a recap of 5 of the most prominent social impact moments of the year gone by…

  1. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 and the Announcement of the Nirbhaya Fund: While the women’s movement in India had been demanding stricter rape laws for several years, it was not until the brutal Nirbhaya gang rape in December 2012 that the issue grabbed the collective consciousness of the nation. The spontaneous outburst of the public’s anger, fuelled in good measure by ill-conceived media-bytes by politician and self-styled godmen alike, put the government under pressure like never before leading to the passing of an ordinance by President Pranab Mukherjee in February 2013, which would go on to receive a nod from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha shortly after in March 2013. While the new law is by no means a perfect one (as critiqued magisterially by Madhu Mehra in this post on Kafila), it was a game-changer nonetheless. Most significantly, the new law expanded the definition of rape to include non-peno-vaginal intercourse which was not the case earlier. Under the new law, all forms of non-consensual penetrative sexual acts by men on women, now constitute rape. Furthermore, the new law eloquently defined consent as an ‘unequivocal agreement to engage in a particular sexual act’ rubbishing once and for all the ‘lack of resistance implies consent’ argument. The new law also, for the first time, made note of, and specifically defined, acts such as forced disrobing, stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks, making Sec 354 of the Indian Penal Code much more potent. A year past the Delhi gang rape, the Nirbhaya Fund – a Rs. 1000 crore corpus to support initiatives towards the safety of women, is yet to reach the grassroots. The corpus, nonetheless has the potential to make all the right changes to better the lives of women in India. While time only will tell how well the new law performs and if the Nirbhaya fund sees the light of day, there is no denying that this was a step in the right direction – which shall hopefully be followed by action
  2. The Introduction of the Mental Health Care Bill of 2013 in the Parliament: While the Mental Health Care Bill has not yet been cleared by the Parliament, and is thus not yet into force, the bill promises to do for the mental health movement in India what the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013, did for the women’s movement. Introduced as a replacement for the outdated Mental Health Care Act of 1987, the new bill most famously decriminalises suicide, (both attempted and successful). The bill also aims to safeguard the right to mental health care, protection from cruel and inhuman forms of treatment such as chaining to beds and highly regulates the use of controversial treatments such as Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). Yet another progressive feature of this bill is the provision to file an Advanced Directive regardless of mental health state which allows an individual to appoint a representative who will have a say in case the person falls mentally ill in the future. While the bill was given a miss by the Parliament since its tabling in August 2013, one hopes that the day when it comes into force is not far.
  3. The Supreme Court’s Landmark Ruling in Favour of a Sailor Suffering from Schizophrenia: Edward D’Cunha joined the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) in 1993 as a trainee and over the years worked his way up to the post of Second Officer. In 1997, he fell prey to an episode of acute psychosis and for the next three years kept suffering from bouts of nausea, confusion and hallucinations. He was coerced by his captain in 2000 to resign from his position with a fleeting promise that he would be considered for a shore post which subsequently did not materialize. Edward, with the support of his father and mental health NGO Maitri appealed against this to the Disabilities Commissioner stating that this was in violation of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995. The commissioner however upheld his resignation in 2006 leaving him no option but to approach the Mumbai High Court, which four years later ruled in his favour and directed SCI to reinstate him on a shore-post. Not willing to bow down, the SCI challenged this verdict in the Supreme Court. Thirteen long years later, the SC bench of Justices Prasad and Khehar once again ruled in Edward’s favour, serving justice once and for all. The precedent set by the Supreme Court is a victory for all those who face discrimination on the basis of their mental health status and is sure to inspire many others like Edward to fight for their rights.
  4. The Tehelka Sexual Assault Case Brings the Vishaka Guidelines Back into the Spotlight: The Tehelka Sexual Assault Case, which is still buzzing in the media, has been sensational for a host of reasons – be it the fact that it happened within a publication best known for being on the right side of most controversies, or that the private email apologies leaked and spread like wild-fire over social media. Many are touting it the first real test of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013. However, the case has brought back into the spotlight, The Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace, which emerged in response to a brutal gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi, a state government grassroots employee in Rajasthan in the 1990s. The guidelines, which were first brought up in this case by the victim herself, define clearly what sexual harassment at the workplace includes and directs every organization to institute a Committee Against Sexual Harassment to attend to complaints of this nature and help the victim pursue criminal action against the same. The guidelines, which until the Tehelka case were merely considered a formality have now become a must-have and several organizations have been reported to be hurrying about to form their own CASH committees in order to avoid a public embarrassment of Tehelka-esque proportions. While what happens after the case enters a court of law remains to be seen, the increased awareness about the Vishaka Guidelines and about Sexual Harassment at the workplace at large, is certainly one of the few silver linings in this case.
  5. Supreme Court Sets Aside the 2009 Delhi High Court Verdict on Sec 377: In what is easily the most heart-breaking story of this year, the Supreme Court ruling on Section 377 which upheld the controversial law once again, set back the LGBT rights movement in India back significantly. Since the landmark Delhi High Court in 2009 which declared Section 377 as unconstitutional, the LGBT rights movement in India had become more prominent and vociferous than ever, with pride marches being not only in large metros such as Mumbai and Delhi, but also smaller cities such as Ahmedabad and Chandigarh. Given that the Govt of India, despite its flip-flopping stance on the issue had mentioned before the Apex Court that it was not opposed to the decriminalization of private, consensual acts of non peno-vaginal sexual intercourse, few had imagined that the Supreme Court in one fell swoop undid the hard work of organizations such as Naz Foundation over the last 13 years, and upheld the law due to which lakhs of individuals belonging to the ‘miniscule’ sexual minorities in India had been subjected to harassment at the hands of the Police. Ironically the verdict on the law, which is a relic of the British rule, has come at a time when the British themselves are set to legalize not just ‘unnatural sex’ but also same-sex marriages. The Apex Court in its ruling left it to the discretion of the Parliament to amend the law if it so wishes. However, in what is already looking like one of the most bitterly-fought Lok Sabha elections in the history of independent India, the two major national political parties in the country – the Congress and the BJP, have taken diametrically opposite stands on the verdict – with the Congress categorically condemning the verdict and the BJP not only welcoming the verdict but also stating that homosexuality is unnatural. While a review petition against the SC ruling has already been filed by the government, and Naz Foundation, which set the ball rolling in the first place, has joined in with the petition as an interested party, there is no denying that this verdict has delivered a telling blow to the LGBT community in India, who now have to pick themselves up and regroup to fight for their rights once again!
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Three Seventy Seven Ways to Set a Country Back

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Last night while I was about to wind-up for the day, I received an invite on Facebook from my friends at The Humsafar Trust –  to come watch the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 from 10.30 in the morning – the time I usually catch the first of my three trains to office. I remember thinking to myself on the way back that one way or another, the verdict would make history, as did my friends – straight and gay alike. Given the iconic date (11/12/13) and the fact that one of the judges presiding over the hearing was going to retire tomorrow, the case was sure to be a flashbulb memory in the minds of everyone. I remember thinking on my way back that the verdict would in most likelihood officially endorse the landmark Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 – a judgment that changed so many lives. I wondered,  ‘Would the celebrations be as euphoric as the last time, or would a muted sense of relief prevail?’ The nagging thought about how the judiciary in India has a tendency to deliver complete shockers, seen as recently as the Talwar verdict, remained with me all night. But surely, the Supreme Court would uphold the Right to Liberty over arguments as atrocious as ‘homosexuality will lead to the spread of cancer and AIDS’. It all seemed like an open-and-shut case, a mere formality awaiting the Apex Court’s seal of approval.

For a change, I was at office today much earlier than when I start my journey on a usual day. The tweets had started to trickle in by the morning, some of them mine. And then around 10.30 AM, for the second time in as many months, a tweet popped up on my screen, completely contrary to all that I had hoped for. I sat at my desk, feeling horrible, as the tweets began to flow – most outraged at the verdict, while others (the Blue Virus recruits of the right-wing social media) being completely ecstatic.

Now, why, you may ask is this such a personal issue for me? It’s not the first time I have been asked why I care about gay rights, why I chose to do my voluntary internship at a gay organization, why I say that being gay is not abnormal when I am not gay? And so on and so forth. The point is not my sexual orientation, the point is that of equality. Our right-wing politicians don’t shy away from pointing out the ills of ‘Western influence’. But here they are, rejoicing over a Supreme Court verdict reinstating a law the British instituted, at a time when the British themselves have legalized not only homosexual acts, but also same-sex marriages. The VHP with all its dreams of a Hindu rashtra fails to see that the only country in the world which officially recognizes Hinduism as the state-religion not only considers homosexuality legal, but also held its first gay pageant last month. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board which welcomed the verdict with great fervor, seem to overlook the fact that a country like Kazakhstan with 70% of its population being Muslim considers same-sex sexual activity as legal. And would someone remind the Christian organizations that protested the decriminalization of Sec 377 that Pope Francis himself said “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” I expect nothing from the likes of Baba Ramdev or Subramanian Swamy who chose to ignore what the DSM, for all its flaws, recognized as early as 1973. They would probably consider it a disease no matter who said it.

But the point was never about morality, was it? The point was about consent. And consent, it seems, is a concept our country does not very clearly understand. So while the government ignores the Uniform Civil Code and says that is okay with the fact that a girl under the age of 18 can marry under ‘Personal laws’, it also raises the age for consensual sex to 18. And the same Parliament which passed the POCSO Act – a landmark gender-neutral act that criminalizes sexual offences of any kind against both boys and girls under the age of 18, is likely to not decriminalize consensual sex between two same-sex partners within the privacy of a bedroom for a long long time to come.

India and Russia have had a cordial relationship over the years, with Russia often throwing behind its ‘Superpower’ weight behind us when our neighbours and the United States have tried to outmuscle us. But on this count, I am afraid, Russia was more ‘third-world’ than we were, at least until last night. As of today, we join the revered ranks of Afghanistan, Uganda and Saudi Arabia which punish consensual homosexual acts more strongly than we punish unwelcome sexual advances towards women. Hell even Russia criminalizes gay propaganda not, private gay sex, as farcical as that stand may be.

A day after World Human Rights Day, and the funeral of one of the biggest champions of equality the world has ever seen, which brought together the leaders of the world; and three days after a historical debut by Aam Aadmi Party rekindled people’s faiths in the power of democracy, the Supreme Court has set us back today, by centuries. The fight, most certainly will go on, as it must, but I’ll go to bed today a lot more cynical about this country than I did last night.