Unpleasant remnants of colonialism were stamped out, unceremoniously, in the Supreme Court verdict on Article 377. Justice Chandrachud, who spared none in his scathing report, brought it down to a matter of basic dignity. This is cause for celebration, but how much will things really change? Rumi Harish, a transgender activist, knew early on that he didn't want to remain a woman. He risked it all: his life as a Hindustani classical musician and his relationship with his family to stay true to himself. He tells Aksheev Thakur that even though mindset is a personal choice, the judgement could be a useful tool for social change.
Rumi Harish is used to adulation for his voice. He is also used to words of advice, offered without request, from his audience: Maybe you should wear a saree. Maybe you should sing like a girl. These he meets with unwavering indignation, but continues, nevertheless, along his arduous journey: to break stereotypes within the gendered circles of Hindustani classical music.
On September 6, 2018, Rumi Harish, like so many other members of the LGBTQ community, broke out into celebration. “I am overwhelmed,” he exclaims. “This marks the end of a part of the colonial era. The Section has instilled fear and now, we can live without that. I am what I am,” Rumi says, echoing a refrain that has been adopted by thousands in the last 24 hours.
Justice Chandrachud declared, in a scathing 180-page report, that “Sexual orientation is integral to the identity of the members of the LGBT communities. It is intrinsic to their dignity, inseparable from their autonomy and at the heart of their privacy. Section 377 is founded on moral notions which are an anathema to a constitutional order in which liberty must trump over stereotypes.”
The controversial article 377 traces its origins back to the year 1861, when it was introduced by the British as a part of the Indian Penal Code. It criminalised those sexual activities that it termed “against the order of nature.” The struggle for the abolition of the act, which has raged on since 2009, when parts of it were first struck down by the Delhi High Court, culminated finally on September 9, 2018.
The obvious question here is: Why was it allowed to remain for over a century, even after the country that conceptualised the law did away with it? “The right-wing fascist understanding of the issue, along with caste patriarchy, heterosexism and gender bias has been a single package,” Rumi says. He is no stranger to these evils, either. He made his first foray into transgender activism in 2000.
December 11 2013 brought another low point for the LGBTQ community. The Delhi High Court verdict from 2009, which had been appealed in the Supreme Court, was overturned in the Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz Foundation. The Court held then that the matter should be left to Parliament. In his September 6 verdict, Justice Chandrachud tore into this decision also, slamming the government’s neutrality towards the issue and saying it should have taken a decisive stand.
How much of this will actually translate into daily life? Rumi, who has been faced with opposition all his life, remains optimistic, hoping that the judgment will become a tool for social change. “Even in my home, I had to fight the pressure of marriage. I don’t mind if you don’t accept me the way I am but don’t pressurise me either. That’s all I have to say.” Change, he believes, begins in the education system, which only recognises the reproductive role of human sexuality. “Inculcating tolerance and imparting education on caste discrimination should also be a apart of society.”
Rumi had always wanted to marry a girl. A student of Hindustani classical music for 30 years, he had to fight, every step of the way, to make a name for himself. The rigid, patriarchal norms that existed within the circle believed in the idea of the ‘obedient woman’, who sang at a certain pitch and wore a saree.
Not Rumi. “I couldn’t imagine myself in a saree! So now, I had to face the fact that if I could not be a ‘woman’, I may lose the concerts. People assumed that I had stopped singing after I became an activist,” he says. Four years ago, he came out as a transgender man. “I was born in 1973 and had to face so much trauma. I can hardly imagine how bad it would have been for those born before me!”
He was 28 when he told his parents he was interested in women. He still stays with them, but admits that they have a problem with him changing his name.
Rumi sees a trace of Brahmanical superiority in mythology. Discussing Shikhandi, a character in the Mahabharata, Rumi points that masculinity is always challenged, even in trans men. “There is constant vying for male superiority,” he says. “People may champion the rights of LGBTQ in other homes but will never accept it if it comes from their own children. Brahmins have written mythology for their own convenience,” he says.
In 2001, a transgender was arrested, apparently without cause and tortured at Cubbon Park Police station. Suspended upside down and brutally beaten, his friends had to fight his case in the station. “I still remember, we had to assert ourselves and the policeman’s behaviour towards us was horrible. On the other hand, I have also come across a policeman who said he stands by us and allowed us to protest in 2013,” he recalls. Protest? Not really. It’s far less important to come out on the street than it is to break free from one’s own fears.