"Don't Need To Dissociate Myself From My Religion To Be A Gay," One Of India's First Gay Rights Activists
On September 6 the Supreme Court partially struck down the barbaric and colonial-era Section 377 thereby decriminalising homosexuality in its historic verdict. Since then the entire nation is celebrating the victory of love and calling it an “Azadi (freedom) movement”.
This long-pending judgement would have been impossible without the support of many activists and people who have vouched for the freedom and equality for LGBTQ+ communities members. One among these many unsung heroes- Ashok Row Kavi, an LGBTQ+ activist, is the first man who publicly came out as a gay in India in 1984.
The journalist-turned-activist founded Mumbai-based LGBT rights NGO Humsafar Trust in 1994. He is also one of the many petitioners who was fighting for the scrapping of Section 377.
”Amma” of LGBTQ Community
The Logical Indian spoke to Ashok Row, one of India’s most vocal gay rights activist who bravely stood for not just himself but for many others while seeking justice and freedom for the whole community.
Ashok, who is commonly referred to as ‘Amma’. He says he feels proud when the people call him ‘Amma’. “Those people might have seen some leadership qualities in me. As a journalist, I have led many teams but this sought of leadership is personal. Now when I address people’s problems, I have a sense of parenthood in me,” says Row.
Before starting activism against the rampant homophobia in the country, he pursued a career in journalism that spanned over 18 years. During that time Ashok Row worked with many renowned media houses including The Indian Express, The Week, and the Free Press Journal. Later he also founded India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost. He retired from journalism in 1990.
Journalist, Monk- Ashok Rao Kavi
When asked about why he left journalism to become an activist, he said, nobody becomes activist out of their choice. “People like me end up becoming activist because nobody else does the work, nobody fight for issues and that is why we have to step up to make it happen.”
He calls himself “a proud Hindu” and is a monk of Ramakrishna order. Row Kavi has relied on Hinduism and its text for advocating the removal of Section 377. When asked about how his beliefs align with his activism for the sexual minority, he said, “I am a proud Hindu and to fight the barbaric law which was brought by the Britishers, I don’t need to dissociate myself from my religion.” He opened about his sexuality at the time when he was preparing to become a monk. It was during his training in the Ramakrishna Math that Row Kavi came out as being a gay to a senior monk, Swami Harshananda.
Refuting these claims of several Hindu outfits, according to whom homosexuality is against the religion, Row Kavi said that, Hinduism was never against the attraction among the same sex. He says that no Hindu text has ever called homosexuality a sin and the experts who have studied religious book thoroughly will agree to it. “Those who are using Hinduism as a shield are not true Hindu for me. I don’t know if they have even read our Hindu scriptures properly,” he said.
Blaming the Victorian rulers for terming same-sex relationships as a sin, he said that it was not homosexuality that was brought by Britishers in India, rather, it was homophobia which they brought and left it on us. “The law and the punishment for Homosexuality in India came from the Bible and the Leviticus (the third book of the Torah and of the Old Testament).”
Born to a higher caste Hindu family, he also spoke about how homosexuality became a taboo in India. He said, “The fear that was being spread was because homosexuality is non-productive and that generated homophobic in our culture, but the Hindu text, unlike other religions has never termed it a sin.”
Row Kavi, along with many another activists struggled for more than 30 years, trying to educate the people about the homosexuality and in an aim to get justice for “his people” he knocked the door of the top court. The victory, dressed in rainbow colour, at last, made its way in 2018.
“I will not use victim card to win my battle”
Row Kavi said that he will not wear his victim batch to celebrate his victory, “I will not cry about what happened to me, or what they did to me. I am just proud that, it was my fight and I fought for it without caring about the society.” Calling it a fight of equal dignity and rights, he said, “It wasn’t easy. Yet, we had to fight just because as a citizen of this country it is our constitutional right to live and love with our choice.”
Meanwhile, the activist also emphasised the need for sex and gender education in schools. He said that his trust, “Humsafar” along with many NGOs have been demanding for this since 1993. “The Humsafar trust has been stressing on the need of sex-sexuality education. We have a module called sex-sexuality and gender equality that we want the young children should be taught,” he said. He further added that no school or colleges have this module and because of which the entire system was homophobic, which needs to change. The sex-sexuality module aims at sensitizing school-going children about different sex and the whole spectrum of sexuality.
In December 2013, the bench of Justices Singhvi and S J Mukhopadhaya reversed the Delhi HC’s 2009 verdict. The bench said that only a “minuscule fraction of the country’s population” was LGBT. Further adding that less than 200 people have been arrested under the law in the past 150 years and this could not be made a sound basis for declaring the Section 377 violative of Article 14 (equality), 15(right to life and liberty) and 21 (prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, caste, race and sex).
Soon after this, the Humsafar Trust started collecting data on the crime against the LGBTQ communities.“Right after the judgment, we took the help of newspapers and others thing to collate the data.”
He says that because the law was so unclear, the police had no clue what to do with the complaints and that is why a lot of cases went unreported in the past. Explaining, why the crime against LGBTQ goes unreported sometimes, he said that for example when a Hijra (Transgender) approaches police with a complaint of being beaten up or harassment it is registered just as a case of physical abuse and not abuse because of a person’s sexuality, “Because the law was flawed and the law did not recognise them as different genders many such cases went unreported.”
Man of many controversies
The ardent advocate of free speech is also a man embroiled in a lot of controversies. In 1995, in a talk show called, Nikki Tonight, he made a derogatory remark against Mahatma Gandhi. This instigated a lot of criticism, so much so that Gandhi’s grandson also filed a case of around Rs 50 crore against Star TV, forcing the show to shut down permanently.
In the 1970s, he also alleged that the RSS threatened him with a court case after he published an article advising Hindus to start eating beef. “Hinduism today is a huge umbrella of superstition and stupid beliefs, but that’s only because people have forgotten what it stood for. This is my house, these are my people, and I will fight among them. I will never give up on Hinduism,” he said in an earlier interview with The Print.