Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s recent comments about homosexuality at a press conference in New Delhi have created as much of a stir as the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377 did last year. However, while the latter took a progressive stance, the General’s comments hinted at the army’s conservative view on homosexuality. While the General did not state concrete, factually sound reasons for this train of thought, he did imply that it had something to do with the Indian Army not being “modernized and westernised” and so, homosexuality would not be allowed to “perpetuate into the army.”
LGBTQ rights activist, Harish Iyer, finds this suggestion particularly bizarre, for he points out that since the Indian Army is not “modernized and westernised,” it should be more accepting of alternate sexualities. “Homophobia is a Western philosophy. Indian philosophy has always championed acceptance rather than discriminating against people because of their sexuality. If you look at ancient Indian scriptures, you’ll find so many examples of acceptance,” he avers. The activist also feels preventing those in the Defence Forces from embracing their sexuality is not only inhuman but also counter-productive. “I think that it’s regressive and insulting to assume that army men are born without sexuality or think that they should stay with repressed sexuality. Accepting the sexuality of Defence personnel would boost their morale and ensure that they fight battles in a stronger way. The more acceptance, the more is your inner strength,” he adds.
Dharker, while criticising Rawat for not addressing the issue in a more relevant way, does concede that homosexual relationships within the Armed Forces could lead to logistical issues, which could negatively impact the functioning of the Army. He says, “I believe that no organisation should be involved in the personal sexual orientation of anybody. However, sexual relationships between people in the Army could throw up fairly complex questions. These are combat forces, and if there are quarrels within the Force because of sexual relationships, then that is a problem. Rawat could have talked about operational issues, but he has made it into a question of morality."
Senior Advocate Aspi Chinoy also feels that there could be legitimate questions from the point of view of the logistical convenience and safety of LGBTQ individuals within the Armed Forces. He points out how there are no separate barracks for homosexuals and how the lack of infrastructure could result in incidents of assault, molestation or even rape. "Army camps are set up in secluded areas, where there isn't much scope for sexual interaction. If gay men or transgender people are asked to share barracks with heterosexual men, you will have to be sure those belonging to the LGBTQ community do not get beaten up, molested or raped. It’s not a matter of rights; it’s a matter of safety. So, an issue like this is not necessarily an abstract question of law. It has to be looked at in the context of forward positions of army areas," he says.
This issue of internal conflict is one that is also highlighted by retired Colonel Amardeep Singh, who says that the nature of the job calls for unflinching loyalty and obedience and hence though some of the rules imposed might seem like human rights violations to an outsider, they are necessary for the Armed Forces. "Thus, despite homosexuality being decriminalised by legislative and judicial bodies, the same cannot be adopted by the Armed Forces, without due consideration of the consequences these issues may have on the structure and functioning of the organisations. Can one imagine a Platoon Commander in a relationship with another soldier, ordering the soldier to rise and open fire? It may lead to a breakdown in the basic framework of the Armed Forces where a rigid hierarchical structure is a norm and also an essential requirement,” he insists.
However, Harish points out that such viewpoints are based on the assumption that homosexuals in the Army will indiscriminately engage in same-sex relationships within the Force. And that is often not the case. He says, “It is silly to assume that gay men in the Army will be having sex with each other. We don’t want special rights. We want legal rights. We are open to being subjected to the same disciplinary action that anyone else would be subjected to if relationships within the Army were prohibited. Also, Rawat’s statement doesn’t only reek of homophobia; it is also misogynistic at so many levels. One of the reasons why women were not allowed in the army for the longest time was because they didn’t want men to get distracted. What is this thing about Army men having such high libidos that they get diverted so easily? Aren’t they trained to not get distracted?"
Addressing the issue of the safety of those belonging to the LGBTQ community within the Armed Forces, one of the country’s most prominent gay rights activists, Ashok Row Kavi says that the argument doesn’t hold ground since predatory sex is a criminal offence across occupations. He says, “Any predatory sex is rape. If a senior harasses a junior, there are ways in which the issue can and should be dealt with. You can’t say that the Army can’t guarantee your safety. Also, they don’t understand how a homosexual bonding works. I mean, even we don’t go around raping and having sex with every other man. We also have a choice." The activist, who openly acknowledges having had relationships with prominent men in the Armed Forces, says that there already are many homosexuals within the Force and that a ‘don’t see, don’t tell policy’ is followed when it comes to homosexual relationships. “But, the Army needs to stop brushing this topic under the carpet, because, at the end of the day, the personal becomes the political. A person’s sexuality is a core part of their being and they should be allowed to stay true to it. As long as you don't flaunt your sexuality, and one does not need to, it should be nobody's business," he concludes.
With inputs from Priyanka Chandani