New Delhi— In a recent and disheartening turn of events, the Supreme Court of India, in its verdict on October 17, declined to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. This decision marked a significant setback for the LGBTQ+ community, which had been hoping for the recognition and validation of their relationships under the law. As the nation grapples with this disappointing outcome, it is imperative to reflect on the broader implications of this verdict and consider the profound words of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the visionary architect of the Indian Constitution, whose concerns about the persistence of social inequality in the face of political equality remain as pertinent today as they were in 1950.
Ambedkar's insightful speech to the Constituent Assembly, delivered on the eve of India's adoption of its Constitution, highlighted the inherent contradiction between political equality and entrenched social and economic disparities. He questioned the endurance of this dichotomy, asking how long the country could continue to live with such contradictions and deny equality in social and economic life. Ambedkar's words, resound with a timeless urgency and relevance, especially in the context of LGBTQ+ rights in India. His words are well worth quoting at length-
The recent Supreme Court verdict refusing to legalize same-sex civil unions underscores the enduring social inequalities and prejudices faced by the LGBTQ+ community. It reminds us that the battle for LGBTQ+ rights is intrinsically linked to broader societal issues, including deeply ingrained prejudices and norms that marginalize individuals based on their sexual orientation.
The topic of Same Sex marriage and Freedom of Expression has sparked intense discussion and debate. Strikingly, a similar scenario unfolded back in 1934 when Dr. Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar stood as a stalwart lawyer defending the cause of a magazine known as "Samaj Swasthya." During the early 20th century, Raghunath Dhondo Karve, hailing from Maharashtra, courageously published "Samaj Swasthya," a magazine that fearlessly broached subjects such as sex education, family planning, nudity, and morality—matters that were considered highly unconventional and taboo within Indian society at the time. Karve's unyielding dedication to providing rational and scientifically backed insights on these sensitive topics drew the ire of conservative factions deeply rooted in religious beliefs, resulting in the emergence of numerous adversaries."
Nevertheless, Karve remained resolute and unwavering, persisting in his battle through the power of the written word. It was a period when India's political and social leadership lacked the strength and determination to rally behind Karve's provocative writings. However, it was at this crucial juncture that Baba Saheb Ambedkar took up the mantle, becoming an advocate for Karve's cause within the court of law. This legal confrontation for the freedom of expression stands out as one of the most momentous chapters in the history of social reform.
In 1931, Karve found himself embroiled in a legal dispute initiated by a conservative group in Pune over one of his articles titled "The Question of Adultery." Subsequently, he was arrested and, following conviction, fined Rs 100. When Karve pursued an appeal to the High Court in 1934, his case was presented before Judge Indraprastha Mehta, ultimately leading to the rejection of his appeal. In February 1934, Karve faced yet another arrest. This time, the conservatives were incensed by his candid responses to readers' inquiries regarding their personal sexual lives in the Gujarati edition of "Samaj Swasthya." The questions delved into topics such as masturbation and homosexuality, and Karve answered them openly. During that era, such discussions were considered obscene and detrimental to society. However, this time, Karve found an ally in Barrister BR Ambedkar who stood ready to champion his cause in the High Court.
Ambedkar, having solidified his position as a national leader advocating for the underprivileged, stepped forward to lend his support to Karve's cause. His track record included active participation in the Round Table Conference in London, the resolute demand for reservation, and the historic signing of the Pune Pact alongside Mahatma Gandhi. This naturally prompts the question: Why did Ambedkar choose to take up Karve's case, given his already extensive involvement in political and social missions? What compelled him to champion an issue that was far from widely accepted in society and promised to provoke strong reactions?
Marathi playwright Professor Ajit Dalvi has brilliantly encapsulated this episode in his play, "Samaj Swasthya," which has been performed throughout the country. According to Professor Dalvi, "Ambedkar undeniably stood as a leader for the Dalits and the underprivileged, but his vision extended to encompass society as a whole. He aspired to build a modern society that would be inclusive of all classes, actively working towards the realization of this vision."
Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Bhimrao Ambedkar, further illuminates the matter, stating, "His symbolic act of burning the Manu Smriti in 1927 was driven by his belief that such literature curtailed individual freedom. Consequently, whenever a struggle emerged for individual freedom, Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar stood in solidarity with it." He goes on to explain, "In this particular case, we can discern the clash between fundamentalist Brahminism and the principles of individual freedom and expression, which is precisely why he chose to take up this cause."
Ambedkar's extensive studies and research in Europe and America exposed him to liberal traditions and modern Western ideas. These experiences acquainted him with rationalist views that closely resonated with the content of Karve's writings, facilitating his engagement with a subject that other prominent leaders hesitated to tackle.
The crux of the court case revolved around the question of whether writing about sexual matters should be considered obscene. Karve's responses were straightforward, addressing genuine questions posed by readers. Ambedkar was taken aback by the government's decision to challenge this, seemingly to appease conservative sentiments. He posed a straightforward query: "If the domain of 'Social Health' encompasses sex education and sexual relations, and a common reader seeks information about these topics, why should those questions remain unanswered?" Preventing Karve from responding would effectively amount to the shutdown of the magazine.
The case was argued before Justice Mehta in the Bombay High Court from February 28 to April 24, 1934. The primary charge against Karve was disseminating obscenity through discussions of sexual subjects. Ambedkar's initial argument emphasized that writing about sexual matters could not be automatically labeled as obscene, as not all sexual topics warranted such classification.
The judge raised concerns about the publication of such explicit questions and the necessity of responding to them. In response, Ambedkar stressed that knowledge was the antidote to distortion and insisted that Karve should provide answers to these inquiries. He also referenced existing literature and research on the subject from modern society, including Havelock Ellis's work on homosexuality, asserting that there was nothing inherently wrong with people having such desires. They had the right to pursue happiness in their own way.
Ambedkar remained unwavering in his defense of two fundamental rights: the right to sex education and the right to freedom of expression. He was steadfast in his opposition to religious orthodoxy obstructing sex education and argued that open debates and discussions were vital to dispel societal misconceptions. Remarkably, these arguments retain their relevance in today's context.
Professor Dalvi concludes by raising an important question: Are there magazines similar to "Samaj Swasthya" available in our society today? Historically, great leaders openly discussed a multitude of subjects, except sexuality. Very few individuals possess the courage to address this topic, though it remains a crucial conversation that is still pertinent today.
In the end, R.D. Karve and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar may have lost the legal battle of 1934, with Karve incurring a fine of Rs. 200 for obscenity. However, such battles will persist in the present and future, transcending their outcomes to leave a lasting impact on society.
Reference- Konnur, Mayuresh. "Ambedkar jab yaun shiksha se juda ek case haar gaye they." BBC Hindi, 7 December 2017.