The new status of privacy as a fundamental right as per 24th August is quite rightly being lauded as a big win for queer people. But the violence by supporters of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insan in Haryana, Punjab and Delhi-NCR, which left 38 dead and several injured in its wake because their leader was convicted of raping two women, shows how terrible the denial of dignity to swathes of people in India, really is. Most of the supporters of the Dera Sacha Sauda religious cult—of which Ram Rahim is the head—including the women who deposed against him, belong to backward castes. These castes have been systematically excluded from positions of social and political power, and denied the dignity of personhood, as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution—and of which privacy is now an unequivocal part—for generations.
The violence committed by Ram Rahim on the women (not the only two; the CBI received evidence from 18 women) is reprehensible. So was the violence of August 25, which led to so many senseless deaths. So is the violence that has been committed against backward caste people for centuries. So is our blind spot towards our complicity in this violence.
In this piece, I hope to tease out some of the threads of the privacy conversation as it affects the queer community. But I can only do so by recognizing two important points—our multiple identities (gender, caste, class) and our blind spots (towards other genders, castes and classes). I cannot talk about being queer without talking about being savarna. How can one be queer and fight systemic inequalities against oneself, without acknowledging the ways in which the same oppressive system works through us?
At its core, queer politics challenges heteronormative patriarchal ideas—it does so by upholding the fundamental rights of liberty, equality, dignity and privacy; rights that we know are denied to persons across the gender identity and sexual orientation spectrum. Last week, the Supreme Court held that privacy is one of the things that make us human. “The right to privacy is an element of human dignity,” the judgment of Justice DY Chandrachud read. “Privacy ensures that a human being can lead a life of dignity by securing the inner recesses of the human personality from unwanted intrusion. Privacy recognizes the autonomy of the individual and the right of every person to make essential choices which affect the course of life.” [Emphasis mine]
Our experiences have taught us why such privacy is not only vital for our well-being, but unfortunately, also unavailable to many of us. The family, where we first encounter patriarchal heteronormativity, prevents us from making those “essential choices” that affect the course of our lives. This is not simply about gaining permission to love who we wish to love; this is about the marking of our love as unnatural at the very outset. By doing this, the family denies us the core of our humanity. The judgment put this across as follows: “Sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy. Discrimination against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation is deeply offensive to the dignity and self-worth of the individual.”
We also encounter this denial of dignity from our families in the form of heterosexual norms that we internalize and reproduce, and whose legacy of caste and class prejudices and privileges, we carry within us. It is in these families of heterosexual parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts where a separate plate for the lower-caste domestic worker is kept. Where they are denied adequate leave benefits. Where domestic workers are not paid what they ask for, though savarna office-goers expect and receive increments each year.
The caste-privileged middle and upper classes in India actively work against the dignity and rights of backward caste, economically backward Indians. The family is where we learn to discriminate, even as the family is the site where we, as queer people, face discrimination, erasure, and violence ourselves. Equality and privacy cannot be separated. Violate one, and you violate the other.
The fundamental right of privacy is not simply a guarantee of the freedom to be and do as one wishes without the intrusion of state or society. It is also a protection of one’s vulnerability. In the Dera Sacha Sauda premises, women followers—sadhvis, as they are called—were not allowed to talk to each other, or their family members, or to strange men. They were reportedly at the beck and call of Ram Rahim, who sexually exploited several of them and then threatened them against revealing any of it. A letter that a sadhvi wrote in 2002 to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee goes into details about the way in which she and others were raped by Ram Rahim. The women were made to work at the Dera by family members who were followers of the cult. The letter shows how many women left the Dera after being sexually assaulted by Ram Rahim, and other family members who worked there too, or supported him, eventually dropped out as well. Many were intimidated into silence, the letter states. This is the epitome of denial of privacy, personhood and dignity.
In a country where the body of a woman is often called into service to fulfill a variety of heteronormative roles—from Mother India to Item Number—privacy is a particularly vital fundamental right for women, especially stark in its absolute absence from our lives. Ironically, our society is big on maintaining the “privacy” of a married couple, but that’s a false notion of privacy, based not on maintaining the dignity of the individuals, but protecting an unequal social relationship. It permits all kinds of excesses to take place, including rape. Privacy as a fundamental right however, takes as its starting point the individual, according her dignity as a human first, before any other role she may perform.
A society that denies these rights to multiple sections of people is one where acts of violence, such as rape, is normalized. The denial of dignity and the personhood of women is evident all around us: from the hyper sexualized bodies of film stars to the witch branding and brutalization of Dalit women. It is this normalization of violence against women that brings thousands of supporters of a rapist on the streets to pour out their anger because he was convicted; and prompts a ruling party MP to hold a press conference and ask why the court paid more attention to the words of a woman instead of the multitude of Ram Rahim’s supporters.
However, the same supporters—many of whom are backward caste Sikhs and Dalits—are themselves victims of a society that has systemically denied them their dignity through centuries of caste-based oppression. The Dera Sacha Sauda was as much a social organization that offered its members pride, identity, and a sense of community, as it was a religious cult with immensely problematic practices that victimized its followers.
This systemic inequality only makes the question of dignity all the more pressing—if our queer politics doesn’t work to smash this, we cannot hope to derive any benefit from the judgment. We who fight for the dignity of privacy to choose our sexual partners, must fight against the indignity of caste. If we fight back heteronormativity that stipulates that male-female relations are supreme, then we cannot hold on to the idea that caste renders some of us impure or unclean. Unless there is dignity for all, there will never be dignity for a few.