While the news of the UN vote on extending benefits to spouses of same sex couples was coming in, a Twitter account slyly commented “Good News: India and Pakistan finally find common ground. Sadly, it’s for bigotry.” This is just one of many responses India’s widely-criticized standing with Russia on the issue, drew.
In June 2014, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon had announced the extension of staff benefits to spouses of same sex UN employees regardless of the legality of same sex marriage in their country. Russia, which has come down heavily on its domestic LGBT community in the past couple of years, was evidently not pleased. “We must speak plainly about what Russia tried to do today: diminish the authority of the UN Secretary-General and export to the UN its domestic hostility to LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] rights,” said Samantha Powers, United States Ambassador to the United Nations after the vote was shot down with 43 votes supporting Russia against 80 votes which wanted the Secretary General’s decision to stay. India joined socially conservative countries like Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in supporting Russia while 37 nations chose to abstain from this vote.
Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin offered the following explanation, “The UN had, as of until recently, a system whereby they would decide on benefits for partners or spouses depending on the law of the country from where the individual hailed. Then the UN Secretary General changed it of his own accord. Our objection was against the change by the secretariat without consulting countries.” But a few foreign ministry officials said that India had no option but to vote in favour of Russia as Homosexuality is criminalized in the country. This frankly cannot come as a surprise as the current Home Minister Rajnath Singh had already stated the BJP’s staunch opposition to Homosexuality by stating, “We support Section 377 because we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported,” after the Supreme Court had asked the lawmakers to decide on the issue and reversed the Delhi Court’s landmark 2009 judgement.
But is that all there is to the story?
During the Devyani Khobragade controversy, India didn’t shy away from using whatever powers it could exercise in opposing the United States, such as threatening the same sex partners of US diplomats with deportation or arrest, highlighting our tumultuous past with gay diplomats. There is also the question of India’s proximity to Russia. While we went into an euphoric overdrive over Obama’s visit, Russia and India have been much closer partners for years and both see eye-to-eye on many issues, including the denial of LGBT rights. Interestingly, Russia – regarded by the LGBT community with considerable distrust – decriminalized homosexuality in 1993.
Even if the official reasons for supporting the proposal (on grounds of India’s sovereignty) are legitimate, questions can still be raised on the vote. Each country’s sovereignty and independence is vital and India has staunchly opposed any attempts at encroaching on those interests or rights, like in the WTO negotiations or the Kashmir issue. But then why didn’t the Indian officials seek a discussion on the issue before the vote? Why wasn’t a pre-emptive statement released stating the reasons for India’s support to the proposal? Why didn’t India abstain from the vote itself rather than be clubbed with nations who are infamous for their intolerance?
While we wait on those answers, India’s LGBT community feels further threatened and let down by their own government, which continues to dodge and persecute their existence.
Words: Devang Pathak