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One step at a time

Senior RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale issued a statement about the need to decriminalise homosexuality and then appeared to do a U-turn by calling it not a criminal but a socially immoral act that needed psychological counselling. This statement has been criticised by many, who see it as another sign of the regressive mindset that plagues the RSS. As an organisation that articulates the cultural agenda of the present government, statements from the RSS carry weight, and activists see this as confirmation that nothing has changed in the organisation’s socially conservative worldview. In a democracy that offers equal rights to all its citizens, laws that makes criminals out of people for what they do in their private lives behind closed doors clearly have no place.


But of course it is not that simple. Shashi Tharoor’s latest attempt at changing the law failed because it lacked support across most parties. There is no political consensus on the subject, nor is there a real sense of urgency to change the situation legislatively. Across the world, while there has been much movement on this front, and the dialogue has shifted to questions of marriage and inheritance, in over 75 countries, gay sex is still a criminal act. Things are changing, but clearly there is a long way to go.

Given this context, should one not then take another look at Hosabale’s statement and see it as progress instead of another sign of regressiveness? It is true that it is easy to get offended by what the RSS leader suggests- that homosexuality is a disease, and that it is an issue of morality rather than orientation, that is a lifestyle choice made because it gets glorified. The concession about it not being a criminal act loses a lot of its meaning when set in the context of the worldview in which it continues to get located. Despite all that, one would argue that it is a sign of progress. One small step forward has been taken, and that needs to be acknowledged.

How else does one imagine change? Do we really expect the RSS to come forward and disavow its earlier position and go in one progressive leap to being a sponsor of Gay Pride parades? Changes in mindsets do not occur in a flash and are are almost always begrudgingly incremental. Here we see evidence of a willingness to juggle words and create a little more wiggle room in an otherwise fixed position. Without the caveats about social immorality, the statement would get subsequently disavowed or attributed to a misquote. Even in the best case analysis, a decade from now, it is unlikely that the RSS will forget all its reservations about this issue and be an enthusiastic supporter of the LGBT cause, so any movement forward needs to be viewed as being significant. There seems to be a willingness to engage in a conversation of some kind, and examining the issue of decriminalising gay sex even if the reason given is dissatisfying. One way is to insist that not only the right thing be done but that it be done for the right reason, while the other is to build on an opening that has been created to start moving forward. Mindsets cannot be changed quickly, but laws can.

This is part of a larger pattern that needs to be called out. The liberal impulse is to think of change in absolute terms by clearly marking out the right and the wrong, the progressive and the regressive. These categories often originate in the West but are made out to be universal. Additionally, change is desired in one fell swoop, and anything that falls short is rigorously exposed and subject not only to criticism but outright ridicule.

There is a difference between those that seek change and those that want to be right. The latter argue for change, but in such an absolute way that they almost never get their way. Their interest is in arguing for what they believe in more than in change itself. They lack a mental model that looks at change as a process with intermediate steps, for that looks too much like a series of compromises. The seekers of change find it easier to accept that change comes stumblingly, and often for the wrong reasons, but that eventually it works when it is able to carry along an ecology of forces with it. Forcing change through an aggressive act of legislation, for instance might bring short term gains, but more often than not creates other distortions that effectively dismantle the change effected. Moving too far or too quickly on an embedded social norm either runs the risk of never being implemented or paves the way for a stronger backlash that is more difficult to deal with.

A system of change requires both kind of players- activists who fight for what is right, and refuse to compromise as well the negotiators of change who work with what is available. In India, the change system has been lopsided in the favour of the activists, resulting in legislation often getting way ahead of what society can absorb. It has also provoked a massive backlash, which is seeing a summary rejection of everything liberal and progressive. The absence of change-makers as a significant group, those that can negotiate across worldviews in order to continuously help usher in new mindsets, has been felt strongly.

Change will happen, but it needs to be helped along. When things do move, like they have in the case of the latest RSS statement, it is a good idea for at least some influential groups to engage in further dialogue. Merely dismissing it as regressive and heaping polysyllabic abuse on it hardens divisions and makes any change difficult.

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