Sangh’s signal on LGBT rights

Six years after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) signalled its tolerance of homosexuality, its chief Mohan Bhagwat on Tuesday elaborated on the organisation’s view of same-sex relationships. In an interview, Mr Bhagwat made two important arguments in the context of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. One, he stressed that the question of same-sex relationships and transgender people was not alien to Indian traditions, and instead was woven into the fabric of ancient customs and ways of life. He said that queer people had a right to live, and traditions found a way to assimilate them into the mainstream of society, holding out the examples of deities worshipped by some groups, references to gender-ambiguous characters in epics and the presence of transgender monastic sects to argue that Indian ways of life were mindful of a gamut of genders and sexualities. Two, he underlined that LGBT people had lived and thrived in India for centuries. He also appeared to betray some discomfort with what he called the “hullabaloo” around these issues, contrasting the quiet acceptance offered by India to how some in the “neo-Left” made it into a “global debate”.

The comments underscore the Sangh’s outreach towards communities and ideas once considered inimical to its Hindu cultural agenda, and must be seen in the light of Mr Bhagwat’s meetings last year with prominent members of the Muslim community and repeated remarks against caste discrimination. It remains to be seen whether his comments are a strong enough signal to check the vigilantism of violent fringe groups that continue to attack LGBT people, and erode the narrative that queer people are somehow foreign to Indian culture (in much the same way caste bias remains unabated across the country). Some of his comments endorsing traditional occupations for transgender people may also sit uncomfortably with the increasingly globalised and rights-based outlook of LGBT movements, though it is an important reminder of a growing Right-leaning section of LGBT communities.

As the ideological fount of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the RSS wields enormous power through its network of grassroots workers and shakhas, and the ability to set the socio-cultural agenda. Mr Bhagwat’s comments, therefore, carry tremendous weight in its embrace of ideas of equality and tolerance. If young queer people fighting discrimination within their orthodox homes, or bigotry outside, are able to use this moment to carve out some space for a more dignified life, that’s quite enough.

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