ILGA meets… Arvind Narrain, activist and human righs lawyer

One of the most prominent voices of the battle against anti-sodomy law in India is now in Geneva, looking to leave his mark on SOGI issues discussed at the United Nations. Our interview 

Activist and human rights lawyer, Arvind Narrain has been working for almost twenty years to defend people who are discriminated on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation: a founder member of the Alternative Law Forum, he has been one of the most prominent voices in the challenge against the section 377 of the Indian penal code (the so-called anti-sodomy law). He has recently moved to Geneva, where he works as the director of the local ARC-International office: his relocation makes him closer not only to the UN, but also to the headquarter of ILGA, an organisation he defines as “a supportive, wise friend”.


Here is what Arvind Narrain told us when we asked him about his story.

How did you become involved in the defence of human rights?

Things began in 1997 when, together with some colleagues and friends, I organised a gay rights conference at the the National Law School in Bangalore, the college I studied in. Then we brought on LGBTI issues with the Alternative Law Forum, where I have been based for the last fifteen years: working with human rights organisations in India, we documented several violations against the LGBTI community, we wrote extensively on the issue and we were also part of the litigation team that challenged the anti-sodomy law: we were successful in the Delhi High Court, but unsuccessful in the Supreme Court.
Soon after that I have joined ARC-International, an organisation I had closely worked with also in the past: I wanted to see for myself how decisions made at a global level have an impact on local issues.

At what stage is now the discussion about the section 377 of the Indian penal code? Do you see any chance to bring up the issue again? 

We are not at the end of the story. The Supreme Court has made a terrible judgement: it reduced LGBTI people to nothing more that their body parts and, refusing to see that there’s a connection between sexual acts, identities and expressions, it condemned LGBTI people to be second-class citizens.

After such a decision, you could tell that it could have been the end of the game, but after only four months came another verdict from the Supreme Court which set out a charter for transgender people’s rights, creating a third gender category that allowed them to identify themselves as such on official documents. As bad was the previous judgement, as remarkable was the one on trans*’ rights. But in a sense there has been a contradiction between these two: both can’t be right, as the section 377 is still responsible for human rights violations against the trans* community. So they opened up a space for a new judgement: the decision made by the Supreme Court can be overruled, but we only need to understand which will be the right time to file the next petition.
The story is not over also because, as bad as the decision was, it mobilised an extensive public opinion in favour of the LGBTI community across the country, and we  managed to build connections with other communities of activists.

There has been a worldwide debate on the violation of women’s rights in India. What is your opinion?

The Delhi rape incident has been really brutal, and all the protests that followed have lead to some changes in the law as well as changes in patriarchal mindsets : the Indian government, which had always been very quiet about sexual violence, has formed a committee to propose amendments to criminal law dealing with sexual offences. This committee understood that sexual violence is something that affects everybody, and recommended amendments that should have made the law gender-neutral. But that did not happen: even though the new law contains an expanded definition of what can be considered rape, the Parliament kept it very gender-specific. The issue, though, is pretty much out there, and will have to be dealt with by the Indian state.

Sometimes the general public perceives the decisions made at the UN as something that might have little impact on everyday lives. Organisations like ILGA and ARC work closely in that environment: what can they do to change this perception? And what is the real impact of their work?

It’s important to explain everybody that what really makes the difference is the development of law at the international level. Let’s see for example what has happened with the Yogyakarta principles, developed also with the support of civil society: their content could not have been crafted without looking at daily life experiences of people suffering violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientations and gender identities. And, even if the Yogyakarta principles are not legally binding, they have a strong footing in terms of international law. Groups working in the UN system must tell a worldwide audience that the rights of LGBTI people have to be considered, and their work is important also for those ones acting on a local level: these groups can look to that work, can grow up on that, can use it for their own activities.

But that’s not all: violations happening locally must be made known worldwide, and global civil society organisations have that responsibility. These tasks may not be considered important, but if these human rights violations are brought up on a worldwide stage, then the local governments will feel compelled to respond properly.

It’s the communities who struggle at a grassroots level to demand for rights: our role is just to amplify their voices, to respect and to push them, to apply pressure on the governments to recommend the respect of LGBTI rights.

(interview and video by Daniele Paletta)

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