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Still Waiting for Its 377 Moment, Kashmir's LGBT Community Hopes in the Shadows

Still Waiting for Its 377 Moment, Kashmir's LGBT Community Hopes in the Shadows

As India celebrated the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the members of LGBTQ+ in Kashmir silently watched the events from a distance.

News18 Sunday Feature

The Supreme Court reading down Section 377 and decriminalising homosexuality was a moment of celebration and joy everywhere in the country — except in Jammu and Kashmir, where the LGBT+ community has been shedding silent tears since the state follows the Ranbir Penal Code and not the IPC.

Mehak, a 25-year-old from uptown Srinagar, was watching the celebrations across India on her mobile phone. She is a lesbian in a corner of the country which hasn’t even begun talking, forget accepting, homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality or asexuality. But Mehak is still happy for others who fought and won the landmark legal battle.

“It is a moment of happiness and hope for us,” says Mehak. “It is the win of millions of transgender people across the globe. A long battle has been won.”

Mehak’s Story

Mehak graduated a few years ago from a government women’s college in Srinagar, but did not pursue her studies further. Her family doesn’t know she is not a “straight-female” but a lesbian, and Mehak still can’t muster the courage to break the news to her family.

“I belong to a conservative, religious family. If I tell my parents about my sexuality, I think they will kill me,” Mehak tells News18. “I try to be ‘female’. I control myself.”

She feels being from the alternate sexuality is considered a gaali (invective) in the society. “I was in Class 7 when I realised my sexuality as a lesbian. Initially, it looked as though I lost my mental balance, but with each passing day it became a reality,” she says.

Mehak studied in an all-girls’ school and an exclusively female college. It was in college that life changed, she says.

“I was quite secretive about it. When I used to express myself to anyone, I was not accepted but mocked,” she says. But she found her special someone and the two fell in love. “She accepted me the way I am. It is the most memorable moment of my life,” says Mehak.

Both started dating and would visit each other’s home as well. “We got closer and promised to spend our entire life together,” she says.

But with the passage of time, her family started raising objections over her friend's regular visits to their home. In time, her family took a stern step — no friends at home.

Mehak was furious, but couldn’t disclose her inner self or express the reason for her anguish. She began struggling with herself, with the way nature had made her. “I thought of committing suicide. It was becoming unbearable for me. I even left my home for a distant relative’s place for some time,” she says. She also began searching for a job.

“The only option available to me was to get a job and become independent. I wanted to live with my partner,” she says. “But couldn’t find a good job.”

During this phase of her life, she started searching for ways to live her life on her own terms.

She began researching and found a person who had taken it upon himself to help homosexual and transgender people in Kashmir. But it was risky as she hadn’t disclosed her gender to many people.

“It was not easy for me to trust anyone. But I researched for over one year and finally approached the person — Dr Aijaz Ahmad Bund,” Mehak tells News18.

Dr Aijaz has earned the reputation of being the only man in Kashmir known to be publicly fighting for the rights of the LGBT+ community in the Valley. A reputation that has also made him the butt of jokes and ridicule.

Last year, he published a book, The Hijras of Kashmir: A Marginalized Form of Personhood. The book is the first attempt at detailing the life and struggle of the transgender community in Kashmir, pushed to margins of the society. Based on 24 in-depth interviews, the book has made shocking revelations of harassment, abuse and the pathetic behaviour of society towards the transgender community in the Valley.
Dr Aijaz at his book launch with members of LGBTQ community. In the Valley, transgender people are referred to as Laanch. They mostly work as meanzimyoar or matchmakers, and perform at marriage parties.

Aijaz’s book release turned into an emotional event. The stories shared in the event were sore and dreadful.

One of them was about an elderly transgender, shunned by her family. Without any roof over her head, she died on the roadside. “Dogs were feasting on the corpse when a couple coming from a late night function saw the horror and alerted the neighborhood. As the semi-torn body was taken up, the question rose where to bury her. As every graveyard has an ownership, people were reluctant to give her space,” a local Kashmir newspaper said, quoting the story from Dr Aijaz’s book launch.

Finally, it was Dr Aijaz who gave her her final resting place.

What Triggered Dr Aijaz’s Fight?

“A few years ago, a matchmaker, who was a transgender, visited our home with a marriage proposal for my elder sister. But the behaviour of my family was indifferent and disgusting,” Dr Aijaz says. “It was the day I decided to work for their rights.”

“In Kashmir, most of the people don’t know the difference between gay and transgender. Only transgender people are visible. Other categories are based on sexual orientation and they are living invisible lives in our society,” he says.

He is trying to spread awareness about the other sexual categories but, he says, people criticise him “for importing a western phenomenon”.

“Issues of these people don’t come out. The crises of faith and society are depressing, they can’t express themselves. Even when they visit psychologists and psychiatrists, they are judged and not understood,” he says.

Now, people in Kashmir are finding a way to express themselves.

Dr Aijaz has a Facebook page in the name of his welfare trust where people approach him and disclose their sexuality. “We try to help them, provide them counselling.”

In 2011, he got associated with the transgender community and approached the state’s social welfare department. “We convinced them to formulate an intervention plan to address the problems of this community. The plan was formulated, but never implemented. The reason cited was that it was a policy matter and requires approval from the cabinet,” he tells News18.

He later went to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) raising the demands of the transgender community. “The case was with SHRC for four years, but nothing happened,” he says.

Dr Aijaz wanted to bring together the marginalised community, which was scattered and voiceless. In 2011, he founded the Sonzal Welfare Trust.

“For a few years, I was alone. But I constantly approached people from the community and managed to create a network,” he says. Currently, there are 250 transgender people registered with his trust apart from two dozen people who are helping and supporting him.

After no help from the SHRC, Aijaz and the people associated with his trust decided to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the High Court, demanding rights and reservation for the community. “We approached all senior lawyers, but no one was willing to take up our case. We filed the PIL on our own and represented the case in High Court,” he says. “The lawyers were feeling ashamed to fight our case.”

Dr Aijaz says the judgment by the Supreme Court in relation to Section 377 is “historical”. “It has strengthened our struggle,” he says. “We are going to talk to lawyers so that the Supreme Court judgment can be passed in Jammu and Kashmir as well.”

But it has not been an easy journey for Dr Aijaz.

“People are running a hate campaign against me. I am sometimes threatened and abused,” he says.

As per the 2011 Census, there are around 2,000 transgender people in Kashmir, but Aijaz says it is more than that and people are not coming forward.

Kashmir has a population of around 7 million. Dr Aijaz says that if Kashmir follows the global estimate of LGBT numbers being 10% of the population, it has 7,00,000 LGBT people.

Struggle to be Accepted

Waseem Ahmad, 32, belongs to a well-off family. A year ago, he was married despite his reluctance. “I told my parents I don’t want to get married without disclosing that I am gay,” he says. “It was hard for me to tell them. They forced me and I married a girl.” After 15 days, Waseem’s married life ended.

Similarly, Saleem Ahmad was forced into a heterosexual marriage. The day he was supposed to get married, he attempted suicide. His life was saved in the nick of time. But since then, he says, life has changed.

“I am looked upon as some unwanted element,” he says. Saleem is thinking of moving out of Kashmir and finding a partner with whom he can live.

“In Kashmir, it is not possible for me to live with a partner I want,” he says. “It is not my choice, but this is how nature has made me.”

Dissent from Within

Bablu is a 45-year-old transwoman from Dalgate, Srinagar who works as a matchmaker and opposes the implementation of the Supreme Court judgment in Kashmir. “We are Muslims and it is forbidden in our religion. Even if we get freedom like in other states we won’t avail it, our society won't,” she says.

She says that “if people want to see us happy, they should respect us”. “The biggest favour to us will be reservation in government jobs and to be accepted as normal people,” she says.

Her friend, 35-year-old Shabnam is also a transwoman and says she is unable to fulfil basic needs. “This world is a test for us and as per our religion, we should not indulge in sexual activities. Unnatural sex is forbidden in our religion,” she says. “Even if Supreme Court judgment gets implemented here, we won’t go against our society.”

Mehak’s Struggle

After guidance from Dr Aijaz, Mehak and her girlfriend, whom she fondly calls ‘Baby’, have decided to go for further studies. “We will continue our studies and become qualified people so that we can get a job, which can sustain our life. We have faith and hope, and we will struggle, come what may,” she says.

Youngest among three siblings, she says, marriage proposals are pouring in at home and “I am more rebellious now”.

She doesn’t like to wear feminine clothes. Mehak sports short hair and a cap. She also wears jeans. All this hasn’t gone down well with her family.

“My parents wanted a boy when I was born, so I was allowed to wear ‘boy clothes’ for some time. But now my family wants me to change my style of dressing,” she says. “I sometimes feel funny about the things around me.”

Mehak is planning to marry her girlfriend someday. “One day, I will have to tell my family. I don’t know how to face it. But yes, I have to be courageous and independent,” she says.

She says people have always restricted love. “Love doesn’t have a form. It is more about respect and dignity. They should respect us no matter what and how we are,” she says poetically.

But she is optimistic and hopeful. “I will fight back even if it means death. I will be proud of myself.”

Opposition to SC Verdict in J&K

Hours after the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment on Thursday, religious groups in Jammu and Kashmir voiced criticism. Jammu and Kashmir’s Grand Mufti and vice-chairman of State Muslim Personal Board, Nasir-ul-Islam, told a local newspaper that the verdict is unacceptable. “It is adultery. We cannot allow it,” he said. “But I don’t mean this community should not be treated with dignity and respect. They should be treated as humans, but we can’t allow unnatural sex here.”

Chuni Lal, President of Hindu Welfare Society, a representative organisation of all Pandits (Hindus) in the Valley, was quoted saying: “It is unnatural, immoral and illegal. There is no acceptability of this in our society. Only male and female can do sex in a legal form; all others are wrong.”

“Minority rights are always taken to be subservient to the dominant perspectives, so the resistance to it was not unexpected,” says Arshie Qureshi, a research scholar. “We need to see rights of minorities from a human rights lens and not delay its implementation. Not giving them these rights is basically denying their existence.”

(The author is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist. Some names have been changed on request to protect identities) More Sunday Features