Shakthi (name changed) is a police constable in Chennai, and has been a part of the force for several years now. Shakthi is also a queer person. When Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalised last year - thereby decriminalising homosexual relationships, it was believed that adult queer individuals, like Shakthi, would face no legal hurdles to live as full citizens of the country. One would assume the legal protection would be more so if the queer person was part of the police force. Shakthi and her partner Nithya (name changed) started facing threats from Nithya’s parents, who dragged the couple to a police station demanding that Nithya go back home with them. Though at later stages of the case, top police officers did help the couple, initially several policemen at a local station allegedly decided to side with the parents, according to multiple witnesses who were present at the scene.
On February 18, Shakthi and Nithya were summoned to the Thirumangalam police station in Chennai, and questioned and ‘counselled’ by the police for over six hours, in the presence of Nithya’s parents and a few activists.
‘Protecting culture’ and panchayat
Nithya is a third-year student at a college in Coimbatore, and had left the city a few days earlier to come to Chennai for a break with her partner Shakthi, reportedly after her hostel mates found out about her sexuality and bullied her. The hostel mates then informed her parents that she had left the hostel, and when her parents called Nithya and confronted her, she came out to them. Nithya’s parents then landed up in Chennai, and went to the Thirumangalam police station to allege that she was being “brainwashed” by activists. They wanted the police to convince their daughter to go back home with them.
At this point, Nithya told the police that she – an adult – had left Coimbatore of her own volition, and wanted to live in Chennai. She also reminded the police that Section 377 had been decriminalised by the Supreme Court, and that there was nothing illegal about her relationship with Shakthi.
“However, the police officials went on and on about ‘Tamil Kalacharam’ – and repeatedly told us, and others who were supporting the couple, that we should ‘counsel’ Nithya to go back home as per her parents’ wishes. Her place is with her parents, they told us,” said L Ramakrishnan, from the public health NGO SAATHII, who was present at the police station on Monday.
The preliminary enquiry at the police station started around 5.45pm, and allegedly went on till 11.30 pm, well past the 6 pm deadline for keeping women in a police station. The interactions among the couple, the police, and the parents were emotionally charged, leading to shouting matches between the parents and the couple. “It was like a khap panchayat, with one of the police officers saying that Nithya needed to see the “error of her ways”,” Ramakrishnan said.
Siva, a queer rights activist and co-founder of NGO Nirangal, who was also present at the police station, told TNM that the police stood witness to a lot of abuse thrown at the couple by the family. “It was quite a scary situation, with the family yelling threats at the couple and at us, the people who were there to support the couple,” he said.
“In fact, they did not even allow us to stand inside the police station, and made us get out. A police station is a public space, and a citizen should be allowed to stand inside. But the way they forced us out in the middle of the night, it made us feel very insecure,” Siva said.
Death threats and compromise
Following the altercations at the police station, Nithya was taken to a shelter home. Activists allege that both she and Shakthi received death threats. TNM was unable to speak to Nithya, and the shelter home that she is currently staying in refused to comment on the issue.
This reporter reached out to a person close to the couple who is familiar with the issue, who said, “On Monday, one of Nithya’s relatives told Shakthi, right outside the Thirumangalam station, that they have her address and all her details, and issued a death threat – claiming they will make it look like an accident.”
Activists familiar with the issue said that this forced them to escalate the matter with higher officials, which is when B Vijayakumari, Joint Commissioner of Police, West Zone, took charge of the issue.
According to sources, the JC spoke to the couple, as well the parents, and reassured Nithya that she would not be forced to go back to Coimbatore with her parents. The officer also told the parents that as their daughter is an adult, they have no right to interfere with how she chooses to lead her life. However, for now, Nithya has been shifted to a shelter home for her protection, sources said.
Vijayakumari denies any interference by the police. “The police have not interfered in the issue in any manner,” she said, adding, “The woman (Nithya) is at a (shelter) home now, and the parents have gone back.” The officer refused to comment further on the issue.
“Meanwhile, Shakthi has been transferred to another police station in the city,” Ramakrishnan said.
According to a source, the JC has helped all parties involved reach a compromise regarding Nithya’s living situation, and Nithya is satisfied with this currently.
‘Decriminalising has not changed mindsets’
While IPC Section 377 was decriminalised last year, this case clearly illustrates that the spirit of the judgment has not permeated the law enforcement system so far. “It’s not that the police officials who were present at the station did not know that Section 377 has been decriminalised,” said Sudha Ramalingam, a senior advocate who has been helping the couple, “So it’s not a question of awareness. They knew fully well that this is not an offence and not within their jurisdiction to interfere with; which is why they didn’t file any FIR when the parents complained about the relationship.”
“But somewhere, the police officials feel they are morally bound to help the parents. They still empathise with the parents, despite knowing that the couple is doing nothing illegal,” she said.
“The police need to realise that they should be counselling the parents, and educating them that there is nothing wrong with a lesbian relationship, instead of siding with the parents and counselling the couple as if they are doing something wrong and need to reform,” the advocate said.
“We are not asking the police to break the law for us, we are respecting the law and asking them to do the same,” Siva added.
“This case has made us realise that we need to work towards change in mindset within law enforcement, and we have a long way to go before that happens,” Ramakrishnan said.