Whether it is a rooftop helipad near a military cantonment or a movie script with anyone from the army as a character, the spectre of ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) continues to haunt entrepreneurs and filmmakers in India. As per award-winning filmmaker Onir, fifty six countries around the globe accept Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer individuals (LGBTQ) in their army. In the 21st Century we should be comfortable discussing if not approving this. Yet, the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) decided to decline NOC for Onir’s proposed movie script ‘We Are’ inspired by Maj J Suresh who resigned his commission because his sexual orientation did not align with army rules. This despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional, paving the way for greater LGBTQ rights.
MoD playing censor is disappointing but not surprising: disappointing that the service should censor creative freedom of the arts while being patently insensitive to those from the LGBTQ community who may hold a desire to serve in uniform; unsurprising because the services have always been hush-hush about homosexuality — pretending it does not exist but going the whole hog if a same-sex relationship is exposed. In my time in the service, I have seen at least three cases of homosexuality. Below decks, men have official and unofficial channels to address what are bracketed under phrases like “anomalous behaviour”, “conduct unbecoming of an officer”, “against good order and naval discipline”, etc.
Two of the above quoted incidents went unreported since relegation or boarding-out was a risk nobody wanted to run. Same-sex relationships were proscribed in the armed forces then — as they are now — despite the Supreme Court decriminalising consensual same-sex relationships in 2018. People who qualified as “witnesses” kept quiet on the “consensual” case, while others resorted to unauthorised means like “kambal parade“, verbal attacks, moral lecture, etc, for the “unrequited love” incident. The commanding officer of a frontline warship was removed from command in one instance of unrequited homosexuality. Do note, these were personnel selected deeply through various levels of oversight. That their sexual orientation still went undetected should tell us something about our selection process. For that matter, what’s the guarantee the Services Selection Boards (SSB) are full of “straight” people?
I am not making a case here to open the armed forces to LGBTQ. That is a highly sensitive subject requiring deep debate and great nuance. We are still taking baby steps in making the service a bit more gender-neutral. With proposed induction of women into National Defence Academy (NDA), the services have willy nilly lowered the age threshold to a point where sexual orientation may be yet to find expression. LGBTQ is still a far cry for the forces. Homosexuality by itself is illegal in the armed forces & paramilitary, though there is no “filter” for ‘deselecting’ such candidates in the selection process. Declaring anything but “straight” sexual orientation while applying to the Indian armed forces is akin to admitting mental illness in pilot selection (not a fair comparison, but indicative of the stigma). You won’t get past the main gate of an SSB or medical evaluation centre if you are queer. But does that mean the service is full of “straight” people? Hardly the case.
While it is best left for the services to decide whether sexual orientation is a GO/NO GO criteria for induction, what gives the services an open licence to curb creative freedom under a sweeping garb of “showing army in poor light”, or by taking a position that homosexuality is illegal — which it is not? Then again, how did the services quietly fall in line when Supreme Court cleared entry of women into the National Defence Academy, throwing out all manner of defensive arguments put forth by armed forces counsels? By the same logic, shouldn’t the SC view non-issuance of NOC as “contempt” and intervene in Onir’s case to overturn MoD’s rejection of the proposed script?
What matters are best decided by the services and what matters require judicial intervention is a debate that requires more voices. Meanwhile, moral policing in the garb of casting “poor light” or “security issues” continues even as “inspired” scripts pouring adulation on unverified achievements get a free run. These are ominous signs for a democracy.
Going by recent trends, thin skin has become a defining national character. We outrage at most anything while falling glibly to the lure of popping flashbulbs, likes and shares. Armed forces should be immune to the malady but they seem to be sleepwalking into this new-age trap.
A trailer of Netflix movie ‘AK versus AK’ tweeted by veteran Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor (AK) set social media afire some months ago. The short clipping showed AK in a dishevelled IAF uniform, hurling abuse and expletives at actor-director Anurag Kashyap, the other AK in the movie. The clipping was widely shared on social media with many veterans and netizens slamming the use of inappropriate language and the shoddy manner in which the uniform was portrayed. For a moment, everyone seemed to forget it was a movie — a figment of somebody’s imagination — and not based on any event in real life. Like all ‘tweet storms’, this too would have dissipated into the annals of cyberspace. However, Indian Air Force’s Media Coordination Centre (@IAFMCC) retweeted AK’s tweet with this comment:
“The IAF uniform in this video is inaccurately donned & the language used is inappropriate. This does not conform to the behavioural norms of those in the Armed Forces of India. The related scenes need to be withdrawn”.
Now, I spent 27 years in uniform but hardly saw any officer — let alone a senior officer of Air Commodore rank — sully the uniform or hurl abuses the way it was portrayed in the short clipping. I have no plans to watch the movie either. But I wouldn’t pass a judgment without getting the complete context or the larger story. Who am I to decide the bounds of creative licence?
To those holding puritanical views about the service, is the journey of every uniformed person actually a fairy tale? Hardly. Did we never ever use expletives? I cannot say no to that either. Some of our crew room conversations would have made people from hinterlands blush. Were there moments of utter frustration when I was pushed against the wall? Of course yes. Dealing with civic and law enforcement agencies was not without trials and tribulations.
We are not a sanctimonious service in a perfect democracy. The uniform is the most abused ‘prop’ in India today. Yet there is a dignity and poise that manages to emerge with pride from each dark situation. Brushing sexual orientation under the carpet (against a SC ruling) without running necessary checks and balances does not align with law of the land; neither does it behove the services to wade into areas of creative freedom. That MoD decided to double down on a gay rights advocates’ film script only proves our penchant for going after low-hanging fruits while being apathetic to sensitive issues like LGBTQ rights.
We have come a long way from the 90s today. There are a plethora of TV and media channels, content sharing platforms, streaming services, microblogging sites and so on. There is art and drama still trying to stay relevant against the relentless onslaught of social media. Many in power want to police our behaviour and curtail our freedoms amidst an orchestra of divisive voices. There are existential threats to many forms of art and craft that are dying a slow death thanks to our affliction for instant censure and gratification. Against this backdrop, there are artists trying hard to make an impression or producers trying to create a kerfuffle so their stuff may sell. Downstream, they provide gainful employment to thousands of freshers, artists and artisans, and keep many kitchen fires burning.
Similarly, there must also be artists portraying struggles of those trying to balance their sexual orientation with rules written in a different era. What gives the MoD a say in such matters? How many censor agencies do we really need? None other than a union minister in the present government — Nitin Gadkari — lambasted the navy for stalling development projects by declining NOC. But when NOC is denied for a movie script around an upright gay officer who chose to quit the service while abiding by its rules, there’s hardly a murmur. This is highly regressive.
Recall that during The Holocaust, Jews and the LGBQT community were persecuted in the most inhumane manner.
Another example. For the longest time, Indian movies have derided the police forces. Their inefficiency and lack of agency is often played-up with unabashed creative licence. Yet nobody ever protested or took umbrage, let alone walk the long hard path of police reforms. In reality, many armed forces personnel often have to beseech police and civic officials (even minions who wield clout) to get things done. How is this okay while an artist seeking NOC for a fictional script is intolerable? What should be fixed first?
Hope the issue of LGBQT in services is argued with same fervour as the case for opening gates to women in NDA. Both have significant ramifications that call for a more nuanced debate, far beyond clichés of “we are not ready for it yet”, “security issues”, etc. Because, whether we like it or not, people will follow their sexual orientation. Declining NOC only reveals our “blinkers-on”, ham-handed approach to a sensitive topic.
Let the story be told. Let people come out & make their choices. How do you intend to control something you never understood in the first place?
(An edited version of this article was first published on The Quint as a Valentine’s Day op-ed. You can access it here.)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. Views are personal. Cover graphic courtesy The Quint.