Saturday, 8 February 2014

Human sexuality and the human computer

I remember Shakuntala Devi appearing on Doordarshan in my childhood, generally accorded the status of a national icon for her astonishing feats of mental arithmetic. She could multiply, add, and extract roots of numbers of frightening size in seconds and without pen or paper. It seems likely that she - like other savants with similar abilities - related to numbers as poetry, as something to feel and experience rather than cage and manipulate. Although no doubt intended as a compliment, her nickname "the human computer" now sounds cruel, hinting that her special relationship with numbers might diminish her as a human being. But computers have not, so far, had much of interest to say about human sexuality. Whereas Shakuntala Devi on the other hand called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India. In her book "The World of Homosexuals", written in 1977 at the height of her fame, she interviewed a number of gay men, and ended by advocating "nothing less than full and complete acceptance... not tolerance and not sympathy". She stressed that her position was based on empathy and common sense.

In 2009, a full 32 years later, the Delhi High Court agreed. In a landmark judgement the Court declared a colonial era law, namely Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising gay sex, as discriminatory and unconstitutional. In December 2013, about eight months after Shakuntala Devi's death, the Supreme Court of India reversed this decision, to loud applause from the religious right. Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish bigots chorused their satisfaction at the Supreme Court's contradictory and confused judgement in which it decided that "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" was a meaningful category, referred to the LGBT community in India as a "miniscule fraction of the country's population", and claimed that the harassment of this community by the police using this law was a misuse of Section 377 rather than its natural consequence.

There will of course be another swing of the legal pendulum eventually and Section 377 will go the way of other junk - though if the forces of Hindutva come to power in the coming general election, this may take a while. What is of no doubt is that in the big scheme of things, Shakuntala Devi will remain an icon, while this Supreme Court judgement will just look silly.

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