Danish Sheikh: “I came out as a gay man before I came out as a human rights lawyer.”

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Danish Sheikh is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Centre for Health, Law Ethics and Technology at the Jindal Global Law School in Haryana, India. His research largely focuses on the intersection of law and the humanities, and the legal regulation of gender and sexuality. He has law degrees from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His commentary on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and the rights of queer people has appeared in various publications. Beyond his academic work, Danish engages in fiction writing and theatre. His works include the co-authored anthology Invisible Libraries and the play Contempt. He is the founder of the Bardolators, a theatre group which performs contemporary versions of Shakespeare plays in public spaces.

On 28th October, 2018, he joined me for an hour-long chat on Twitter, where we discussed his work in great detail. This conversation was part of Chaat Masala, my digital initiative to curate and present exciting conversations with artists, academics, activists and authors from all over South Asia. Danish tweets @dsheikh76, I tweet @chintan_connect, and you can follow Chaat Masala @chaatmasala3 and #southasiachat

I could go on about his achievements but, for now, let me just say that he has worked with the Alternative Law Forum, the International Commission of Jurists and the United Nations Development Programme. He has taught courses on the intersections of law, literature and sexuality at NUJS (Kolkata), NLSIU (Bangalore), NLU (Delhi) and NALSAR (Hyderabad).

Chintan: How did you arrive at this beautiful intersection of law, queer rights and literature in your work?

Danish: Well, I came out as a gay man before I came out as a human rights lawyer. And before either of those things, I was a (mildly abashed) bibliophile.

Danish: At boarding school in Nainital, I had a corner of the library where I’d sit and read my way through the afternoons. The books were a crucial escapism, a companion to a confusion that I couldn’t quite find a name to.

Danish: Law school then gave me a vocabulary to think about my identity: I learnt about how Section 377 cast me as an unapprehended felon, but I also learnt about the framework of constitutional rights and how the two were directly in opposition to each other.

Danish: As I made my way through law school, I began to see how literature and the law could combine to create a normative universe, a vision of what the world could be.

Chintan: Any professors in particular who made an impact on you during this time at law school?

Danish: Two individuals at NALSAR in particular. Professor @KK_Kannabiran first introduced me to texts about anti-sodomy laws in the classroom space, and made us think about the inherent injustice in these laws. I had the chance to attend two of her courses on Sociology back then.

Chintan: I’m glad you had a professor like that. I wish for a world where all young people get to have teachers and mentors who inspire them to think critically about injustice and act.

Danish: I had the privilege of being taught 8 courses by Professor @AmitaDhanda at NALSAR. Over the course of 5 years she constantly made me rethink me assumptions about the law’s connections with justice, and how to approach legal thinking with empathy.

Danish: I also began to see how literary and legal readings could speak to each other. We learn about reading between the lines, evaluating metaphors, asking questions about the difference between what the judge is saying versus what the judicial text is actually doing.

Danish: So yes, as I approach my work now, I see the visions offered by law and literature within a singular frame. Of course, at the same time one is aware that law is language with violent consequences.

Chintan: What courses are you teaching at the moment? Would you mind sharing course descriptions and reading lists for the benefit of people who are interested in learning but aren’t enrolled at a university?

Danish: At @JindalGLS I’m currently teaching a course on Legal Theatre that uses theatre as a route to to think about legal aid particularly when it comes to questions of sexuality. I work with students to create short plays about different elements of the law and then we disseminate.

Chintan: Are these original scripts, or based on existing legal and literary texts? Also did you devise this course in the process of working on your play Contempt?

Danish: For the first half of the course, we read existing theatrical texts alongside legal texts that can act as a commentary on them. For instance — reading the Mahmood Farooqui decision on the feeble no alongside Nina Raine’s play titled Consent which interrogates similar ideas.

Danish: Contempt was my own laboratory for this pedagogy, yes. There, I wanted to imagine ways in which one could express a dissent to the Supreme Court’s Koushal decision, but do it in a way that really brought to light the kind of prejudice on display in the courtroom.

Danish: The second half is then spent using existing legal texts and crafting original plays based on them. This could be in the realm of proscenium theatre, street plays, or even more experimental innovations like immersive theatre.

Chintan: I wish literature departments in South Asia would proactively engage with you and other lawyers to develop courses that teach how to build arguments, approach things from multiple perspectives, dig deep into what’s presented.

Danish: I think we could gain to learn a lot from literature departments. One of the early critiques of the law and literature movement was how it used literature as a non-problematic panacea to the evils of the law: obviously there is some nuance lacking there.

Danish: The other course I’m currently teaching is to the first year students — Legal Methods. The course teaches students how to read, think and write about the law. It’s a great experience working with incoming first year students and introducing them to this incredibly complex world.

Danish: Most of my course manuals from my past teaching experiences are uploaded here: https://jgls.academia.edu/DanishSheikh/Courses-and-Teaching-Documnents

Chintan: It’s so rare to come across people who write about law in a way that is accessible and interesting for the non-specialist.

Danish: I have learnt a lot about this from my experiences at @altlawforum which is very invested in enabling access in different ways. Note for instance this excellent summary on the Navtej Johar decision edited by @anarrain http://altlawforum.org/publications/right-to-love-navtej-singh-johar-v-union-of-india-a-transformative-constitution-and-the-rights-of-lgbt-persons

Danish: That’s very kind, thank you. I’m finding a lot more people, whether lawyers or not, are now working towards doing precisely that, and cutting through jargon to expose the heart of the legal enterprise.

Chintan: A charge that is often levelled against scholars is that they are caught in an endless cycle of circle-jerking with other scholars, and produce little that is accessible to people outside the university space. What are your thoughts on this?

Danish: I’ve come to believe that there is a value to thought, regardless of its relationship to “external use”. My own work is often about making those connections outside the university space, but I also hugely enjoy dense satisfying theory from time to time.

Danish: Some of the most exciting and illuminating conversations I’ve had have been in these circle-jerks :)

Chintan: You have managed to produce compelling work contributing to the discourse of queer rights in India, which speaks to various kinds of audiences through journal articles, plays and commentaries in newspapers. How do you look back at this body of work?

Danish: To be honest, at every point I was, to borrow a phrase, going where my blood beats. Back in 2012, I was greatly moved by @kenji_yoshino’s Covering, and when I had a chance to write for the Yale Human Rights journal (https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yhrdlj/vol16/iss1/3) I drew from his personal/political lens.

Danish: Then, after we lost the 377 constitutional battle in 2013, my inclination was to figure out ways of reaching out to broader audiences, and news commentaries were certainly one way forward. I also wanted to think about ways in which could build evidence bases for the 377 battle.

Danish: At this point, I had the chance to work with @sanhita_ambast and @AjitaBanerjie on an @ICJ_org report that looked at how 377 became an Access to Justice issue using testimones from across the country. The Supreme Court picked up on the report ultimately in the Navtej Johar ruling.

Chintan: It has been more than a fortnight since the Supreme Court of India decriminalized ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. What are your thoughts about the way forward for the legal system and society at large?

Danish: I hope that we learn from the mistakes of the movement in the United States and NOT throw our combined efforts behind same-sex marriage. Instead, I think there is a chance to think about anti-discrimination law in a radical manner and that should be the locus of our efforts.

Chintan: Since Section 377 was a colonial law enacted by the British rulers, the recent SC judgement is being interpreted by many as an act of decolonization. To what extent do you agree with that line of thinking?

Danish: I think @dhrubo127 put it best when they pointed out that the conversation about decolonization shouldn’t devolve to essentializing our past.

Danish: The fact that it took so many years to get to this point isn’t just about colonial hangover. Ambedkar’s closing CAD address : “by independence we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong …. hereafter, we will have nobody to blame but ourselves”

Danish: Section 377 was a clear marker of state prejudice against queer persons, this is true. But it isn’t the case that same-sex unions were being openly celebrated before the inception of the law. Sodomy could still be an offence, it was just a much lower penalty.

Chintan: In your opinion, would the recent legal victory for queer rights in India inspire similar developments in former British colonies in South Asia and elsewhere? Could you please speak about the situation in our neighbourhood?

Danish: Well, Nairobi’s Milimani High Court just admitted the Navtej Johar decision on record in a similar case. And of course there was much coverage on the reinstituted Singapore challenge that also draws from the decision.

Chintan: How would you assess coverage of the recent SC judgement against Section 377 in Indian media and international media in terms of their understanding of the legalese, grassroots movements and the language used to talk about queer people?

Danish: It was a bit disappointing to see it referred to as a “gay rights/ gay sex” victory by so many media outlets for one. The Court clearly acknowledges how the law targeted the LGBT community, this kind of coverage is very reductive.

Danish: I don’t think media coverage has done enough in making sense of how the sustained activism outside the courtroom contributed to the eloquent arguments the lawyers made within. The judges displayed empathy across the board the minute the hearings began: where did this come from?

Chintan: I’d include art in addition to activism. Mandeep Raikhy’s play ‘Queen Size’ comes to mind immediately.

Chintan: I wouldn’t be surprised if you began to develop a course for media professionals on how to report about queer rights and issues. That would be excellent!

Danish: I know that @NazariyaQFRG does some great work in this regard.

Chintan: Thanks for the recommendation. Will look up their work.

Chintan: A warm thank you, @dsheikh726, for sharing your experience, knowledge and perspectives. This tweet-chat was fantastic. Love and strength to you!

Danish: Thanks so much @chintan_connect for the wonderful set of questions I really enjoyed this conversation. Look forward to seeing more on @chaatmasala3!

Chintan: Your good wishes mean a lot. Thank you!

Writer, educator and researcher

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