Fleeing Violence in Pursuit of Justice: An Interview With Ajay Sathyan

Since most asylum reception centres were overflowing, I was asked to move from place to place...In Schöppingen, I endured a lot of verbal assault. I was attacked and molested outside the reception center there.

By: Meera Vijayann, Youth Ambassador for India on Sexual Violence in Conflict

In 2014, Ajay Sathyan, an LGBT activist and resident of Chennai, wrote an eye-opening piece about facing sexual assault at the hands of the Chennai police. Following the incident, Sathyan filed for asylum in Germany.

In the past year, there have been several attempts by human rights activists to urge the Indian Supreme court to review and repeal Section 377, an archaic law that continues to criminalise homosexuality, leaving LGBT citizens across the country outside the realm of justice. The law has been used to harass and brutally suppress the rights of the LGBT community in the country. In a conversation with Ajay, I had the chance to talk about his hopes and fears as he navigates the asylum process at a time that a decision on Section 377 is being considered by an Indian apex court. 


Where are you currently?

I am currently in Kreis Düren near Cologne, Germany.

It’s been more than a year - Do you miss home?

Yes, I feel extremely homesick. A part of me hopes and expects the repealing of Section 377. That would mean I may have to return to India and I have been preparing myself ever since I heard the news. I can imagine the ordeals I will have to face.

Section 377 is still being debated in India - What does your lawyer say?

My  social worker who’s in conversation with my lawyer said that it could be a problem because my whole case is based on the incident that happened to me and the fact that the police used the archaic law to violate me. There is a possibility that if I go back, the police will harm me again if I talk about what happened to me, and I’ve talked about it. The incident had considerable media exposure and I can’t fathom to think what is in store for me. I am from the Tamil Mudhaliyar community and my family will force me to marry a woman and I know that the Indian police will take the side of my family.

Have you talked to your parents about your situation here in Germany?

I wrote a Christmas card to my mum saying that I have met a man and that I live with him. I doubt whether my brother read the whole contents of the card to her. My mother is not familiar with alternative lifestyles and it’ll be a challenge for her. Besides, my family are protestant converts and ultra-conservative Christians. To them, I lead an abominable lifestyle. My mother has a weak heart and I am worried it will affect her if I talk to her about my boyfriend and my lifestyle. I do try to hint whenever I can but I guess there is a part of her that wants to be convinced that I am not gay and that I’ll return to India and she can get me married to a girl.

You applied for asylum in 2014 - Tell me a bit about your experience.

At first I was in Zirndorf, Bavaria. From there, I was moved to Bielefeld. The asylum centre staff gave me a day ticket to travel between places. Since most asylum reception centres were overflowing, I was asked to move from place to place. From Bielefeld they moved me to Bad Salzuflen and then back. I was eventually moved to Schöppingen where I stayed for a week in a reception center till they finally moved me to Jülich to live in a container. It was a struggle as I was constantly harassed by other refugees and I was almost raped in Zirndorf. While in Bad Salzuflen I was verbally attacked by some of the refugees. In Schöppingen too, I endured a lot of verbal assault. I was attacked and molested outside the reception center there.  I was finally registered to stay in Jülich but my mobility was limited within North Rhine-Westphalia and I was not allowed to move my residence from here. Initially, I had to live in a container with refugees from Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Russia, Georgia, Nigeria and Eritrea - with a communal kitchen and bathroom. The government usually puts you together with people from your own country so that you are able to relate to others while you are going through the process. I was the only Indian, so I was alone.

Was it a difficult process to apply for asylum?

LGBT refugees who have applied for asylum in Europe mostly come from countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Ghana and Uganda. The chances of me getting asylum is good as well as bad. On the bright side, I have a chance because I did apply under legitimate circumstances and I’ve endured gross human violation. The flipside is, there is focus on refugees from Islamic countries and they are priority especially to people from  Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and Syria. If the Indian government scraps Section 377, I’ll be sent back to India which unsafe for me. My fear is that a change in law won’t stop the violence, the rapes, the human right violations and the intolerance. As an LGBT citizen, there is little or no support; either through law, through the constitution and through the people. Having dealt with such a corrupt, inhuman, undemocratic system first-hand, I am afraid that the violence will never end.

The public sexual assaults carried out in Cologne fuelled fears and negativity around migrants. Has this affected you in any way?

I’ve faced racism initially before the Cologne attacks and last week when I was in Cologne I was followed by neo-nazis, who gestured to swing their beer bottles at me and verbally abused me with words like unarische (non-Aryan), kanaken (derogatory term for Turkish person), drecksneger (dirty nigger) and asylbetrüger (fraud refugee). There has been a lot of conversation in the village that I am staying in with my boyfriend and his family. There is a youth hostel in the village where refugees stay and some of the people in the village have become apprehensive. As I’ve had issues before most of the time I make sure that I don’t go out without my boyfriend or without someone from his family. However, I do think that the crisis has brought a negative focus specifically on people of African or middle-eastern descent.

India doesn’t have gender-neutral rape laws - Do you think much will change for male rape survivors if Section 377 is scrapped?

If Section 377 is scrapped, then no one will be able to manipulate, bully and instigate violence against you for your sexuality. This was the situation when Section 377 was repealed in 2009. Many were made aware of this and perpetrators hunted for victims to extort. That said, it is a baby step towards treating LGBT citizens as equals. The possible good that will come out of it is that they can’t incarcerate people from the LGBT community unlawfully. Also, there is stigma around men reporting rape. It’s common to be laughed at, prodded and bullied for your lack of masculinity if you are a man reporting rape.

Do you think you might go back to India again?

I want to pursue higher education with emphasis on LGBT issues, work with other LGBT refugees and live with my boyfriend and his loving family. For the first time, I’m able to live my life with a little less fear and with a little bit hope for the future. Finally, I’ve found people who care for me for just who I’m. Here, most people compliment me for who I am and I can celebrate my relationship with my boyfriend which won’t be possible in India.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted at a time that Section 377 was tabled for discussion in the Indian Parliament. Since then, the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament) has voted against introducing a private member's bill to amend Section 377.

For more information about the price of LGBT exclusion, visit the UN's Free and Equal Campaign here.

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