In 2009, homosexuality was decriminalised in India. In 2013, it was made illegal again, which is how it remains today.
Overnight, anyone identifying as gay in the country was forced to once again renounce themselves under a law that was initially passed in 1860. But London-based art dealer Amar Singh has made it his mission to turn this back around – quietly funding a private army in India to spread a message of love in support of LGBT+ and women’s rights.
“Someone messaged me on Facebook recently, and told me that his parents threatened to kill him after they found him with a man,” Singh, whose heritage can be traced back to 1772 India, when gay laws were but a glint in the Indian Penal Code’s eye, tells Attitude. “This goes against common sense, shows no moral compass; how can you kill someone for who they love?”
The impassioned owner of Amar Gallery in Islington, London – who does not in fact consider himself a royal – promotes the works of LGBT+ people and women (or both) in the art world. He is, by day, a champion of diversity in the arts, but is an activist against India’s back-tracking laws on the side.
“Half the country – more than half the country if you count women too – are being suppressed! Imagine an India if they championed that amount of people – the country would thrive! There would be hundreds of millions more people working towards progression”
Somewhat surprisingly given his clear determination for the cause, Singh isn’t gay himself – and yet his separation from his heritage has allowed him to look, from the outside in, at the situation; and his position has enabled him to actually do something about it.
“I’m not gay and I’m not a woman. But it’s about people,” he says. “I have always looked at India as a country that can proposer. The population, the wealth of national resources – we should be one of the top three leaders and we’re not because too many people are suppressed.”
It’s these staunch beliefs that have led to Singh taking on this fight, off his own back. He has spent time and effort quietly financing his network to champion for LGBT+ in his native country. He’s had setbacks, but Singh is nothing but persistent, constantly pumping time, passion and money into this army of love.
Singh was born in Paddington, London, and raised in Windsor; his family descend from the Kapurthala State of Punjab. The now-28-year-old has made it one of his missions in life to make a difference.
“We have a serious problem when people are being repressed for their love choices,” he muses. “Who cares about peoples’ relationships? It’s a sad state of affairs when Indian law puts people in prison for years for being gay. And living in fear is worse than being dead!”
Singh first “became aware of the situation” when he was 16, and was drawn to helping out. He started on a humble scale, seeking out smaller LGBT charities, speaking to, rallying and championing people to support the cause.
As he went from school to university (Harvard) he frequented India on the side to speak across the country about legalising homosexuality which, during this period, was decriminalised only to be reinstated as illegal once again five years later.
“I was receiving death threats for offering emotional support to a cause I believed in,” Singh says with a sadness in his voice – not for himself, for those he was trying to help. “When I was in India there were some times I was afraid for my life.”
Singh struck up a friendship at the time with Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil – the first openly gay prince in the world.
The once-married (to a woman) royal, now 51, came out in 2006, after a public nervous breakdown due to having to hide his sexuality. Between 2006 and 2009 he was consequently disowned by his family yet revered by millions, prompting Oprah Winfrey to fly him over to America to meet her.
But Prince Manvendra still had to live in fear – despite being celebrated by the likes of Oprah and her following.
“People told him they were going to burn down his palace and kill him,” Singh says of Prince Manvendra. “I knew him at this time, and I was just 20. It scared me because I was then threatened by association. I wasn’t in India insulting a political party or professing radical ideas. I was just supporting people who want to love who they love.
“I was younger and more gregarious and had less of a regard form my own life. But admittedly, it made me a bit less vocal for a while and I was scared to go out in public and give a speech. But it only made me want to fight harder for the cause. Manvendra continues to inspire me to this day.”
Singh didn’t let this stop him – and in fact, he was able to get creative with his activism. It seems he took the initiative to enlist multiple people to spread the word on his behalf. Singh was creating this private army of love.
Of course, when the law went backwards in 2013 (something Singh labels as “infuriating”) his army of love not only needed to remain undercover, but was even more necessary.
“These people need to be discreet, but I recruit people from all walks of life. We need people in the right positions in India to champion these rights,” Singh says, alluding to the high profile people he has on side. “We make speeches that have to be a bit clandestine but we hold rallies with thousands of people. Even if we influence one person from that, I’m happy.”
On the sadder side of things, he also admits that there are some regions of the country he will never be able to go anywhere near. “We avoid problematic areas, where tradition prevails above all else,” he explained.
And culture is the crux. Many will, in this time of extremity and suicide missions, play the religion card, using God as the reason India, like many other places, hold these views. But Singh asserts that this isn’t the issue.
“Hinduism and buddhism are very spiritual religions,” he points out. “This isn’t the problem. Look, culturally I am very proud of my heritage. It’s the country of Ghandi. But this is a culture that still has servants. A caste system prevails and culture is used to allow the repression of LGBT+ rights. A force is used by those in political and social power to win people over on these issues.”
This being said, India broke ground when it elected it’s first female Prime Minister. It’s the gay regressiveness and suppression of women that frustrates Singh beyond belief.
“I receive hundreds of messages on social media from people being attacked by their families for being gay, and they are allowed to do this. All because being gay is against the law,” he laments.
“We face real threats. Terrorism, climate change. People are shutting down airports while planes are in the air. My mother was in the Taj hotel in Mumbai days before there was an attack there in 2008. This is what leaders need to focus their energy on, not impeding upon other peoples’ love lives!”
So – will the law change, again?
“Damn right. And it will happen in my lifetime,” Singh insists. “If they abolished it in 2009, they’ll do it again. We live in dangerous but amazing times. The Prime Minister of Ireland is a gay Indian! I once told a table of people that a gay Indian female will one day lead the country. People walked out and cursed at me. But I believe it will happen, mark my words.”