When Mohit Dudeja was selected for a PhD programme in Canada, the offer came with a visa provision for a domestic partner/spouse. All he needed to show was his partner’s name on a common rent agreement/joint bank account, or as an insurance nominee.
That’s when Dudeja, the founder of non-profit MendLife Foundation, and his partner Ankit, who had been living together for more than three years, began doing the rounds of banks.
First Dudeja tried informally through acquaintances in Canara Bank and Punjab National Bank, but that didn’t work out. Next, he went to ICICI Bank, where he had his ULIP account and his personal account, and was told: “we have no such provision” for same-sex partners. ICICI Bank’s rebuff was polite but at his next two stops, Bank of Baroda and Indian Bank, he was rudely dismissed.
Next, they visited HDFC Bank, where they inquired if they could convert Ankit’s savings account into a joint account. The woman executive asked them what their relationship was. We are a couple, they replied.
“She looked strangely at us and then said, ‘Yes sure, we can do it’,” Dudeja recounts, adding that the staff was “really helpful”. Twenty days later, both their names were on the account.
So when Axis Bank said on Sept. 6 (exactly three years after section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was struck down by the Supreme Court) that same-sex partners could now open a bank account or term deposit it may not have been the first Indian bank to offer this facility—but it was certainly the first to turn this offer into a high-impact advocacy opportunity.
“I would make a distinction between that which is the law and the enforcement of the law. We think judgments are magic wands and they are not,” says Supreme Court advocate Saurabh Kirpal. “People who execute the law and make decisions may be blissfully unaware of the law or willfully disregard it. For instance, there’s nothing in the law stopping all banks from taking this step other than their conservative world view.”
Axis Bank’s new #ComeAsYouAre charter allows employees to list their partners for Mediclaim benefits irrespective of “gender, sex or marital status”. Employees can dress in accordance with their gender identity and use a restroom that matches their gender identity (Florida are you listening). Customers can list their title as Mx, instead of the more traditional Mr or Mrs.
“Many companies have the right intention and many are talking about LGBTQI inclusion, but not many know how to convert that intention into products and services for the queer community,” says Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan and an LGBTQ consultant and advocate. “They don’t have enough queer people in decision-making roles in companies who say, ‘This would be great for us’. It’s like trying to do a woman’s product with an all-male team.”
Petitioners who are asking the Delhi High Court to legalise same-sex marriage in India have argued that in addition to problems with banks and landlords, they are denied many rights to which heterosexual spouses have easy access. Among them: gratuity, provident fund, company health benefits, income tax deductions, ability to donate the organs of a deceased partner or take any major health decisions for them in hospital.
The community faced new paperwork challenges in the pandemic. Kirpal tells me about a mixed-race couple, legally married in the United States, but who find themselves living on different continents. The two men haven’t met for a year and a half during the pandemic because the American partner, also the primary caregiver to their two young children, doesn’t have an OCI card (India doesn’t give Overseas Citizenship of India to same-sex spouses) and hasn’t been able to travel here to be with his family in India.
The Axis Bank effect will likely be immediate.
“The competition will raise their heads and have acute FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and the impact on the general public will be incredible. For Axis Bank’s straight customers—the regular uncles and aunties—to know their desi bank is serving the queer community is amazing in terms of overall advocacy,” says Shahani. “The impact in terms of public perception will be huge.”
Axis Bank’s “first-mover” advantage (to use Shahani’s phrase) was courtesy many factors such as the push from prominent rights activist Harish Iyer who is also their head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; on-field experience in Punjab where the bank helped members of the transgender community open bank accounts; and the product team wondering what was preventing the bank from offering a structured offering for the community.
“In different parts of the organisation we were all going in the same direction,” says Raj Kamal, the bank’s president and head of human resources, who has fielded many calls from friends at competing banks cheering the effort. At the moment though, she’s busy sorting through the new LGBTQI resumes she’s received.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.