Axis Bank: Dil se open, or PR gimmick?

Axis Bank announced a slew of updates on September 6, 2021, in time to celebrate the landmark Supreme Court judgement from September 6, 2018, which stated that consensual sexual acts between adults cannot be a crime, reading down Section 377, of the British-era act that criminalized all sexual acts “against the order of nature”.

Here are the updates:

For employees:
All employees can list their partners for mediclaim benefits irrespective of gender, sex, or marital status
Employees can dress in accordance with their gender/ gender expression
Employees can choose to use the restroom of their choice in accordance with their gender expression/gender identity
A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy and a Human Rights Policy that offers redressal to challenges faced by employees from this community

For customers:
Can open a Joint Savings Bank Account or a Term Deposit with their same-sex partner
Can add ‘Mx’ as a title: Customers who are gender non-binary, gender fluid, or transgender persons will have the option of choosing their title from the option of ‘Mx’ in their Savings or Term Deposit Account
Can make their same-sex partner a nominee in their Savings or Term Deposit Account at Axis Bank

As soon as the announcement made news online, a LOT of people have taken the time and effort to point out, factually, that any two people can open a joint account and that their relationship is not even sought explicitly in the account opening form. The nomination form, though, does ask for ‘relationship with depositor (if any)’.

And because any two people are anyway free to open a joint account regardless of their relationship, ‘this is a PR gimmick, to sound woke’ seems to be a prominent narrative against this announcement, at least on social media.

So, is it really a PR gimmick?

The answer may not be all that simple or a linear Yes, or No.

No, not a gimmick:

There is value in making an explicit announcement that same-sex couples are welcome and that, at a corporate level, the bank does not want to bother about the relationship between two consenting adults.

Not having this in the account opening form is one thing, but making an announcement about this intent is entirely another thing. The latter is a signal to the public about the bank’s intent to be open and inclusive.

Would such signaling stop a branch executive/manager from posing problems to a same-sex couple that comes to open a joint account after seeing this announcement? Possibly not – individuals would still retain their own biases and prejudices, but if the bank has stated this as their corporate intent, and the law has no problems with it either, resistance by individuals who disagree could become less forceful. Or, those employees who do not agree with this line of thought would at least reconsider showing their displeasure or annoyance because their organizational policy is clear and vocal on this topic.

So, a public announcement of this nature definitely has merit, and matters.

Yes, could potentially be a gimmick:

Axis Bank is a private organization. A private organization giving a seal of approval to a same-sex relationship is not equal to the law recognizing that relationship. India, as per the current laws, does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Social stigma against same-sex couples, either living together or who want to marry (but cannot, legally) is one thing, but not having legal backing to do so seals the fate further.

Account opening forms in all banks don’t even seek a person to specify their relationship with a joint holder. So, it is already none of the bank’s business to know what relationship exists between two joint account holders. It is perhaps sought more informally, at a branch level and possibly branch-level decisions are taken (which would be open to redressal by the potential account holders).

In context, from 2019:

So, there’s nothing stopping anyone, technically, from opening a joint account, no matter what the relationship between them, including them being a same-sex live-in couple.

But, once again, vocal intent matters.

A simple, unrelated parallel could be restaurants that prominently display and announce that pets are welcome. This does not mean those restaurants that do not have this sign are not open to having pets, but you, as a pet owner/parent, need to ask specifically before venturing to that place because you want to avoid being turned away and waste your time. And you would naturally be gravitating towards those places that do mention this explicitly.

On a similar note, just because a bank does not announce that they are open to having joint accounts between same-sex couples, it doesn’t mean they welcome it at an organizational level. They could still find hundreds of reasons to deny the couple a joint account if their intent is to be against the idea.

The opposite is a bank that explicitly makes an announcement to this effect. It is a sign of openness that should, hopefully, trickle down to an employee (at a branch) level and reduce the bias for a section of people that is already stigmatized heavily in every direction. The difference is between not saying anything and saying ‘We welcome same-sex couples’.



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