Gender: Sexual Minorities In India: A Political Issue

A report on the changing nature of sexuality in India by Maria Tonini

The status of sexual minorities in today’s India is in a state of transition after homosexual sex was decriminalised in 2009. While the legal judgment can be framed as a move towards a more inclusive and secular society where religious beliefs against homosexuality cannot prevail over human rights, sexuality continues to be a controversial issue, stirring the political and cultural agendas. Through a brief excursus of the legal battle to decriminalise homosexuality in India, the opposition from various political and religious entities, and the persistent discrimination and violence suffered by gay citizens, I would like to open up a discussion around concepts like democracy, globalisation, secularism and modernity. The complexity of the Indian socio-political landscape is a good case in point to show how such concepts are far from clear-cut.

On July 2nd, 2009, the Delhi High Court pronounced a ‘reading down’ of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively decriminalising consensual homosexual sex between adults. After a eight-year-long legal battle initiated by NAZ Foundation India, an organisation working with HIV-positive people, homosexual sex ceased to be a punishable crime. Section 377 (as other parts of the Indian Penal Code) had been introduced in 1860 by Lord Macaulay, at the time of the British colonial domination of India. I arrived to Delhi only days after the judgment, and witnessed a sustained media attention for the following weeks. All the major national newspapers reported the news on the first page. The judgment was called “historical” and “a great, albeit belated, step towards globalisation”, “a landmark judgment”, “sexuality equality”. However, the same day protests started to mount against the legal judgment from various sources. A member of a centrist political party urged the government to appeal to the Supreme Court of India, as the ruling on homosexuality would sadden the old people of India and cause the country’s culture to “crumble”. Lalu Prasad Yadav, a widely-known political figure, said, “Yes, homosexuality is a crime… Such obscene acts should not be allowed in our country. The society is adversely affected”.

Religious leaders from Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities unanimously expressed their discontent with the ruling (a rare example of inter-religious solidarity) , citing the ‘unnaturalness’ of gay sex and some advancing the hypothesis that such a decision would in fact help the spread of AIDS. Such oppositions to the Court decision translated in eight counter-petitions filed to the Supreme Court over a period of four months.

The debate around secularism in India was sparked, in recent times, by the death of thousands of people in Gujarat in 2002, a planned massacre supported by the rightwing political party BJP. Such an event, the looting and ferocious murders of thousands of Muslim citizens, was in many respects unprecedented in its scale and organisation, so much so that it has been called “genocide”. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims reached a new high with the Gujarat episode, and called for a reflection on the state of democracy and secularism in India.

Since the end of British colonial power, India had to forge a viable, strong national identity in the struggle for independence. Tensions between different religious groups, political ideals and castes emerged already during Gandhi’s time. Despite Nehru’s secular stance, which inspired the political and social policy of modernisation in India for decades after Independence, conflicts within the management of the republic emerged, particularly with regards to religious and ethnic minorities. India, as an independent nation, relied on the centrality of a strong state in administering national and state policies and on a ‘secular’ constitution.

The configuration of the meaning of secularism in the Indian context does not rely simply on the division and independence of the state vis á vis religion; rather, the dialectics of the relationship between the state and its citizens is complicated by other intersecting factors. If we think of the Gujarat massacre as a horrid example of the ‘clash of religions’, it is obvious that religion refers less to matters of faith and belief than to ideas of identity and political culture. Religion is changing, or rather, penetrating various dimensions of human experience. Is the separation between state and church, seen as the pillar of secularism, enough to guarantee social and civic pluralism, respect for human rights, and democracy? The case of India offers interesting points for reflection on the meaning of secularism and its relation to democracy and rights, in particular with respect to minorities.

Anthropologist Peter van de Veer remarked that any democracy, albeit modern, is always founded on the unequal power that the majority has over minorities and that, as such, from the point of view of a given minority “there is not much reason to fear a religious majority more than a secular one” and that the connection between secularism, pluralism and tolerance is one borne out of a specifically European enlightenment tradition. Given that the power of the majority will always imply that the minorities will have to comply with decisions they might not agree with, how is this power deployed by a secular state? In India the state was a strong presence particularly in the first decades after Independence; it exercised direct control over the country’s economy and it was aided by the political continuity afforded by a powerful governmental coalition. The fact that the state had a strong impact on development policies and the economy does not mean that it could guarantee peaceful coexistence among the various ethnic, religious and political groups of Indian society; one only has to think of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, or the insurgent Maoist guerrilla in the central state of Chhattisgarh, to get a sense of the struggles the state has to face in order to keep the country unified (if not united). Issues of sexuality, and especially of queer sexualities, don’t seem to be directly related to the political life of a country; at most, they remain at the margins of the political agenda. Yet in the last two decades Indian politics devoted quite some time and effort toward the management of sex.

In the last two decades, India has witnessed a renaissance of the Hindutva ideology; the configuration of Muslims as enemies of the nation found its most destructive outcome in the destruction of the Babri Masjid (a mosque) in 1992, and ten years later in the above mentioned state-backed extermination of Muslims in Gujarat. Hatred based on supposedly religious foundations coexists, in the more recent Hindutva programmes, with campaigns to eradicate Western influences from India. The socio-cultural changes brought about by globalisation and the liberalisation of economy in 1991-1992 are seen as morally corrupting and dangerous for the imagined Hindu identity of India. It must be noted, however, that it was the BJP (the mainstream rightwing political coalition) who launched the now infamous ‘India Shining’ campaign before the 2004 elections; after running the country for the previous five years, the BJP sought to present a new image of India as a modern country, focused on progress, unprecedented growth and global aspirations: from the point of view of economy and foreign investments, interaction with the West was more than welcome. It should not be surprising that the Hindutva ideologues chose to concentrate instead on issues of sexuality and morality as the preferred loci where corrupting influences would spread.

With regards to sexuality, it must be said that ideas of properness and respectability had begun to circulate and be debated already during colonial times. The origins of discourses around the sexuality of Indian women can be traced back to the nationalist project of casting a radically different model of femininity and sexuality from that of the European invader; values such as chastity, wifehood, motherhood, purity and domesticity came to symbolise a form of resistance to the colonial rulers, and women cast as the ideal bearers of such values. If, for some, the Indian nation is imagined partly through powerful symbolic references to sexuality, one can easily see how the emergence of queer subjects and other sexual subalterns (like the sex worker) asserting the right to express their sexuality is not only a question of sex, but it becomes cultural and political. It seems as if sexuality – and in particular non-normative sexuality – easily becomes one of the most important sites where articulations of identity and rights, but also violence and abuse are experienced; sexuality is also one of the main sites where individual subjectification meets power discourses; where secular guaranteed rights do not always supersede religious beliefs; the site where, in fact, the oppositional model that sees secularism as a synonymous for individual rights and liberties and religion as a static, repressive ideology is an imperfect one.

I would like to focus here on two inter-related cases where Hindu-right supporters advanced their protest against what they saw as expressions of moral decadence that came from the West: the spread of HIV/AIDS in relation to homosexual sex, and the screening of the movie Fire by Deepa Mehta. Both events received extensive coverage both in mainstream media and in academic discussions on India’s democratic future in the face of religious and political extremism.

Many organisations working on sexual health issues started to operate in India at the time when the AIDS epidemic was spreading in the country. One of them was the NAZ Foundation Trust, who also initiated the petition against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In 2001, the Lucknow offices of NAZ and Bharosa (another sexual health organisation) were raided by the police and their workers arrested; NAZ and Bharosa worked primarily with men who have sex with men by visiting the parks and other public places where such practices were widespread and educating people on the risk of infection. The police confiscated educational material on safe sex and condom use claiming that the organisation were distributing obscene material and encouraging sex against the order of nature, and were hence able to use Section 377 to prosecute the NGO workers. A few years before this incident, medical teams visiting the Tihar Jail in New Delhi had found several cases of HIV infection due to widespread sodomy among male inmates, and had recommended the provision of condoms; the prison authorities refused on the grounds that such an initiative would further encourage criminal sex practices and would implicitly admit the existence of homosexual sex in prisons. Such extreme episodes reflect an attitude that circulated among right-wing politicians such as Bal Thackeray (leader of the rightwing group called Shiv Sena), who claimed that AIDS was a Western disease imported into India through decadent Western practices, and that foreign NGOs were only paid to produce ad hoc statistics about increased sexual activity in India in order to discredit the country.

The release of the feature film Fire by female director Deepa Mehta in the autumn of 1998 caused violent reactions in several Indian cities. Women activists from the Shiv Sena demanded that the film be banned in Maharashtra as it was morally offensive. Hundreds of people vandalised and forced cinema theatres to close both in Mumbai, where the protest had originated, and in other cities such as Delhi, Pune, Surat. The incidents were followed by extensive media attention and politicians’ statements regarding the film. Fire is the story of two women, unhappily married to lower-middle class Hindu men, and their romantic homosexual relationship as it develops among the daily chores and the rituals of a typical north Indian extended family. The film gathered positive criticism abroad and enjoyed a certain success in India too, although it doesn’t belong to mainstream Hindi cinema (also known as Bollywood). The relationship between the two wives develops into a lesbian one, and the film contains a couple of love scenes that are fairly unusual in popular Indian cinema. Predictably, Shiv Sena’s chief Bal Thackeray stated that the lesbianism portrayed in the movie was a phenomenon imported with globalisation, alien and extremely dangerous for the social fabric of India. In another interview, Thackeray admitted that, had the film focused on Muslim women, he would have found it acceptable: in both cases, homosexuality is configured as something alien and foreign, whether it comes from the decadent West of from the ‘internal’ Muslim enemy.

The controversy surrounding Fire was part of a concerted attack by the Hindu Right on films, art, and images: as visual culture spread in the 1990s as a result of the diffusion of foreign media and the beginning of the computer age, the Hindu Right used cultural production to wage their war against immorality. It is interesting to note that by casting homosexuality as foreign, what the Hindu Right did was to enforce an idea of hetero-normativity as a nationalistic, anti-colonial move. It was in this political and cultural climate that activists and NGOs started their battle to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code; it took eight years, and during this time the terms of the debate have shifted considerably. The first petition against 377 focused on health concerns, claiming that section 377 prevented organisations from carrying out important HIV/AIDS prevention work; the government of India dismissed it, claiming that repealing it would provide license to criminal and immoral behaviour and that criminal law must reflect public morality. In 2009, after other organisations joined in signing the petition against section 377, the High Court judgment, invoking inclusion and non-discrimination as basic Indian values, seemed to testify to a truly historic ideological change.

Now that the legal battle has been won, and the Court expressed a progressive message, one would expect a supportive reaction from the government of India. And yet, after the ruling passed and the counter-petitions were filed, it was reported that the central government (centre-left Indian National Congress) still had not taken a clear stand on the issue. Would it support the High Court or the political/religious homophobia? Interrogated on the matter, majority politicians claimed that they needed more time and before making any official statement they wanted to ‘access the public mood’ on such a sensitive issue. One might argue that, even though Hindutva ideologues were not in the picture any longer, the state failed to position itself in favour of the decriminalisation. As for ‘the public mood’, and aside from the openly hostile views of religious leaders, the comments expressed by readers on the main newspaper websites show how divisive the issue of homosexuality still is. While some readers welcome the change as an example of democracy and secularism, others argue that the court’s decision does not reflect the views of the majority of people. A brief sample from the Times of India website:

Its all an example of Democracy , Untill and unless if someone is not making harm to others , it can’t be framed as Illegal.People have full right to live in their own way in a democratic and secular country atleast.Its all a matter of perception for society.(D.R. from Hyderabad)

I do not agree with the judges decision to legalise homosexuality. If the media reports on the growing number of homosexuals/ lesbians, then why cant the media see the majority of the society is against this decision. Does the majority need to take a procession to voice their protest? Very soon we will have these guys holding hands and walking on the streets, same sex marriages and even worse our country will have increase in HIV cases. Sodomy cases will increase. Surely, the HC judges decision is demeaning (Or demonising) our society. Hope better sense prevails or else our country will go to ruin. (C. from Mumbai)

This is one of the biggest progrssive action taken up by India in this 21st century. Our country is the largest democracy and we must not deny the rights of the sexual minorities. (N. from Delhi)

india is gone (M. from Delhi)

On April 7th, 2010, Professor Srinivas Ramachandra Siras, a retiring teacher at the Aligarh Muslim University, was found dead in his residence. Although suicide seemed most likely, the official cause of death was never declared. Two months earlier, Siras was fired after a videotape surfaced of him having sex with another man in his apartment. As homosexuality is not a criminal act anymore in India, professor Siras appealed to the court in Aligarh and was given his job back, but as his sexual orientation was a publicly know fact, he experienced harassment and marginalization. Whether he killed himself out of shame over being caught on video or because of the humiliation and discrimination he suffered afterwards is uncertain. His sexual partner, a rickshaw puller, tried to set himself on fire in July, after being not only shamed but also repeatedly beaten by the police, who initially suspected him of the death of Siras.

I think the case of professor Siras is emblematic. Where is the progressive, democratic and inclusive society? What was the use for Siras to appeal to the institution of the Court, thus gaining his right to work back, only to be blackmailed and marginalised?

In relation to the marginalization and abuse that gay citizens such as professor Siras continue to experience despite formal justice, what can be said about democracy, secularism and modernity? Should we be inclined to think that all the people who maligned Siras until his death were religious extremists? Or, like some could argue, that India as a society is perhaps not ready to accept sexual diversity – as if we in the West were? What interests are being protected by allowing discrimination and violence against sexual minorities?

Societal attitudes are not easily formalised, and a legal pronouncement is clearly not enough to change them. This is nothing new. What I find problematic when discussing social developments in non-Western societies is that common categories and concepts don’t seem to work too well, if taken for granted. I feel uncomfortable in using the words ‘democracy’, ‘modernity’, ‘justice’, ‘secular state’ – the dramatic events unfolding in India remind me how these noble concepts are never stable, never achieved once and for all. Someone is always excluded, left out, for the benefit of the majority.

When the Hindu Right decides to target movies and other cultural products in order to advance its repressive ideas, it does so precisely because popular culture is the ideal terrain to plant the seeds of intolerance and extremism; when mainstream Indian media enthusiastically reports a historic change for homosexuals in India, it nonetheless makes sure to clarify that gays will not be able to marry, a welcome tranquilliser for the public who might worry that the most important social institution may be at risk. Even though sexuality (as well as religious belief) belongs to the domain of the private in any democratic and secular society, one can see how some sexualities don’t seem to fit too well into the social fabric; they may be perceived as threatening, disruptive, polluting. Hence, it is important that their existence, even when sanctioned by the law, is kept away from the eyes of the ‘silent majority’: some sexualities are more private than others as the values they convey are not acceptable. Contrary to what the majority of commentators said on the eve of the decriminalisation of Section 377, in the case of professor Siras the legal change did not have a positive impact on the visibility of homosexuality or the right to positively affirm his sexual orientation. On the contrary, his ‘outing’ took the form of a scandal and marked the beginning of prolonged harassment that had tragic consequences. That homosexuals are citizens enjoying equal rights within an inclusive society was clearly not enough to save Siras’s life. Perhaps in mainstream debates on democracy and secularism the concept of equality has been overdetermined at the expense of the concept of difference. Acts of abuse, discrimination and violence such as the one I reported compel us reflect upon the meaning of equality and difference. I offered the example of India because the very recent events I presented offer, in their dramatic and extreme developments, a picture (even if fragmented and incomplete) of the relation between state and individual encompassing variations which go beyond the traditional Western dualistic model. Variations that, if taken into consideration, could help us question our definitions of secularism, modernity and democracy.

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