Did The British Make Indians Less Queer?

A still from 'Ka Bodyscapes', a Malayalam film by  Jayan Cherian
A still from 'Ka Bodyscapes', a Malayalam film by Jayan CherianKa Bodyscapes

I’ve been living and working in Mumbai for a little over two years now and I’m still not fully adjusted to just how fast-paced life is in this city. The concept of time ceases to exist; days just fly by, and between working at a digital publication, chores and house maintenance I’m left with little free time on my hands to do much else. What I miss the most perhaps is the time and mental energy to read (for fun). It’s only during my briefs trips home (mostly on the flight) that I manage to get myself reading. The latest book being Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India and after getting through the first hundred pages I was annoyed at myself for not reading this sooner. More than a complete takedown of the ‘positives’ of British Raj what Mr Tharoor does is posit a logical, rational and factual argument, a counter to the popular notions held regarding the ‘good’ that the colonisers did for their subjects. He takes apart the legacy they left behind in India that many apologists tend to cite as benefits in such an argument – a big example, the railway system and concept of a free press, so to speak.

One of the things he touches upon in this book – written following his successful speech at the British Parliament back in 2015 that went viral on social media – are the colonial laws that we’ve held onto in independent India, such as the sedition law and the one that’s my focus here, the criminalisation of same-sex relations. Did the British laws, based on their own Victorian morality, when enforced in the colony, subsequently make India less queer? Did the British, with their white saviour complex – the ‘sense of obligation to benevolently rule and civilise the savages’ – take from India its natural understanding of queerness?

This is a tricky terrain to traverse. What is certain though from my readings on the subject is that while we may have been a lot more patriarchal, developmentally and economically strained with gender biases running deep, there was still a higher, let’s say, tolerance to alternate sexualities as well as sexuality as a whole. Looking through our histories, the prime examples stand as the erotic sculptures and temple carvings across the country. There are numerous stories from Indian mythology that break the confines of traditional notions of gender and sexuality. Indian mythology speaks of the gender-bending Shikhandi that slays Bhishma. Male Gods often took the form of females to consummate marriages. As Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai state in Same-Sex Love n India: Readings in Indian Literature, Tamil versions of The Mahabharata tells a story of Mohini, the female form of Krishna. Arjuna’s son Aravan offers himself as a sacrifice to Kali in a bid to secure their victory in the upcoming battle and in return asks for three boons – one of them being was to get married before his death. The life of a widow wasn’t something any person wanted to condemn their daughters to, so, Aravan didn’t have any willing brides. This is when Krishna appears in the form of Mohini and marries Aravan for the night. Many transgender people in the south identify Krishna as a transgender God in that form, celebrate Aravan’s sacrifice, Mohini’s widowhood and mourning in the form of an annual festival.

Devdutt Pattanaik does a concise breakdown to better understand the existence of homosexuality in ancient India through readings of sacred narratives, the ancient law books and images depicted on temple walls. The conclusion That Pattanaik comes to is that same-sex relations did exist, albeit outside the purview of mainstream societal narratives, in some form or the other. “There was some degree of tolerance when the act expressed itself in heterosexual terms – when men ‘became women’ in their desire for other men, as the hijra legacy suggests,” he writes, also raising an important point that the same sacred texts that traditionalists now cite as restrictive of homosexuality also “institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.” So should modern Indian society really look to it for moral guidance? Personally speaking, no.

Tolerance is the keyword here, there was never an institutionalised condemnation of homosexuality until the British set foot on our shores. If we really are to look back through India’s cultural archives we’ll find that there were times that transgender individuals were respected and often held key offices. This was mostly during the Mughal period where they often served as royal advisers, participated in courtly affairs and were even appointed as protectors of palaces and harems, even becoming aides to queens – although, there were cases of forced castration of men to have them serve as the protectors of women while the ‘real men’ went to war. Revered and considered as divine entities by some, they too found themselves outlawed and marginalised under British colonialism, tagged as a ‘criminal tribe’ as per the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. There was no real prejudice as such against people that identified with different genders and sexual orientations.

India as a whole took a major step forward in 2014 when the Supreme Court legally recognised the third gender. But with Section 377 still in place we still have a long way to go, but how long do we have to wait? A law set in place by the colonisers should be a part of the obsolete laws that the government has already repealed. Blaming the British for modern India’s homophobia absolves society of their culpability in discriminatory practices by pointing to a scapegoat of the past.

The law can be repealed, so why hasn’t it been already? Why was it reinstated in 2013? Because from blaming the colonisers for the law we’ve now come to blame the West for their ‘ideas of homosexuality’ that have been ‘imported’ into the country in our age of globalisation. To say this is ridiculous is an understatement. Tagging it as a ‘Western fad’ that goes against India’s culture and traditions is what keeps homophobia alive today. There are still many in society that view it as a passing phase, a genetic disorder and some even believing that homosexual desires are the ‘unholy’ effect of demonic possession. It’s not just a lack of awareness or education that’s the problem here, but when the law of the land stigmatises that a large part of the region’s society – they would like you to believe that the LGBTQ community is still very small – it sets the tone for people’s perception of one another.

Colonialism may have put the taboo on sex and sexuality but we uphold it with the law. While the rest of the world, including our own erstwhile masters, has progressed as a whole to decriminalise and legalise same-sex marriages, we continue moral policing on all matters of intimacy.

Although, it isn’t fair to say that India celebrated homosexuality before colonialism either. The ‘don’t ask - don’t tell’ mentality that prevailed prior to India’s subjugation has been suggested to exist even now – “People can do whatever they want in private now also, how does the law matter?” said one professor during a conference I attended in college. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The idea that an LGBTQ person should only be themselves when they’re in the safe confines of their homes and not in public where who they are, their desires, makes them a criminal. In an article published by Youth Ki Awaaz, Biswadeep Tamang accurately points to various hate crimes against LGBTQ people in India including custodial torture and rape. Mr Tharoor too points to the same in his book, stating, “Fifty-eight Indians have been arrested under Section 377 in just two years (2014 and 2015) for actions performed in the privacy of their homes. That’s fifty-eight Indians too many.”

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860 criminalises ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. “It criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private, violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 (life and liberty, including privacy and dignity), Article 14 (equality before law) and Article 15 (prohibition of discrimination) of the Constitution of free India,” writes Mr Tharoor. While the problem with homophobia is not mere legalism, it is definitely a step, at least when it comes to providing people with equal human rights and safety.

Invoking the sins of our past is no way of dealing with our present issues, and blaming the British for this ‘colonial hangover’, as some would like to believe, is not going to get us anywhere. This is a matter of fundamental human rights that modern India needs to address so no Indian steps out of their homes in the morning tagged as a criminal for being who they are – an existing condemnation that doesn’t only leave a deep scar on society but on the person’s own psyche.

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