9 April 2021
What would the decriminalisation of your sexuality mean to you?
For millions of LGBTQI Indian citizens, 2 July 2009 was a momentous day as a Delhi high court found that the categorisation of consensual gay sex as a criminal offence was a breach of human rights. “We’ve finally entered the 21st century,” The Guardian India cites Anjali Gopali, the executive director of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust as saying. This was supposed to be the culmination of a decades long fight for the Indian queer community’s very existence. But as it turned out, the fight had only just begun.
Devastatingly, a 2013 judgment overturned this decision, effectively re-criminalising homosexuality. It would be another five years of living in a fearful state of limbo before India’s Supreme, and highest, Court, finally ruled consensual gay sex to be legal. This inconsistent and worryingly unstable path to decriminalisation could be seen as a microcosm of India’s gay rights progress in general. While institutions progress, cultural change often lags behind. And yet simultaneously, it is culture that underpins institutions. But which culture does India’s homophobia stem from?
Meghna, an Indian woman who identifies as asexual, has seen firsthand the way in which residual discrimination can continue to follow the queer community even while formal legislative changes occur.
“The social discrimination still exists,” she reflects, referring to the queer community’s experience after the 2018 victory.
Meghna’s gender and sexual orientation also place her as a minority within a minority, as in her experience “…the state rarely acknowledges asexual people,” and as a female activist she’s been subject to misogyny both outside and within the queer community.
In defiance of these hurdles and even the threat of violence at the hands of police, Meghna founded LGBTQI rights movement The All India Queer Rights Association. AIQRA describes itself as a “feminist, socialist, and ambedkarite [a socio-political Buddhist movement]] organization” that believes “firmly believe in the principles of justice, equality, fraternity, freedom, and liberty.“
The group works to achieve its ultimate goal of liberating all oppressed social groups from discrimination with tactics ranging from participating in campaigns, demonstrations and protests to the organisation of educational workshops and discussion panels to spread awareness. AIQI’s website is also an invaluable resource with guides and articles such as “Mental Health Resources for Quarantined Queers.”
From an Australian perspective, it would be fair to say that our education on the gay rights movement is largely local and Americanised. Maybe this conditions us to assume that “traditional” or “conservative” countries such as India will automatically be decades behind when it comes to progressive civil rights- in other words, we believe that a country like India must have lesser human rights standards than us because they’re not ‘as Western’. But what if, in this case, India’s homophobia is not rooted in its ‘traditional’ culture, but was a disease introduced by Britain’s colonisers?
Ancient India, also called the Indus Valley civilisation, was characterised by the development of Buddhism, the invention of modern drainage and sewage systems, and the practices of meditation and yoga. During the later medieval period the Indian mathematics system contributed to the numeric system we use today, and by the early modern period India had developed the world’s most productive trading markets.
There is no evidence to suggest that any of these pre-colonial societies were characterised by homophobia or discrimination towards queer individuals. In fact, parts of early India actually recognised a third gender, a hijra. Hijras are still recognised and in some cases protected today.
It wasn’t until 1861 that homosexuality was made a criminal offence in India with Britain’s introduction of the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which was based on England’s 1553 Buggery Act that outlawed homosexuality back home. This was the very Code that India would come to overturn after the British rule officially left their soils, some 157 years later.
This it not the British Empire’s only example of exporting and legislating the concept of a criminalised sexuality. A reported 40 former British colonies or protectorates were subject to this same foreign-introduced law including Belize (which has also overruled the legislation) and Pakistan, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea.
Nor was Section 377 the only lasting legacy of the British Empire’s presence in the region to have have devastating ongoing consequences. Uneasy about collaboration between local Hindu and Muslim groups who had been known to work together, British colonists did everything within their power to pit them against one another. The Guardian concludes; “The creation and perpetuation of Hindu- Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British Imperial policy.”
[Read about the struggles of religious minorities in India today at Human Rights Watch]
There’s no doubt that the AIQA and others like them will continue ti fight until social justice for all in India is achieved.
But perhaps they would not not have such a fight ahead if the British had followed the advice of Rudyard Kipling, celebrated imperialist writer and Indiaphile, back in 1861;
“Borrow trouble for yourself, if that’s your nature, but do not lend it to others.”
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