Criminalizing culture

The criminalization of personal sexual practices under Indian law, most recently by the upholding of Section 377, points to the regressive and intolerant atmosphere of our times, especially in a country where two of the chief deities in the Hindu pantheon are uninhibited about their bisexual nature

Ratna Raman Delhi 

The Supreme Court’s overturning of a 2009 High Court ruling on Section 377, which had decriminalised a whole range of sexual practices falling outside normative heterosexuality, has come as a shocker for many. For Section 377 is a penal law in place since the 1860s, framed by 19th century administrators. National newspaper headlines that validate the liberality displayed currently by the British Government with regard to same-sex relations would do well to remember that this archaic law from our colonial past was bequeathed to India. The laws prohibiting “unnatural carnal intercourse” and the homophobic traditions which they espouse have their origins outside of Indian shores.

In India, in the 21st century, we have imbibed a long tradition of majoritarian politics that continues to exacerbate and generate an atmosphere of intolerance that the tumultuous 20th century, despite its modernism, agnosticism, freethinking and democratic traditions, failed to shake off in its entirety. It is an unfortunate reality that laws continue to be formulated on majoritarian practices and ignore the
rights of minorities.

In the case of laws sanctioning sexual activity, there is a continued presumption that all heterosexual interaction is normative. This assumption, once powered by theocratic religions, has seeped into conservative political practice the world over. Hierarchies and categories once formulated within the stranglehold of religion continue to revisit and warp human lives in new and modern formations. Despite the articulation of countless lesbian and gay writers and activists, and innumerable supporters from different walks of life, governments and legislation continue to be gripped by an inflexible Victorian morality.

Oddly enough, the ugliness, violence and power play at the heart of heterosexual relationships has been played out in the public realm for a very long time. The inability to effectively redress extreme distress faced by individuals in heterosexual relationships gone awry is sidestepped by subjecting practitioners of same-sex relationships to criminal scrutiny.

The recent verdict delivered by the apex court, the highest legal office in India, smacks of puritanism and extreme bigotry, besides displaying a skewered understanding of the time and place that we live in. By declaring alternative sexualities that do not conform to heterosexual norms as unnatural, the judgement has highlighted the affinity the apex court shares with someone like Baba Ramdev, who considers homosexuality a disease that he claims he can cure through yoga.

To add to the chaos, senior BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi have reportedly upheld the ruling of the Supreme Court of India, stating that unnatural acts cannot be condoned. This is a strange position for members of parliament in our democratic country to take. Rajnath Singh would do well to learn that at least two of the male gods in our pantheon are bisexual. Vishnu and Shiva have wives; Parvati is Vishnu’s sister who is given in marriage to Shiva. Notwithstanding marital status and interpersonal ties, at some point in their lengthy friendship, Vishnu and Shiva consummated their relationship. Their love engendered the magical birth of Kartikeya, or Muruga, a martial god who continues to be the object of mass adulation
and worship.

It is therefore unfortunate that our right-wing politicians refuse to learn from our liberal mythological traditions and choose to alienate themselves from the grassroots of desire. It is so much more liberating to see bisexuality as the ultimate human possibility. This would definitely explain why over several centuries, a percentage of men and women of different races, faiths and socio-economic classes have been consensual participants in same sex-relationships. Any doubts about such liaisons can be allayed if one observes communities of women and men staying at home, in hostels, or the barracks, time and again.

Homosexuality and lesbianism have been reviled historically for a rather long time in mainstream traditions outside India. Sodom and Gomorrah, ancient cities and purportedly centres of vice and homosexuality, were destroyed by brimstone and fire by a wrathful god, demonstrating that punitive measures were to be meted out to such-like.

This is not very difficult to understand given the inhibitions structuring sexuality in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lust, one of the seven deadly sins, was to be guarded against diligently. Within the Catholic tradition, images of the mother and the virgin were both deified and reified, conception remained an immaculate act and crude carnality defined sexual interaction between heterosexuals. Heterosexual carnality was identifiably degenerate because it originated from animal instincts. With such corrosive contempt for acts of physicality available to the human body, amplified further by the unequal hierarchies posited between the male and female, no space could possibly accrue to same-sex practitioners.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014