India's legalization of gay sex is not an act of westernization

Graphic by Casey Linenberg '19

Graphic by Casey Linenberg '19

BY SRISHTI MUKHERJEE ’21

This week has been an important one for Indians, both at Mount Holyoke and across the world, thanks to India’s legalization of gay sex. As India reels from the acts of intolerance performed in the name of religion, caste and gender within the country, the warm light of forbearance has embraced us at a time when we least expected it. On Sept. 6, the Supreme Court of India rolled back the colonial-era law Section 377 (a law that criminalized “unnatural” sex between men or women, which could lead to a maximum sentence of life in prison),  thereby allowing 18 percent of the world’s LGBTQ+ population a chance to reclaim their humanity. 

The last few years have left most of us disheartened at the seemingly endless violence and acceptance of intolerance, with the electoral success of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — a party that has historically reflected Hindu nationalist positions and continues to be notorious for having its party members promote Hindu supremacy — coinciding with a rise in mob violence within the country.

While many are lauding this step as a consequence of India following the examples of its modern, open-minded Western counterparts, I think it is important to note that the repeal of Section 377 is actually evidence of India reclaiming a lost culture and religion that has over the years been manipulated by its colonizers. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its followers are an example of that.

Hinduism, the dominant religion within India, has historically been surprisingly inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community: the sacred text Mahabharata witnesses a number of its characters cross-dressing (including the Lord Krishna), and features the transgender warrior Shikhandi as one of its principal characters. In the Vedas, there are numerous references to the “third sex,” who are not ostracized, but are sometimes considered to have divine powers or insights. Meanwhile, the erotic and infamous Kama Sutra contains a lengthy section dedicated to homosexual fellatio.  

None of this absolves India and Hindus of the current repression and stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community and sexuality within the country, where even straight couples are shunned for holding hands in public. Still, it is important to note that the rescinding of Section 377 should not be viewed as an act of globalization or a step towards westernization, but as an act of decolonization. While the sheer amount of time it has taken to correct this wrong is most definitely on us, understanding the origin of this homophobia is important because of the number of people who will see the retraction of this law as a departure from our culture. It is not. 

Naturally, the repeal of this law will not serve as a button that will automatically refresh and reboot the average Indian mind to be less prejudiced, and the struggle for acceptance (and hopefully, same-sex marriage) for the Indian LGBTQ+ community will be a long and hurdle-filled journey for some time to come. Nevertheless, I think we still deserve to savor this moment that has come after years of petitioning at various courts, momentous wins at lower courts and further appeals that nullified those triumphs, before finally arriving here. 

For the past few days, my Instagram feed has been flooded by posts from Indian friends, Bollywood stars and major fashion, food and luxury brands within the country, all flashing the colors of the rainbow and the hashtag #loveislove, and all I am filled with is hope. If even capitalism has hope that Indians may not be as prejudiced as they seem, who am I to give up on us? As Supreme Court Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said, “It is difficult to right the wrongs of history. But we can certainly set the course for the future.” 

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