18 August 2008 ~ 0 Comments

Repeal Section 377 – Homosexuality Ban in India A Legacy of British Rule

Mumbai: Almost 150 years after the British enacted a law in India criminalising homosexuality, a rainbow coalition of lesbian, gay and transgender groups in the city came together on Saturday asking the British government to apologise for Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
“We invoke the Father of our Nation’s spirit and call on them to apologise for the legacy of hatred they left us in the form of Section 377,’’ said Manvendra Singh Gohil, the prince of Rajpipla, who issued a statement on behalf of the groups at one of the most well attended gay pride parades that the city has seen. “The idea of treating homosexuals as criminals was imposed on the more tolerant traditions of India and the Union government must abandon this abhorrent alien legacy of the Raj,’’he added.

This should come as vital insight for all those that purport the spread of “Western democracy, institutions and ideals” to the rest of the world. Often, you would hear the anti-migrant lobby, the neo-con developmentalists, and liberal feminists firmly asserting that the spread of democracy and “Western civilization” or values is vital to the promotion of human rights.

Sometimes, you even hear Indians say that British colonization helped to ‘modernize’ India and ended the caste system. Of course, not much is said about how the British created the dowry system that the “West” now criticizes and sees as a part and parcel of Indian tradition. Self-proclaimed “Third World” feminist, Uma Narayan provides a great discussion on this in Dislocating Cultures, a must-read (and quite captivating) for anyone interested in these subjects.

My MA thesis was on decolonizing International Relations and specifically Fiji–how it is a failure of the colonial imagination, how the legal and political systems in postcolonial nations like India and Fiji are degenerate relics of colonial rule, how a colonial globality thrives today through the preservation of colonial structures, values and ideals in so-called ‘post-colonial’ nations.

Being anti-gay and banning ‘homosexual’ practices is indeed a legacy of British colonial rule. Despite the tolerance of homosexuality in ancient Hindu religious texts and culture (see here), what is shocking is that homosexuality is seen as a ‘Western affliction’ by a large segment of the Indian population. You cannot possible be gay if you are Indian (Remember the “BUT you are Indian” line from Bend it Like Beckham)? In effect, the historical memory of an entire colonized peoples was effectively erased and replaced with a colonial memory. When I was younger, I remember joking that “Western civilization” was an oxymoron.

So for all my desi friends, next time anyone points a finger at the ‘motherland’ or puts down our country or culture for not living up to ‘the largest democracy in the world’ label, just send them packing by citing how intolerance of homosexuality is actually a legacy of those very ‘Western’ ideals and values they hold so dear.

Disclaimer: This post is by no means in defense of how India has treated its homosexuals and minority populations. Nor do I mean to dichotomize West/East by using those binary terms or ‘blame the British’–that game is outdated. Obviously, India should repeal Section 377 not because it is a legacy of British colonialism, but because it is the right thing to do, period.

WALK ON: Several gays and lesbians marched from August Kranti Maidan to Chowpatty on Saturday
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