Issue in focus:Sexuality, Modernity, and Their Discontents - Mario D’Penha

Mario D’Penha

One of the most fascinating contemporary debates in the writing of Indian history is the debate around modernity, and this debate has recently entered the realm of sexuality studies as well. This debate is increasingly shaping the ways in which activism around sexuality takes place, especially because the ways in which we frame our pasts creates divergent realities for us in the present. Most scholars argue that the ‘modern’ age in Europe began with the period of the Renaissance, which included ironically, the desire to re-create the antiquity of Greece and Rome in sixteenth-century Europe. Modernity has been characterised by the rise of the nation-state, industrialisation, capitalism, urbanisation and the proliferation of mass media, as well as the ascent of ideas such as individualism, secularism, democracy and rationality.

Certain scholars contend that the varied traditions of history writing until now have often celebrated the grand narrative of the marshalling in of the modern age and the cultures and ideas that accompanied it. Their work has tried to evolve a degree of criticality towards this grand narrative, by calling into question, among other things, the disciplining function of the nation-state, which focused on classifying and thus attempting to control people, nature, landscapes, geographies, histories and art. Their contention is also that modernity normalises the focus on the individual and therefore ignores communitarian ways of living, and has been obsessed with the idea of rationality and evidence, thus being condescending towards faith and other non-rational systems of belief such as mythology.

Furthermore, they contend that modernity ushered in the idea of secularism that attempts to enforce a fierce separation of religion from the state in order to pacify religious intolerance, thus displacing other traditions of religious tolerance which do not enforce such a harsh and impractical disjuncture between religion and state. One strand of this argument also holds that colonial states, like nation-states were also catalysts of modernity.

However this argument often degenerates into assuming a linear transmission of ideas from colonising States such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands to their colonies in South and Southeast Asia, and the critique of modernity often becomes synonymous with the critique of colonialism. Unfortunately also, in their effort to critique the grand narrative of the rise of modernity, some scholars end up evolving a reverse grand narrative of modernity as ushering in complete decline.

However, not all scholars agree with these contentions. They argue that systems of knowledge acquisition and classification existed in pre-modern societies, and these networks were built upon by modern states. They also suggest that a focus on the individual as opposed to communities have helped those marginalised by society to be heard out, and this itself is crucial, especially for women. Because communities are often hierarchically ordered, only those with power, often men, and in the Indian context, upper-class and upper-caste men may represent the community. They also suggest that the controlling functions of the modern state have often been exaggerated. The Enlightenment ideal of secularism for instance, amalgamated with locally evolved ideas of religious tolerance in the Indian case to produce a constitutional secularism that has little in common with the Enlightenment ideal. Often the modern state has not been seen in the context of its struggles with local power structures. Scholars also maintain that ideas develop with complexity and cannot be transmitted in a linear way from one place to the other.

Within the study of sexuality then, new research has commenced the dialogue around modernity. Frank Proschan’s research on French colonial constructions of Vietnamese non-heteronormative genders and non-procreative sexualities posits that these constructions were not only present in discourse, but ‘were played out on and in the bodies of the subject people and their colonial masters’.1 Other critiques of modernity allege that the nineteenth century was characterised by an increasing purge of the erotic from public space.

Peter Jackson, in his research on Thailand for example, claims that until the middle of the nineteenth century, highly stylised and explicit representations of eroticism were common in Siamese temples, monasteries and literature. However, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Siamese elite, becoming aware that Western visitors were embarrassed by this overt eroticism, began to expunge such references from elite literature. Furthermore, bourgeois social space became divided into public and private spheres, and representations of the erotic which had until that time enjoyed a public space were moved into the domain of the private.2

Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai inaugurated the debate on modernity within same-sex sexuality studies for India. Making a claim similar to Jackson’s in Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, which they co-edited, they traced with the advent of the 1861 law that criminalises non-procreative sexual practices in India, a period of increasing homophobia characterised for instance, by the purging of homoeroticism from the Urdu canon. This process, they suggest, took place in the second half of the nineteenth century and was influenced by a British denunciation of ‘Indian marital, familial, and sexual arrangements as primitive’.

Educated Indians, including social reformers and nationalists imbibed these stereotypes even as they attempted to defend Indian culture, and soon the ‘monogamous, heterosexual marriage came to be idealized as the only acceptable form of sexual coupling’. Vanita’s argument sharpens in Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the  West, and she takes on modernity as being the source of homophobia today, which is derived from ‘centuries of negative obsession with sexual acts in the Christian West’, while at the same time retaining the ambivalent assertion that modernity can also be a site for new opportunities. Thus Vanita’s claim is that the attempt to enforce standardisation in sexual matters went along with the rise of the nation-state and ‘Euro-American’ ascendancy in the modern world.

Yet this is not the complete story. If Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, instituted in 1861, is influenced by British law, why did the British not enact this law before 1861? The original Buggery Act was passed in England in 1533, and sodomy was re-instituted as a capital offence in Britain in 1826. Independent British bases in India date from the middle of the seventeenth century, and yet it was not until 1861 that the British finally passed the Indian Penal Code and Section 377 along with it.

Suparna Bhaskaran has recounted persuasively why laws criminalising non-normative sexual acts in England and India were instituted precisely at those particular historical junctures. Henry VIII3 passed the Buggery Act of 1533 in England through which the British Parliament made sodomy ‘with mankind or beast’ a felony. The conversion of sodomy from an ecclesiastical to a secular crime is part of the history of the reduction of the power of the Catholic Church in England and the seizure of church property, following Henry VIII’s disagreement with the Pope about his divorce. The new Buggery Act allowed Henry VIII to sentence those convicted to death and appropriate their property. This statute was deployed primarily against Catholics, who were accused of engaging in sodomy within monasteries. It is significant that the act was repealed under the Catholic Queen Mary in 1553, and reinstituted again by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I who wished to establish her legacy as the true successor of Henry VIII.3

Political motives also seem to have been present in the enacting of the law in the Indian case. It would be important to note that the social transformation that Proschan, Jackson, Vanita and Kidwai describe takes place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This is an era of the consolidation of colonial power in much of South and Southeast Asia. The consolidation of this power, in India, for example, occurred after the revolt of 1857, an attempt by several classes of Indians to defeat the British. With the British suppression of the revolt and the consolidation of British power, came not only the pacification and control of Indian territory and people by the military, but also of their shaping by law.

The consolidation of British power in India also demanded the ‘state policies of sexual-political restraint and relaxation, which framed modes of relation and interaction between rulers and ruled’.4 More so, now, after the memory of the horrors of 1857, the British learned to mistrust miscegenation that had been tolerated if not completely accepted in the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. In that time, far from a ‘denunciation of Indian marital, familial and sexual arrangements as primitive’, several British imperial administrators intermarried and cohabited with Indian women and assimilated to the norms of Mughal society. 5

Moreover, several Europeans also came into contact with eunuchs through their association with Indian royal households. For instance, Claude Martin, who joined the army of the East India Company in the late eighteenth century, and rose to become a general in the army of the state of Oudh in northern India, lived in Faizabad with four concubines and a large staff of eunuchs and other servants.6

By the latter half of the nineteenth century however, relations between the races in India had altered. British officials were acutely aware that the provision of sexual partners for British soldiers in India was a matter of some importance. Since it was too expensive to export British women to India, British officials were afraid that the imperial army would become ‘replicas of Sodom and Gomorrah’ if women were not provided, and they thus started regulated brothels or Lal Bazaars for British soldiers.

Moreover, the latter half of the nineteenth century also saw the emergence of the middle class in Indian towns which began patronising the plethora of newspapers and periodicals that this era saw a rise of. The emerging middle class, often belonging to the upper and middle castes, sought to distinguish itself from the old aristocracy, who were increasingly characterised as decadent and immoral. It is within this context that the Indian Penal Code was passed, and an increasingly hostile social atmosphere for same-sex desire was created. 

This marks significant departures from the explanation put forward by Vanita and Kidwai for the existence of contemporary homo-phobia. The journey of ideas from one space to another is never a linear process and is often complicated by local structures of power and social processes that renegotiate its terms in the new context. Indians were able to participate in and accept the process of the transformation of gender and sexual relations in the latter half of the nineteenth century precisely because a history of marginalisation of same-sex desire, however marginal the strain, was present in Indian history.

Furthermore, new laws seek to renegotiate existing relationships of gender, sexuality, community or property, and can rarely exist without social consent. Laurence W Preston has shown, for example, that after the annexation of the state of Satara in western India in 1848, many eunuchs who had the traditional right to extort/beg for money, found their rights obstructed by village authorities who used the coming of British rule as an excuse to rid themselves of a ‘distasteful nuisance’.7 The annexation of property held by nobles, including eunuchs such as Mehboob Allee Khan in the court of Delhi after 1857 by the state, was also a major step in the consolidation of British rule in India.8

Vanita and Kidwai’s narrative unevenly characterises British attitudes towards same-sex desire and Indian social and familial mores as being overwhelmingly negative. However, orientalism and the classification of India as being a lair of ‘oriental vices’ for instance, allowed homoerotically inclined European travelers like J. R. Ackerley to visit India and here they discovered homoerotic spaces of their own. As Robert Aldrich notes, ‘The colonies provided a refuge for those fleeing their homelands – by desire or necessity – because of reprobate desires and chequered backgrounds, and, more generally, for those ill at ease in the confines of traditional European society’.9

One of the other assertions that Vanita and Kidwai make is that under colonialism and modernity, a ‘minor strain’ of homophobia in Indian traditions became the ‘dominant ideology’. It is contestable whether homophobia was a ‘minor’ strain within Indian history before colonialism. Hostility towards same-sex relationships certainly did exist alongside celebration and indifference towards the same, as Vanita and Kidwai’s works ably demonstrate.

It is also contestable as to whether homophobia became a ‘dominant ideology’ after the latter half of the nineteenth century. While a transformation of patriarchal relations did occur at this time, assuming that homophobia became dominant would mean assuming that all spaces that tolerated homoeroticism were lost while not acknowledging the spaces that colonial modernity simultaneously created. For instance, A. O. Hume, a British civil servant, who later was to play an extremely vital part in the formation of the Indian National Congress, opposed the criminalisation of eunuchs, a group largely seen as engaged in the ‘propagation of sodomy’ in 1870 on the grounds that it would interfere with ‘the liberty of the subject’.10 Hume’s engagement with this process of legislation is an extremely modern one, invoking the Enlightenment idea of individual liberty, an argument that has been used universally in the pursuit of rights claims by several marginalised groups.

While the new homophobia was partially being instituted and regulated by a modern state, and while social classes and institutions constituted within modernity played an important role in the reconstitution of patriarchal relations at this time, it would not be reasonable to say that homophobia today was a ‘product…of modernity’. To the extent that our ideas of sexuality are themselves ‘modern’, this might hold true. However, seeing homophobia in contemporary India as a product of modernity alone, invisibilises the fact that earlier traditions in Indian history have also looked upon same-sex desire with a certain degree of negativity and that these may continue today. It also ignores the fact that modernity may simultaneously create spaces conducive to same-sex relationships and therefore a re-evaluation of modernity and the location of sexuality within it is imperative.

  1. Frank Proschan, ‘Eunuch Mandarins, Soldats Mamzelles, Effeminate Boys and Graceless Women: French Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese Genders’, GLQ, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2002
  2. Peter Jackson, quoted in Douglas Sanders, ‘Flying the Rainbow Flag in Asia’, unpublished paper presented at the Second International Conference on Sexualities, Masculinities and Cultures in South Asia, Bangalore, India, 2004
  3. Suparna Bhaskaran, Made in India: Decolonizations, Queer Sexualities, Trans/national Projects, New York and Basingstoke, 2004 
  4. Ibid.
  5. William Dalrymple, ‘Assimilation and Transculturation in Eighteenth Century India’, Common Knowledge, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2005
  6. Abdul Halim Sharar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of An Oriental Culture, London, 1975
  7. Laurence W Preston, ‘A Right To Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth Century India’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1987
  8. Deputy Commissioner’s Office, 1858, File No. 12, Department of Delhi Archives.
    I owe this reference to Anish Vanaik.
  9. Robert Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality, London and New York, 2003
  10. J F Stephens, 4 July 1870, Home Judicial, 30 July 1870, Prog. Nos. 44-127 (A), National Archives of India

Mario D’Penha pursued graduate studies at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is a queer feminist historian and activist. He is currently researching a history of the hijras of India and plays around, among other things, with queer campus activism. He lives and works in New Delhi.