A week after the Indian Supreme Court's stunning verdict that criminalized homosexuality by reinstating the controversial Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, India's Hindu nationalist organisations and leaders have attacked homosexuality as an “illness” that was foreign to Indian culture. They have supported the Supreme Court verdict and resist the Indian government's proposals for legislative repeal of Section 377.
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP – World Hindu Council) called homosexuality an “imported disease” that was “against Indian culture and values.” The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP – Indian People's Party), the main opposition party in the Indian Parliament, has condemned homosexuality and indicated that it will not support the repeal of Section 377, creating major obstacles as the Congress-led coalition government seeks to find multiparty consensus.
Xenophobia On Top Of Homophobia
While the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Christian church groups were petitioners, the interests of the Hindu hardliners were represented by the now-deceased B.P. Singhal, who was a member of the BJP and VHP. The Hindu groups had not immediately reacted to the verdict, but BJP President Rajnath Singh initiated the response of the Hindu hardline nationalist groups by attacking homosexuality as “unnatural.”
The line of attack has exploited nationalist sentiments in claiming that homosexuality and the recognition of gay rights were an imposition of Western culture and “foreign” to India. However, Section 377 had been promulgated in India in 1860 as part of the penal code created by the colonial British East India Company. There was also no acknowledgment of the dangers to India's gay community – from police harassment to the denial of medical treatment, especially in fighting HIV/AIDS.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – National Union of Volunteers), which is the mother organisation of both the BJP and VHP, also joined the chorus against gay rights. The RSS, BJP and VHP – collectively known as the “Sangh Parivar” - espouse “Hindutva” (Hinduness) – a radical Hindu nationalist ideology that has been criticized as fascism and desirous of making India a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu Nation). Members of the RSS, BJP, VHP and other affiliated organisations have been charged and arrested for carrying out riots and targeted terrorist attacks against Muslims and Christians in different parts of India. Activists from all three groups were responsible for the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, which led to nationwide rioting that killed more than 10,000 people.
Homosexuality “Never A Crime” In Hinduism?
There have been attacks on gay Indians beyond the Hindu nationalist movement. Yoga guru and political activist Baba Ramdev was one of the first Hindu religious figures to attack homosexuality as an “addiction,” offering his “yoga” courses as the cure. He railed against homosexuality as “unscientific, unnatural, uncivilised, immoral, irreligious and abnormal.” A Hindu astrologer had attacked homosexuality on national television as a danger to India's defence as he believed “soldiers will start having sex with each other.”
On the other hand, Hindu guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, leader of the “Art of Living” organization, criticized the Supreme Court's verdict and said “Homosexuality was never considered a crime in Hindu culture.” Ravi Shankar claimed “everyone has male and female elements. According to their dominance, tendencies show up and may change.” He also cited the mythology of Hindu god Lord Ayyappa, who was “born of Hari-Hara (Vishnu and Shiva).” Hindu scriptures, mythology, literature and art have extensively spoken of homosexuality and transgender roles as natural. Hindu same-sex marriages have also been reported in the past. Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and others have acknowledged homosexuality as ancient and natural practice.
On December 15th, protests were held in many Indian cities as well as by Indian activists in London, Toronto, San Francisco and New York as part of a “Global Day of Rage” against the Supreme Court verdict. The protesters strongly criticized Hindu politicians for hypocrisy, alleging they were exploiting the issue to gain votes. The Hindu American Foundation and the United Kingdom Hindu Council both declared that “Hinduism does not condemn homosexuality.”
BJP's Popularity Endangers Gay Rights
Efforts to repeal Section 377 and ensure gay rights in India may be further endangered as the BJP rides the wave of four major state election victories last month, rendering the Congress-led central government, which is in its final months, to a “lame duck” status. Although its leader Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have supported gay rights and seek a repeal of Section 377, the government is bogged down by corruption scandals and down to its final months in office to a “lame duck” status. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate, the Gujarat State Chief Minister Narendra Modi is one of the most popular politicians in the country and looks increasingly likely to lead the BJP to a commanding total when India's next general elections are held in May 2014. This leaves the government with an option of filing a curative review petition with the Supreme Court or promulgating an ordinance after the end of Parliament's winter session.
However, Modi is deeply controversial for his role in the religious violence between Hindus and Muslims that engulfed the state of Gujarat during his early months as chief minister. The riots claimed more than 1,000 lives, and allegations of his unwillingness to put down the riots, where attacks on Muslims were mainly carried out by BJP and VHP activists, made him a pariah to many Indians.
As atrocious and ugly as this is, it seems that religion is not really at the heart of the issue. This seems to be an issue of an extremist nationalist ideology that is using religion as the glue uniting the groups. Here in the U.S. we've been seeing this same sort of nationalist ideology pushed by supposed religious convictions. Unfortunately, religion and nationalism have long been strange bedfellows.
A truly sad testament to just how badly people want to justify personal bigotry, as Nirav Mehta points out, is that this law was enacted under British colonial rule and is NOT an inherently supported idea in Hindu mythology OR culture. The fact is the British carried the "disease" of homophobia, built on CHRISTIAN ideology into India and it "infected" Hindu culture and legislation.
At least some people who claim to be Hindu actually know their mythology and can see that this particular form of bigotry is not inherent to Hindu culture. And honestly, wouldn't it be more productive to deal with the caste discrimination that actually IS inherent to Hindu culture... rather than creating a whole new problem?
While there is homophobia in India, it has never before been a political issue as it has been for decades in the Western world. Unfortunately, the Hindu right-wing may be taking their pointers directly from Western examples to introduce anti-gay witch-hunting as a way to mobilize conservative voters and even make inroads with fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, which are powerful vote banks in Indian politics. This is probably the real beginning of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement in India. The time has come to OPENLY fight back and hard - for hearts and minds. The fuse lit now must not be allowed to fizzle out.