I travelled around India for three weeks this summer and while the sights, smells and sounds of the country warrant dozens of articles on their own, one of the most interesting things that happened when I was there was political.
About two weeks into my trip, the Indian Supreme Court had overturned a law (section 377) from the colonial-era that deemed gay sex illegal. Section 377 has nothing to do with gay marriage, and instead only mentions the criminalization of intercourse that is “against the order of nature”. The repeal of this law is a historic event for the LGBTQ+ community in India.
Although section 377 does not explicitly mention what intercourse that is within the “order of nature” looks like, it was used to suppress and condemn gay people not only in the courts, but even more commonly in society. The law was essentially an insurance policy for homophobic people to penalize or threaten those whose lifestyles they disagreed with. While homosexuality is not commonly accepted in India, the Supreme Court has tried to decrease discrimination around homophobia by not only decriminalizing ‘unnatural’ sex, but also extending gay people the right to all the protections of the constitution.
The fight for equality in the LGBTQ+ community in India has been gaining traction since 2014 when the Supreme Court declared transgender as a “third gender.” More recently, in 2017 the Supreme Court upheld the Right to Privacy under the constitution, making the criminalization of sexual acts much more difficult to bring to trial.
As the overturned law was a colonial-era act, its repeal marks not only an achievement for LGBTQ+ activists , but also a sense of Indian nationalism as the nation rebukes one more effect of colonial rule. Additionally, it is a reminder of how societies which were colonized in the past are still so affected by archaic rules and norms that were imposed upon them by colonizers.
I was in Bengaluru when all the five Supreme Court judges signed the verdict on September 6th 2018; and that day the news was in every local, state and national newspaper. My friends who live in India were at pride parades in Chennai and Delhi. “Love is love” was posted in a few shops and some rainbow flags were seen around Mumbai.
As this social and political triumph was happening in India, I once again saw just how much of a contrast the country is. The contrast between impeccably clean homes and dirty streets, smart phones but no hot water taps and Mercedes next to bullock carts; and the insane contrast between traditional cultural norms of social classes, outcasts and a limited place for minorities and the welcoming, helpful and giving nature that I have experienced countless times in India. The social, economic and industrial changes in this country have happened so rapidly that you can see the differences from generation to generation in clothing worn, languages spoken and social beliefs.
So if you ever go to India; between rickshaw rides, bargaining for a pair of shoes and eating Pav Bhaji notice just how rapidly the political and social culture around you is changing and the careful balance that is being held between tradition and modernization.