The Evolution of LGBT Rights in India

978-0-8223-6043-8Today we’re pleased to present a post by Jyoti Puri, Professor of Sociology at Simmons College, whose forthcoming book Sexual States: Governance and the Struggle over the Antisodomy Law in India (out March 25th, 2016) uses the example of the recent efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in India to show how the regulation of sexuality is fundamentally tied to the creation and enduring existence of the Indian state. Here, she responds to a recent article on LGBT rights in India posted in The New York Times.

Raghu Karnad’s recent account does a fine job providing insight into legislative efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in India, but it is missing a critique of the state as the cornerstone of such reform. When Naz Foundation (India) Trust petitioned the Delhi High Court in 2001 to modify the antisodomy law, it was envisioned as the first step toward securing rights for same-sex sexualities. Although this legal campaign was little known at the time, once the government opposed the Naz Foundation writ in 2003, individuals and groups from around the country rallied around the endeavor to decriminalize homosexuality. As a result, overturning the antisodomy law became the lightning rod of aspirations for sexual justice and the emphasis came to rest on the state.

Over the years, much changed—not only did the Supreme Court overrule the Delhi High Court’s historic ruling decriminalizing homosexuality, but also the government went from opposing decriminalization to supporting it. Yet, pivotal to understanding these differences and reversals is the matter of whether the state ought to continue to regulate homosexuality by criminalizing it. Indeed, while there are ideological differences among state officials, elected officials, party representatives, and such, also referenced in Karnad’s article, they are an alibi for the question of the state’s purview over sexuality. Insofar as state institutions are expected to administer on behalf of public interests, the underlying question is about the role of the state.

Seen in this light, the quest to make a case for rights and freedom in the parliament is laudable but not likely to make much headway among those who are invested in upholding the state and its purview. To be sure, members of parliament sometimes rule to reduce the state’s reach, but issues of sexuality especially seem to provoke greater state vigilance. The expanded role of law and law enforcement in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence in the Indian context are cases in point.

If there is one upshot thus far, then it is about the importance of looking away from the state as the source of justice. In contrast to the elusive victory in the courts and the legislature thus far, significant changes are taking place in mainstream discourses on same-sex sexualities. Public demonstrations and pride parades, sympathetic coverage especially in the English-language and digital media, increased public support for same-sex sexualities began as side notes of the legal campaign but are transforming the social landscape. The antisodomy law needs to be repealed, but perhaps the needs of same-sex sexualities are better served when it does not serve as the emblem or index of progress.

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