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Queer in India: Healing Colonial Scars for the LGBTQ+ Community

Time for some history. In the 1600s, private companies were erected by the EnglishFrench, and Dutch to travel and explore Asia. Once on the shores of the Indian subcontinent, exploration quickly became extortion, so desirous of India's resources were the European powers. Without a substantial navy, the Indian Sea served as a funnel -rather than an oceanic barrier - for the budding colonisers whose appetites grew with their eating.

In the wake of the 18th century's Seven Years War, England removed the French from India, extending its influence and reaping the production of inter alia silks, spices and tea. Eventually, the land was divided and apportioned, and tax collection was introduced. With each step, the power of the local Indian people ebbed, and that of the British East India Company (EIC) swelled. Former Vassal Princes, employed as symbols to facilitate the company's indirect rule, were removed, and as the 19th century wore on, the rights of the Indians eroded rapidly. By 1858, the EIC was dissolved, and the Crown took control of India. 

Before Europe's colonial project in India, there had been a degree of elasticity and queer acceptance surrounding sex, love and romance. This elasticity stretches as far back as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Vedas. In the Mahabharata, you'll find the tale of King Drupada, who had a daughter named Shikhandi raised as a man. Drupada marries Shikhandi to a woman who protests when she discovers her husband was born female. On their wedding night, in order to engage in marital sex, the yaksha transformed Shikhandi, granting them male genitals. Yaksha are the male half of a pair, with their female counterparts, yakshi, usually depicted with them.

Colonialism saw homosexuality and queerness criminalised, a severe shift for the region and its queer people. Under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced in 1861, same-sex and/or what was described as 'unnatural' sexual relations were made illegal. Section 377 was an oppressive law enforced for more than seventy years after India gained independence and introduced by the colonial British. 

In typical orientalist fashion, the British imagined India as a mystical and mysterious land full of the 'exotic' and temptation. Therefore, British colonialism aimed at 'modernising' India whilst protecting the so-called 'innocent' values of their soldiers and British ex-pats. Christianity-infused colonialism led to policy creation antithetical to queer life, a life which had flourished in India for generations. The British rulers of the subcontinent promoted exclusively heterosexual relationships for the purpose of procreation, influenced by Western models of sin and shame imposed upon colonial subjects. 

Representation of the LGBTQ+ community once visible throughout Indian culture, art, religion and literature was contained and warped until, eventually, conservative views introduced a norm which ostracised and condemned queer people. Physical violence and prison time were everyday dangers for non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people, whilst laws like Section 377 were in effect. 

However, despite India's independence and Section 377 being thrown out in 2018, the physiological, neutral, economic and political scars left on Indian society run deep. These wounds haven't yet healed, leading to the dehumanisation of an entire community, the sanitation of a rich culture for colonial pallets and the injection of fear and social conservatism by the British. 

To this day, these scars remain, hindering progress for the LGBTQ+ community in law and life. Sometimes, intimacies, lifestyle and sexuality are accepted in the safety of small private networks; however, this is enormously juxtaposed by the discourse and practice of the public sphere. Whilst the Supreme Court did call for LGBTQ+ people not to be targeted or abused, given that they did not grant equal rights, this out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality, a shadow Britain casts, was sanctioned de facto. 

Nevertheless, there is hope. Same-sex intercourse was only decriminalised in 2018, and huge strides are being made; India is moving in the right direction. However, remember its history and its culture. Do you have to wonder what could have been if the colonial project hadn't intervened? Is India modernising, or is it slowly returning to a time before Britain introduced homophobia, transphobia and prejudice? 

Image: AP

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