*Blasphemy and the Colonized Indian Mind

PunjabAssemblyMarch2017

Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

GuruGranthSahibDesecration

Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

LatuffCartoon2006

A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

HinduBlasphemy?

So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.

*Homosexuality, the Hindu Past, and the Problem of Colonialism—A Few Notes

Part II of Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India

(in three or four parts)

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, portions of which criminalized all same-sex relations between adults, has rightly been described as a vestige of colonial-era legislation.  For that matter, much of the legislative and administrative apparatus through which India is governed today, including the Indian Penal Code, is a legacy of colonial rule.  The Indian Penal Code was drafted by a commission that, as I mentioned in Part I of this essay, was led by Thomas Macaulay, rather more infamous as the author of the Minute on Education of 2 February 1835 which, if I may it put this way, formally inaugurated the regime of English language in India.  Macaulay’s ambition was to facilitate the rise of a class of intermediaries educated in English who would help in the machinery of governance.  By most accounts, he succeeded admirably well; indeed, according to the most critical perspectives on this question, the colonization of India by a certain elite, steeped in the ideas that were part of Macaulay’s intellectual inheritance, continues apace.

The long history of same-sex relations is well outside the purview of the present essay, but the “inheritance” of the West of which I speak included “An Acte for the Punishment of the Vice of Buggerie” (1533), passed during the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) whose love for fornication with women—six wives, and doubtless many other women with whom he shared his bed—conjoined with the sexual attitudes of the time, might help explain in part why an act that would penalize sodomy was passed into law.  Most histories of Section 377 do not look past the Indian Penal Code, and show no awareness of the fact that Macaulay and the Commission did not create the IPC from a vacuum.  The Criminal Law (India) Act of 1828 had already specified “buggery” as a capital offence, adding that penetration rather than completion of the act, marked by “emission of seed”, was sufficient to procure conviction.  England’s own Buggery Act would go through various twists and turns, and by Macaulay’s time was known as the Offences against the Person Act (1828).  Buggery, as it was still known at that time in common parlance, and even in legal usage (thus Act 24 & 25 in Victoria’s reign, 1861, which make reference to “the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal”), remained a capital offence in England until 1861.  Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (passed in 1860, put into effect in early 1862), let us recall, specified as much as a term of life imprisonment for “unnatural” acts of intercourse between men, or between a man and an animal.

VatsyayanaKamaSutra

India’s history of same-sex relations outside the colonial fold remains a complicated one.  Let us dispense immediately with the most cliched example of Hinduism’s real or purported permissiveness towards the question of sexuality: I refer, of course, to the Kama Sutra.  A few years ago, Interfaith Radio, Los Angeles, interviewed me for the segment on “Homosexuality and Hinduism” in the series on “Gay in the Eyes of God”.  My interviewer stated quite emphatically at least twice that a text such as the Kama Sutra, which may be dated to around 200-300 CE, would have been quite impossible in the West.  The word she used to describe the likely attitude of the West towards the Kama Sutra until perhaps a few decades ago was “scandalous”.  The Kama Sutra is far more than a manual of love-making, but this is not the place to describe its place within the purusarthas, or the four ends of life as described in Hindu texts:  kama (love), artha (economy, material well-being in this world), dharma (conduct, duty, virtue), and moksha (liberation or spiritual emancipation). Suffice it say that it has some exciting bits, some charming and naughty parts, and some boring parts—something of the nature of sex, perhaps?  As I have advised my undergraduate students who have taken my introductory course on Indian civilization, they would be well-advised to have an orthopedic surgeon standing by if they are adamantly determined on attempting all the sexual positions described in the Kama Sutra.  The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, borrowed a good deal from other manuals on love-making, which were extant at that time and have since been lost.  It is certainly true that there is nothing comparable to the Kama Sutra from that time period, or even from centuries later, in the West—though there is, of course, an erotic literature from antiquity, of which we find ample evidence in the love poems of Sappho, or in the celebration of the mystery and beauty of sexual love in the Song of Songs [also known as Song of Solomon], even if it was read by Church fathers and others as an allegory of God’s love for Israel.

KhajurahoKandariyaMahadevaTemple

Khajuraho:  Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.  Source:  https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/

Proponents of the idea that Hindu culture has an easy-going attitude towards sexuality almost invariably also point to the famous temple complexes at Khajuraho and Konark, though the preponderant number of the sculptured figures in erotic poses or positions are not engaged in homosexual or lesbian relations.  The Lakshmana temple in the Khajuraho complex which can be dated to the 10th century has a frieze where a man is clearly seen performing oral sex on another man, but should one read this as decisive evidence of the wide acceptance of homosexuality in India?  Perhaps the “evidence” is less conclusive than one would like to think so, and this apart from the question of how one might interpret the large Khajuraho group of monuments as a whole.  To understand why that is the case, we can return, albeit briefly, to the Kama Sutra.  Chapter 9 of Book Two is the portion that is most germane to a consideration of whether the acceptance of homosexuality was widespread in Hindu culture.  Its subject matter is “Auparishtaka”, or what the Victorian-era rake and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton, described as “Mouth Congress”, that is oral sex.

While the text is unequivocally clear in its description of fellatio, the interpretation of the character of the parties to the act can vary immensely.  It is not commonly realized that ancient Indian texts, not only philosophical works such as the Upanishads but even law treatises (dharma sastras), sex manuals (kama sastras), and works of grammar (vyakarana), were almost always read with one or more commentaries at hand.  The commentator’s gloss could be critical.  However, a modern reader, even without a commentary, might find much room for ambiguity.  A translator such as Burton rendered the male sexual partner of a man as a ‘eunuch’, though the term used in the Sanskrit is generally tritiya-prakriti, ‘of the third gender’.  The two men in a homosexual relationship are more accurately described as having more ‘masculine’ or more ‘feminine’ characteristics.  A more contemporary translator such as Alain Danielou, The Complete Kama Sutra, is more sensitive in rendering the Sanskrit terms in colloquial English, though it doesn’t help when he speaks of oral sex as “buccal coition” (for example, KS 2.9.25, 28).  There is more than the suggestion that many homosexual relations were quite undesirable, and the evidence of verse 40 from Part I, Chapter Nine seems quite unimpeachable:  “The various forms of buccal coition should be avoided by Brahmans, men of letters, ministers and other government officials, as well as by those who have become famous.”  The insinuation here is that while homosexual relations will doubtless be encountered, men of a certain class standing should certainly refrain from them.  On the other hand, Vatsyayana was entirely willing to go the entire length in accepting homosexuality as part of the order of nature, and taking it as a fact of life that some men are attracted to other men and may be inclined to choose them as life partners:  “There are also citizens [men], sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married [parigraha] together” (KS 2.9.35).

MattancherryMuralShiva&Mohini

Mural at Mattanchery Palace, Fort Kochi:  Shiva and Mohini are locked in embrace (left), while Parvati, the consort of Shiva, looks at them astride a white bull (right).

In this vein, one might summon a great deal of other textual and visual evidence.  The Puranic literature is prolific in the stories of sexuality:  in my radio interview from more than five years ago to which I have adverted above, I offer some additional pointers.  There are stories of gods seduced by beautiful women, gods making out with other gods (if unknowingly), men who become pregnant, men and women who cross-dress, and more.  The culture of pre-modern India certainly cannot be accused of prudishness, whatever else one may say of it; yet, it is also unmistakably the case that all this seems nearly impossible to divine from the present state of India, where heterosexual marriage exercises an oppressive crush, monopolizing social life, societal norms, and the imaginary of the nation in every domain.  My own reading suggests two formulations which I am hopeful may be of some use in contemporary discussions of homosexuality in India and, in particular, the nature of the “Hindu inheritance”.  There is no singular Hindu view of homosexuality, even if both the proponents or detractors of the view that Hinduism was hospitable to same-sex relations are convinced that the truth is unequivocally on their side.  One might plausibly argue that homosexuality, on the evidence of Puranic literature, should not necessarily be viewed as the opposite of heterosexuality but rather as constituting something of a continuum with it.  Secondly, and more decisively, the Hindu past furnishes no evidence of homophobia.  If some critics should construe Hindu texts as not celebratory of homosexuality, they are nevertheless recognizably more accommodating of views and lifestyles outside the norm of what these days is termed heterosexual normativity.  Those who are now committed to obstructing the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the IPC, and one hopes that their numbers will be insignificant, would do well to bear this in mind.

 

(to be continued)

*Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India

(in three or four parts)

Part I:  Free at Last:  A Supreme Court verdict for LGBT Identity

Thursday’s decision of the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality is justly being celebrated as a historic moment in the country’s modern history.  Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which dates back to 1860 and in its elements was drafted by a commission in the 1830s headed by none other than Thomas Macaulay, made voluntary “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” an offence punishable “with imprisonment for life”.  The Delhi High Court in 2009 [Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhihad given the LGBT community a lease on life in ruling that Section 377 could not be applied to consensual sex between homosexuals, but on appeal to the Supreme Court the high court was reversed in 2013.  In overturning its earlier decision, the Supreme Court in Thursday’s ruling admitted that it had made an egregious mistake and, quite unusually, tendered an apology to “members of the community for the delay in ensuring their rights.”  The Court noted that, in its earlier decision, it had been swayed by the fact that only “a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitutes lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders”, and had come to the false conclusion that the rights of such a minority could not be permitted to fashion the laws for an entire country.  However, the Supreme Court now holds that though a majority may be entitled to govern, it cannot abrogate the rights of a minority, whatever its numerical strength.  The Supreme Court has admitted that it had abrogated not only the right of privacy of LGBT people, but even the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.

RainbowPrideWalkInKolkata

A Rainbow Pride Walk in Kolkata. Copyright:  Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

LGBTCelebrationInIndia

LGBTQ community people, with a rainbow flag, celebrate the Supreme Court verdict which decriminalises consensual gay sex, in Bengaluru, Thursday, Sept 6, 2018. (PTI Photo)
Source: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/lgbtq-rights-activists-welcome-691377.html

 

The euphoria being experienced in the LGBT is understandable.  The bold headlines carried by the country’s leading newspapers on Friday tell the story in outline.  The Times of India opined that India had been “ushered into the 21st Century” and they headlined the story thus:  “Independence Day-II.”  The Hindustan Times could, however, muster little more than “Rainbow Nation”:  noting that “Justice is Served”, they characterized the Court’s decision as a “Landmark Ruling” that had been given all the more weight in that all the five justices concurred.  The Indian Express was far bolder with its headline, “Love at First Sight”, above a photograph of two well-dressed petitioners kissing on the cheek.  The Hindi-language Navbharat Times was inventive, expressing the verdict in the formula “377=0”, explaining that the court had rendered Section 377 nought. One might continue in this vein: from all the available evidence, parties had broken out across the country’s metropolitan centers.  A friend sent me an article from the South China Morning Post:  the photographs accompanying the article show men and women holding tearful celebrations as the verdict was being read out and over the course of the day.

LGBTCelebrationInMumbai

People belonging to the LGBT community celebrating after the Supreme Court’s decriminalization of consensual homosexual sex at an NGO in Mumbai, India, September 6, 2018. Photo:  Reuters.
Source:  Deccan Herald (newspaper)

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-07 at 4.05.35 PM

A portion of the judgment of Chief Justice Deepak Mishra where he quotes from the philosopher John Rawls.

 

The 495-page judgment of the Court, rendered as four different if concurring opinions, is not likely to be read by more than a few lawyers and scholars, law students, and activists, and there will be time enough to ponder over the finer points of the Court’s reasoning.  Nevertheless, there are activists who are already cognizant of the fact that the road ahead is littered with shards of glass.  Conservative elements in all the religious communities have already pronounced their opposition to the judgment but there is no element of surprise here at all.  There are a large number of people who will continue to remain hostile to members of the LGBT community; but it is also quite likely that a large number of people, whose attitude is perhaps best described as indifference, will in time come to accept the Supreme Court’s opinion as the settled law of the land.  Even among many of those who are educated, and often of liberal dispensation, the feeling persists that in a country such as India there are far more pressing issues than the elimination of Section 377—not only the threat to Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution under the present political dispensation, but the crushing poverty of much of India’s countryside, the grave problem of large unemployment, the pandemic of violence against women, the suicides of over 300,000 farmers, and so on.

What is certainly striking in the coverage of the Court’s decision thus far, and in the pictures that have been posted, is that the celebrations appear to have been held entirely in urban areas, and most of those in metropolises such as Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.  No one has argued that Section 377 was not without an impact in the metropolises, but the educated middle classes have, in this matter as in most others, protections which would have been denied to those with fewer privileges in life.  Prosecutions under this section have been comparatively uncommon: according to figures maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015 fewer than 1,500 arrests were made.  One cannot minimize the immense psychological hold that Section 377 had over large segments of the LGBT community, giving rise to fear and silence on their part and, conversely, emboldening not only a largely corrupt police but many who sought to blackmail LGBT people.  At the same time, we shall have to ask how, and in what respect, the abolition of the most egregious portions of Section 377 impacts rural India where half of the country still lives.  In raising this question, I am not at all adverting to the common liberal view that the countryside is more conservative and therefore less progressive.  If by conservative one means, for example, that the pace of social change in the countryside is slower, than that is doubtless true of India’s hundreds of thousands of villages; however, the same countryside has, mercifully, been much less prone to accept the communal narratives of the Indian past which are now destroying India, though the extremist Hindus who are these days accustomed to acting with impunity are doing everything to communalize the country’s rural populations.  What is most pertinent is that in rural India one cannot quite escape one’s identity:  a person may proclaim herself a Christian or a lesbian one day, but those identities do not become accepted merely because they have been affirmed.  Above all this is of course the consideration, common to every part of the country, that the law can outlaw certain forms of discrimination, as the Supreme Court has now wisely done in holding Section 377 (except with respect to the provisions about the unlawfulness of bestiality, or sex between a human and an animal) contrary to the Constitution, but it cannot make people have affection for those who are deemed ‘different’.

(to be continued)