Homosexuality, History and Hypocrisy in India

The chilling images of a man being thrown off a high-rise in Iraq by the men of Islamic State caused much outrage. The man, according to reports in the Telegraph, Daily Mail, and other western media, was thrown to his death for being gay. The Islamic State guys are no doubt the most barbaric, brutal and intolerant of our times. They revel in their barbarity and make a show of it with beheading videos and public executions, evoking shock and awe from the world.
If they can kill, rape and stone people for being followers of other faiths or not following their version of medieval Islam, what can one expect for homosexuals, who suffer a terrible fate in the more free and civilised parts of the world? There is a kind of normalisation of the harassment and persecution of homosexuals across most parts and cultures of the world.
In Goa, the Youth Minister of the BJP government plans to make gays ‘normal’ by opening up special “treatment centres.” Yoga guru Ramdev, another blue-eyed boy of the ruling party, claimed some time ago that homosexuality can be cured through yoga. Obviously, for this school of thought, homosexuals are abnormal and sick people. All religious and ‘cultural’ institutions treat homosexuality as a crime, or at the very least, an abnormality.
And here, I must make a confession. I am also guilty of making jokes about people of different sexual orientation. But I must also say that these jokes are more in the same flavour as jokes about sardars – harmless and not indicative of any deep-rooted bias or hatred. Or for that matter, jokes about Muslims or ‘ghar wapasi’ that have become normal these days among friends. Basically well-intentioned, though deeply insensitive, aimed at evoking some innocent laughter, and not hatred or discrimination.
Discrimination and this ‘othering’ of homosexuals is legitimised by the archaic laws that we have. Homosexuality is a crime. Homosexuals are criminals. So, it’s okay to look down upon them. If the Delhi High Court took us closer to being more humane and just toward sexual minorities, the Supreme Court turned the clock brutally back. While it may be argued that it’s more about the mindset of a country’s people than its laws, the problem is that laws breed the mindset of discrimination and hatred. So we must fix the law. But I agree that the bigger battle is with the mindset. And what makes this battle tough is that the ‘homophobia’ has the sanction of all religious, social, cultural institutions.
They all tell us it’s bad, it’s unnatural and un-Indian. Gays came from the big bad west to pollute our serene, natural and heterosexual cultures and traditions. The heads of Homophobics Anonymous have got both their history and their biology wrong. Look at the khajuraho carvings, the Kamasutra, the depictions of the courts of Kings and Nawabs. From Lord Aiyappa to Ardhnareshwar, homosexuality and transgender identities were normal in our great civilisation.As Vikram Seth once said, “It is homophobia that came into India and not homosexuality.”Today, institutions try to regulate human lives in all aspects. So we have the divisions of normal and abnormal. If the majority does it one way, it should be the only way. The rest need to be brought in line or thrown out. We are becoming less and less tolerant towards the ‘other’ way, whether it’s a thought or how you seek love.
The Islamic State is beyond redemption. It cannot be reformed or made more accommodative. It can only be defeated. The Muslims, the Christians, the heterosexual, the homosexuals, all are fighting the demon.
But the so-called civilised world needs to stop discriminating among its citizens solely because they are ‘different’ in their sexual manners. There’s little hope today for any progress on repealing of Article 377 when the Home Minister says he believes that homosexuality is “unnatural”. But the fight is on and it will go on. The upholding of Article 377 pushed India back in time. Maybe it’s time to remind India of its tolerant past to help it overcome its prejudices.
‘Different cultures have derived different morals from Ramayana’
Richman’s 1991 book Many Ramayanas, a much celebrated volume, had to face criticism from Hindu activists for including, what they said, inappropriate interpretations of the holy text. The most controversial part of the book was an essay by historian A K Ramanujam titled Three Hundred Ramayanas, which detailed several interpretations of Ramayana. The essay was dropped from the undergraduate history syllabus of Delhi University in 2011 after protests from Hindu groups and a number of teachers. Paula Richman, William H Danforth professor of South Asian Religions at Oberlin, Ohio, specialises in the study of Ramayana and Tamil. She spoke on Monday at Delhi-based South Asian University in a lecture titled ‘Crossing Boundaries — Narratives And Persons Who Travel’.
In her lecture Richman invoked all kinds of engagements across borders over the ages — involving merchants, indentured labour, the dollar diaspora, students and religious messengers. But, with felicity she spoke on stories travelling across borders over the centuries.
Speaking of the journey of a story or text across borders, she citied how Ramayana has taken “different forms, where stories are not only translated but retold, with each poet retelling it (bringing in) a local context”. She said in Indonesia “Ramayana and Mahabharata are mixed and even the characters from both meet each other”.
She said various cultures have emphasised different aspects of Ramayana and derived different “morals” from it. Richman recalled how a group of artistes from ASEAN countries discovered that the one story they all knew was that of Ramayana, on which they finally performed. It was just song and dance show, emphasising an unorthodox interpretation — what happens after Lord Ram becomes king of Ayodhya and the questions that confronted him on running the kingdom and tackling corruption.
On Jataka tales and Panchatantra stories, which have travelled to several countries and been adopted in various milieus, Richman cited a biography of Buddha, which tells about his yearning to tread the “middle path”, as being something that had also been interpreted by various cultures differently. “Buddhist struggle/dilemma and desire to know have been shared widely and meant different things to different cultures,” she said, emphasising the advantage stories sometimes have over people — of being able to slip across borders.
Richman also talked about different types of migrations and said it something that has been happening worldwide over several centuries. “We think of nations and the world as being bound by fixed boundaries. But, borders have shifted dramatically and even in recent years, the world looked very different, with different boundaries and names for places and parts of the world, and we must accept that it will continue to change.”
She said people from West Asia used to visit India’s coastal areas and they stayed here waiting for favourable winds to guide them home. Often, they settled down in Kerala and were “influential in creating new and specific cultures there,” she said.

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