Such unhinged animus is surprising anywhere in the modern world. The intertwined, unstoppable drives for sex and romantic love are as vital to human existence as food, water and oxygen -surely societies should have long figured out how to treat these matters rationally? If anything, the animus is particularly surprising in India. Most Indians have a live-and-let-live attitude to intimate matters -what Sudhir Kakar calls “benign neglect“-a world apart from the angry moralizing that mars the polarized US, for instance. Nor is there any history in pre-colonial India of systematic persecution vis-à-vis sexuality or gender variance. And after the churning brought on by decades of democracy and economic change, Indian society should have emancipated attitudes to love and sex.
A primary reason for the stasis is that Indian women have not benefited proportionately from the changes that have swept India. This is why men can still deny them anything approaching autonomy or liberation in this vital aspect of their lives. The oppression is at its worst in the many lawless areas where males enjoy the license to terrorize women, including, shamefully , once safe cities like Mumbai.
Moreover, the traditional Indian quality of “benign neglect“ has been battered by the inherited legacy of Victorian-British paranoia about sexuality. Those abusive laws and archaic notions -particularly IPC Section 377 (criminalizing same-sex relations), and the plethora of anti-prostitution, anti-`eunuch’ and public nuisance laws that sanction the persecution of women and transwomen who sell sex -have been energized by the Sangh Parivar‘s constituents, who, ironically , promote these with even more self-righteous fervor than `Macaulay’s Children’ ever did. They have been enforced to devastating impact wherever the Parivar is powerful.(Arun Jaitley’s comment that India must do away with Section 377 shows him and a few other rational voices to be lonely figures amidst the bigotry that characterizes the Parivar on innumerable matters.)
Fanning the bigotry worldwide is a bizarre alliance of US groups -led by far-right Christian sects that prospered under Bush junior -bent on forcibly exporting conservative notions about sexual and reproductive matters. In Africa, these groups have stoked an unprecedented storm of violence against gays, sex workers and independent women. In India, their efforts to promote homophobia have not made headway .
But the drive against sex work -powered by a Bush-era law that cuts off aid to groups that advocate sex workers’ rights, and with the ill-informed backing of Gloria Steinem and columnist Nick Kristof (who insist that Indian sex workers are uniformly the victims of exploitation, despite data establishing the contrary) -has led to an onslaught of arrests of hapless women under supposedly “anti-trafficking“ efforts. Not for the first time has an imperial crusade wreaked incalculable harm.
If all these forces have not made India an irredeemably benighted place, it is because democracy is vitally alive and kicking on the streets. In response to the depredations of the AIDS epidemic, women sex workers have banded together to fight for their rights, demanding to be decriminalized and to be recognized as workers. In parallel, gay men and women and transwomen have emerged across the country to demand an end to their criminalized status and to win equal rights.
Innumerable thoughtful Indians of every age have embraced all these just demands. Add to this the indisputable fact that young Indians want freedom of every kind, from the prosaic to the profound -whether it is the freedom to dress sexily, to watch porn, to have full sexual lives, to marry whomever they want -and there is reason for hope. Perhaps not so far from today the forces of oppression will have been defeated and India will no longer treat unfairly the personal choices of adults about desire and love.
The writer is the author of of No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex