In her debut column for OutNewsGlobal, our brand new Indian correspondent looks at how homosexuality and other examples of sexual diversity came to be seen as taboo in India. Much blame has justifiably been laid at the door of the British colonial Penal Code, but other influences must also bear some responsibility.

In this brilliantly researched and fascinating piece, Shailaja Padindala takes us through the sexual history of India from ancient times to the present day and looks at what the future might hold.

Before Section 377.

It’s hard to believe that in the land of Kamasutra and Khajuraho (circa 400 BCE-900 BCE) where sexual diversities once flourished, queerness and sexual diversity are taboo now! 

To get a sense of the presence of queer culture in ancient India, it is important to understand that the geography of Asia, its climate and socio-political conditions were largely different in 10,500 BCE from what it is now. 10,500 BCE is the period that modern science demarcates as the period when global civilisations emerged. 

We have been made to believe for a long time now that Harappa was the cradle of civilisation of the Indus Valley or what is now called India. However, recent archeological findings by British journalist Graham Hancock have unfolded evidences of a lost civilisation beneath the sea off Mahabalipuram in southern India. Evidences found of manmade structures submerged in the ocean show that this civilisation was advanced in science and architecture. The carbon dating going way back to 10,500 BCE of these manmade structures in the sea of south India have opened doorways to a possibility that this civilisation could be the origin from where the architectural science behind the pyramids of the Egyptians, the Mayans and the Cambodians emerged. The poetries of Tamil from the Sangam era literature dating back to 4500 years, specify that the Tamils had an ancient culture that existed much before the “Aryan” migration into the subcontinent, which saw a regressive shift in the fortunes of the native population (that we will be discussing further below). The festival of Koovagam that is celebrated in Tamil Nadu even today when hundreds of Trans people gather in a ritualistic mode is evidence that the Tamizhs had a sis-free, queer-inclusive, and women-progressive culture from very ancient times. But why and how did such an advanced civilisation collapse? How did being queer become illegal and taboo in this very region? This article attempts to unfold a chain of events that led to the emergence of a regressive cultural shift that bound queerness and sexual diversity as taboo in the India of today.

The emergence of Section 377.

In order to understand the deteriorating nature of sexual freedom in India, it is important to understand how oppression of sexuality and gender expression came into being. Section 377 was introduced into the criminal procedure code in the year 1862 by the East India Company. This section doesn’t mention anything about the queer. It states that “Any sexual activities against order of nature” is a punishable act. Queer individuals came to be included under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code much later. This also meant that the members of the LGBTQI+ did not have the right to avail any legal redress in case of hateful acts against them

It cannot be totally agreed that India would not have had Section 377 or something similar had we not been ruled by the British. India had already been in the clutches of various other eastern and western influences perpetuated by political and religious power games even before the East India Company had set foot in the subcontinent. India had been struggling with an issue so complexly stubborn and very well perpetuated from 3000 BCE, the ‘Caste System’. Under its influence, despite India gaining independence in 1947, Section 377 remained for a long time, and in spite of it being decriminalised in 2018, the caste system perpetuated for thousands of years through a heteronormative/Cis culture, makes queerness a taboo to this day.

Cis culture and the caste system.

The Travancore Kingdom imposed a tax on breast coverings.

Hinduism is the largest religion in India, and the caste system is practiced by the economically secure communities of Hinduism. Caste system is a derivative of the ancient Indian ‘Varna’ system which categorises communities based on their occupation which they inherit from their ancestors, and this defines their economic status.

The different castes that emerged from the ‘Varna’ system are the Brahmins, the community of priests and teachers who occupy the highest place in the caste hierarchy; the Kshatriyas, the community of rulers and warriors who are placed below the priests; the Vaishyas, the community of traders and businessmen who come third in the pecking order; and the Shudras, the community destined to serve the upper castes. They were actually the working class—people who tilled the land, produced food grains, vegetables, etc., and all kinds of artisans. Then there were people outside the fold of the caste system—the ‘untouchables’, whose very site was said to pollute the upper caste—the adivasis, tribal people, and a host of others who performed menial tasks. 

Centuries of caste hegemony had curbed basic human rights, and equity—in education, job opportunities, wealth distribution, etc.—pushing a majority of the population of the subcontinent into poverty and undignified lives in the long run. In such a scenario, the survival struggle that a queer person from an oppressed caste would have to go through would be far more violent than a person of similar stature from a privileged caste or class. 

It is assumed that the teachings of a mythical Brahmin sage called Manu were compiled into a text called ‘Manusmriti’, which was documented in Sanskrit, the language then used as the court language. It was also the language in which the male children of the Brahmins were educated; and being the language of learning it had a natural superiority over other Indian indigenous languages. The indigenous tribes and women of all castes were not allowed to learn Sanskrit or avail education, thereby constructing a strong class divide. Manusmriti, is in fact a code of conduct that dictates how the “superior” human must live, and it was taught only to the “upper caste”. 

The strangest part is that all castes and classes of Hinduism that are placed below the Brahmins in the caste hierarchy have diverse spiritual beliefs and eating habits. But the pressure of economical and caste status drove all other castes to mimic values of an assumed “superior” caste and the teachings of Manusmriti. But what could be the goal of such thoroughly manifested propaganda?

The wealth that the privileged communities acquired by curbing the basic rights of the oppressed communities gave the oppressor communities economic power over the centuries. The oppressed castes were not only restricted from education, or learning, but were also subjected to active and passive forms of violence in an attempt to break their dignity and existence. One such system was the breast tax”. In this system, women and girls of the Shudra and lower castes were not allowed to cover their breast, or were taxed. The only women who were allowed to cover their breast were from the privileged and aristocratic class/oppressive castes. 

Likewise, the bodies of women from the privileged castes were humiliated and controlled passively. One such system practiced was to diminish the existence of upper caste widows. In this system, when women from the privileged caste loses her husband, her head was shaven, and she had to dress in a certain way, and was subjected to a lifestyle where she was supposed to have no desires, as a gesture of declaring to the society of her sexual unavailability. But if women were used as child bearing entities then why was a youthful widow never allowed to remarry? We must understand that the caste hegemony not only brought women down to be only a child bearing commodity , but also placed women as financial assets who bring dowry into a caste. If the widow from an “upper caste” remarries another man from another caste then the wealth of her community is lost to a different community through the man she remarries to. But if the widow is married within the same caste but to a different man, then the opportunity of acquiring wealth that a bride can bring from her parent’s house, is lost. Thus the upper caste widows neither were ALLOWED to remarry or have a life of their desire like the women from the oppressed caste who were not allowed to cover their breast or have an opinion of consent which further gave raise to innumerable brutalities”.

The class and caste hierarchy nurtures male hegemony and a dominant cis culture, such that women of all castes and economical classes are controlled by men through capitalising their labour and bodies through monogamous marriage systems. The propagation of male hegemony within the caste system is aimed at acquiring more private wealth through the monogamous marriage systems.We can get a sense of male domination in the Indian society by observing how often a male-to-female trans-person have the privilege of coming out in the open, than a female-to-male trans-person who is at a greater risk of being abused on coming out.

Social reformers who profoundly worked against the repressive Manusmriti and caste hierarchy were Dr. BR Ambedkar from Maharashtra and Thanthai Periyar from Tamil Nadu. They not only fought for India’s freedom, but also for freedom from caste oppression post-independence. Ambedkar called out the oppressive nature of Manusmriti that was believed to be a sacred text of Hinduism, but in reality perpetrated caste violence, poverty and hegemony of the upper caste for thousands of years. Ever since, “Manusmriti Dahan Din” is celebrated on 25th December by burning Manusmriti in order to eradicate caste and usher in the long-awaited secularism and equity.

The quota system that favoured certain castes existed during the period of the East India Company. The reservation system brought in by Dr. Ambedkar post-independence, favours the economically backward tribes to avail opportunities in education and jobs that were snatched away from their ancestors through the caste system. Though reservation has provided the oppressed communities a few opportunities, equity in job opportunities and wealth distribution is still to gain the required momentum, as most job opportunities are availed based on networking and caste privileges that still keep the oppressed out. 

Despite 72 years of struggle post-independence, and a struggle for centuries before that, the caste system still survives strongly in India that is now attempting to becoming a “Hindu Rashtra”, a sign of threat to secularism, economic growth and security of dissent. But how did caste manage to stay so strong for thousands of years?

Caste marriages.

Caste and male hegemony could only be perpetuated for thousands of years through the strong tool of the caste system: Heteronormative-caste marriages. Caste marriages follow the thumb rule of monogamously being married to a member within the same community or family or clan. Caste marriages include breeding among individuals of the same caste, prioritiSing a mate of lighter skin colour to keep intact race and caste “pedigree”. This helps hegemony of that race grow stronger by differentiating between castes through the skin color, and accumulated private wealth. 

Most wealth is made and transacted in caste marriages through a system called ‘dowry system’, a practice in which the bride’s parents must meet the demand for wealth or money raised by the groom and his family. This works in favour of the men of most communities. Through the dowry system, the wealthier communities’ transact large property in various forms along with giving the bride away as a property to the groom’s family. Among the economically backward communities, the bride and her labour is transferred to the groom’s family as there is no wealth to be given away. Among all classes, the system of marriage sacrifices its women and their labour. The dowry system as it is practiced in India for many centuries has created an economic inequity, leading to poverty. 

Education was made available to only the Brahmin men, and that led to the social status of women of all classes being curbed, and their right of consent withering away in the longer run. Social reformer Savitribai Phule worked towards the right to education for women. Post-independence, in 1948, the first Indian school for women was established. This opened channels for an ongoing process that saw women beginning to get educated, acquiring jobs and becoming aware of their rights, and thereby gaining greater social status. The legal protection against marital violence is still an ongoing and lucid process despite such acts being considered criminal. Savitribai Phule’s extensive work that helped many women and the oppressed communities gain financial independence, and brought about a large economic and cultural shift despite the prevailing male hegemony, remains one of the most remarkable events in the history women’s emancipation in modern India.

In Section 498-A IPC promulgated in 1961, it is stated that giving or taking any form of dowry is a non-bailable offence. Likewise, discriminative actions based on colour, religion, race that disrupt harmony between communities were criminalised under Section 153-A. However, caste and dowry systems are still alive and being practiced even today. Now, this connects the dots as to why freedom of love, sexual diversity and queerness are a threat to private wealth. In fact, marriage or love affairs between a heterosexual couple of inter-caste or Inter-religion is a challenge to the society. Though Section 377 was recently decriminalised, being rid of queer taboo or breaking away from the system of hegemony, is yet to gain momentum. 

Now, what we understand is that caste, race and women’s’ sexuality are controlled to keep one thing intact: the State’s private property. But if the agenda was to make property into a private commodity, why could it not be privatised without making the system dominant of male hegemony? We must understand that if civilisations and sciences were to flourish, people must understand the importance of harmony and co-existence at some point. In fact, many evidences from recent research by scholars state that civilisations could only begin with its wealth being equally shared without hegemony or privatisation, pointing to the fact that there was no male hegemony in a state where wealth is public. Humans had to live together, for their enemies thousands of years ago were not each other, but the might of an unpredictable nature and its climate. But what changed that for humans to begin hating privatising property that is supposed to be shared equally? Was it the greed of man for more, or was it the fear of hunger, or was it both?

Language superiority.

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the civilisation that had remained submerged beneath the Arabian Sea in south India was the civilisation of Mahabalipuram. Evidences such as shown in the documentary Underworld- Flooded Kingdoms by Graham Hancock states that the carbon dating of the submerged manmade structures in the sea off Mahabalipuram dates back to a period much before the Harappans, the Egyptians or the Mayans. Graham Hancock’s research about the origins of the architecture and astronomy that the Egyptians, Mayans, and Cambodians had practiced showed that its root source was the civilisation of Mahabalipuram. The archeological trail of these constructions in these early civilisations brought Hancock to Mahabalipuram. Underwater research unveiled an architectural wonder of perfectly-made structures whose carbon dating showed they were from the 12,000 BCE period, trumpeting evidence that the civilisation of Mahabalipuram was much older than that of Harappa or Egypt, and was probably the first civilisation to emerge. This could also mean that Tamil was the first and the oldest surviving language.

There are evidences of Tamil being spoken in many parts of Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka apart from Tamil Nadu in India, and this opens new doorways to rewriting history. The artefacts and other evidences found in Mahabalipuram suggest that the sciences, astronomy and architecture know to the Tamils in that period were much advanced in nature compared to other known civilisations. The famous practice of koovagam, a festival celebrated by trans people in Tamil Nadu, clearly hints at a Cis-free society, having no class hierarchies, and which fairly shared the public wealth. Then how did such a flourishing civilisation collapse?

According to the book The Early Indians by a senior South Indian journalist, Tony Joseph, people from Eurasian Steppes who are also called by the term “Aryans”, had travelled to and settled in India thousands of years ago.  Professor emeritus of Indology and South Asian Studies at the University of Helsinkihas long considered it ‘impossible’ that ‘the Vedic Aryans were indigenous to South Asia.

It is said that the skin of the Eurasians was lighter in colour than the indigenous Indians who spoke Tamizh. When we observe the desperate struggle by Hindi enthusiasts to gain superiority over other Indian languages, we can understand that the Eurasians of this era have mastered the fact that to acquire wealth of foreign regions through invasion, it is necessary to instill the superiority of their culture through their language. The Eurasians had gained foothold and then superiority through their language Sanskrit, an ancient form of Hindi that was made accessible only to the Eurasians clans circa 3000 BCE. Thus in caste system, to maintain their hegemony, education was made the right of only the privileged caste.

An excerpt from the book Indians: A brief history of Civilisation by Namit Arora, mentions that “A host of Hindu nationalists and ‘motivated scholars’ (almost entirely brown or white Hindu men) began championing an alternative view of the Aryan migration, arguing that there was no Aryan migration at all! That the Aryans and the Harappans were one people, both ‘fully indigenous’. They claimed that the proto-Indo-European language family, of which Sanskrit is a part, was created by these indigenous folks and taken to the west—the Out of India Theory (OIT). This also implied that the Harappans spoke proto-Sanskrit and codified it in their as-yet-undeciphered script, that they composed the Rig Veda, which describes their own fortified cities like Dholavira. Suchbogus ‘scholarship’, as is now amply clear, has fed hordes of middlebrow Hindutva ideologues since the 1980s. Armed with little knowledge and misplaced pride, well-heeled urban Hindus began to confidently assert that the Aryan Migration Theory was ‘discredited’. Countless websites carry this fake news” 

The most famous representation of a Hindu Aryan god “Vishnu” stamping the brown-skinned tribal king Mahabali into the earth was a part of caste and race propaganda. Surprisingly, while some communities of Hinduism celebrate the fall of King Mahabali, Kerala, a southern state of India, celebrates the very king’s return as a state festival called “Onam”.  It is said that King Mahabali, also called Maveli, was the most efficient ruler in history; he was from Mahabalipuram, and during his time, women equally participated in administration of public wealth and medicinal sciences in order to maintain healthy harmony. From Indian mythical folk stories, we can deduce that King Mahabali was so efficient and just that the gods were jealous, and they plotted against him and destroyed him through treachery.  An Internationally acclaimed Indian scholar, Suraj Yengde is working towards identifying parallels of Indian caste system to apartheid and the present issues of racism. 

After the East Indian company left the Indian shores, the power of Sanskrit was taken over by the English language. As Indians of the privileged castes had a greater network and resources to communicate with the British during the colonial government, most wealth of the indigenous Indians that was under the control of the British was later left at the mercy of the Indian ‘upper caste’ post-independence. 

Despite 21 indigenous languages with their own script, Hindi which is an extension of Sanskrit, a Eurasian language, was declared the official language after independence along with English. Irony is that while most northern states of India embrace Hindi as a common language, a large part of south Indian population do not understand Hindi, and practice their respective regional languages which are derived from the mother language Tamil. In fact, Tamil is the only and the first language to introduce the term ‘Thirunangai’ which is a dignified reference to trans-people, expressing inclusion of queer expression in its language and its culture. 

The peak of the queer rights movement.

Section 377 gives no right to a queer person to avail the security of law in case of violence against them. Many queer members have lost their lives through suicide and murder. The awareness created about constitutional right to dignity that Dr. Ambedkar redesigned against caste and women oppression, brought many queer people and minorities to understand and protest for their rights. After decades of struggle and protests post-independence, section 377 was decriminalised in the year 2008, bringing hope of secure self-expression for the queer, but was criminalised once again in 2013 by the Supreme Court order. A large section of the media expressed solidarity with the LGBTQI communities which observed it as a black day. Later, Section 377 was decriminalised once again in 2018. Decriminalisation secures the LGBTQI community’s right to avail legal support against injustice or violence in this regard. However, the taboo and violence over LGBTQI+ is still prevalent in most parts of rural India while queer marriages are yet to be legally recognised.

Looking to the future.

While many Hindi films such as (Girlfriend (2004), Dostana(2008) etc. from Bollywood depict the queer community in a regressive manner, South Indian films such as Super Deluxe (Tamil 2019), Sancharam (Malayalam 2004), Naanu Avanalla Avalu (Kannada 2016) and many more have taken a remarkable leap in bringing trans and queer visibility to cinema and the public, with a sensitised approach.

The only way India can become a queer-culture inclusive / non-heteronormative nation is by being free of caste and class differences.

The dire need for awareness and agitation against oppression and injustice has been peaking since 2014 for various socio-political reasons. The silver lining is that the southern states of India, independent of centre in their culture and language, have made new amendments and reservations to include queer members in government jobs and secure them the right to dignified lives. In 2018, queer studies have been included in Tamil syllabus of Madurai University.On 22 April 2019, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court passed a verdict to ban sex-selective surgeries on intersex infants. In 2019, Kerala state adapted “Transgender Persons Protection Act”, which bans discrimination against transgendered persons at work, educational and service spaces. 

Now when we look back at the times when property was shared harmoniously among the public of India prominently with decisions made by women over 12,000 years ago, the Propaganda of caste system from 3,000 BCE explains itself of its motive to acquiring wealth into control of men by privatising it. Innumerable lives of the oppressed, including queer was sacrificed in these power games, but yet there is no going back! The Indian queer community is hell bent on earning its keep and marking its existence! Queer citizens of India not only protest for queer rights but have worked towards the betterment of many other oppressed communities, fields of sciences, arts, etc., and have become a vital and an integral part of Indian culture. India was built by the virtues of co-existence and secularism, and it shall prevail through every oppressed community, come what may!

The fact and hope is that lifestyle and culture have always evolved alongside the evolution of science and technology through civilisations…and shall continue to do so.


How we reported on Shailaja becoming the first ever Indian correspondent for a UK-based LGBTQ+ magazine.

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