Why legalising gay sex in India is not a Western idea

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Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community take part in Delhi's Queer Pride Parade from Barakhamba Road to Parliament Street, on November 25, 2018 in New Delhi, IndiaImage source, Getty Images
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India's Supreme Court made gay sex legal in September 2018

The decriminalisation of gay sex was arguably the biggest news story of 2018 in India.

So, it wasn't surprising when it became a hotly debated topic at one of the year-end parties I recently attended in Delhi.

The common consensus was that the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a colonial-era law has pushed the country towards adopting Western ideals of liberalism in India.

"We are on par with countries like the UK, France and other European nations where homosexuality is legal," one of my friends excitedly announced.

"We are now like the West when it comes to our attitudes toward LGBT people."

Similar discussions have been taking place on social media where many agree with this view.

But is it true?

India's historians and mythology experts have differing views.

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Most Indian cities witnessed celebrations after the ruling

Noted historian Harbans Mukhia says one has to know India's history to understand why the British made gay sex illegal.

"The British brought their own rules to India, including the Section 377 which banned homosexuality and made it a criminal act. This law was enforced by them but it didn't conform with India's attitude toward homosexuality. It was more to do with their Christian belief systems," he says.

He adds that the court's decision has taken India back to its roots.

Other experts also believe that India had a more open attitude to homosexuality before the Raj and there is ample evidence of it in medieval history and mythology.

Historian Rana Safvi says "love was celebrated in India in every form".

"Whether ancient or medieval India, fluid sexuality was present in the society. One can see the depictions of homosexuality in the temples of Khajuraho and Mughal chronicles," she says.

The most vivid example of this can be seen in Khajuraho town of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

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The fight to decriminalise gay sex took decades

The temple complex was built between 950 and 1050 by the Chandela dynasty. The erotic sculptures in the temple vividly depict homosexuality. Similar temple art can also be seen in the 13th-Century Sun Temple in Konark in the eastern state of Orissa, and Buddhist monastic caves at Ajanta and Ellora in the western state of Maharashtra.

Mythologist Devdutt Patnaik has often explained the presence and acceptance of homosexuality in Hinduism.

"The term homosexuality and the laws prohibiting 'unnatural' sex were imposed across the world through imperial might. Though they exerted a powerful influence on subsequent attitudes, they were neither universal nor timeless. They were - it must be kept in mind - products of minds that were deeply influenced by the 'sex is sin' stance of the Christian Bible," he writes in an article on his website.

"With typical colonial condescension, European definitions, laws, theories and attitudes totally disregarded how similar sexual activity was perceived in other cultures."

He believes that criminalisation of homosexuality was entirely a foreign concept.

"An overview of temple imagery, sacred narratives and religious scriptures does suggest that homosexual activities - in some form - did exist in ancient India. Though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged but not approved," he writes.

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Khajuraho temples are a popular tourist destination

Prof Mukhia says books and scriptures from medieval times also suggest that homosexuality was not looked down upon.

"There was some disproval for homosexuality but LGBT people were not ostracised. The society was tolerant towards them and nobody was hounded for being a homosexual.

"Alauddin Khalji's son, Mubarak, was known to be in a relationship with one of the noble men in his court," he adds. Khalji ruled the Delhi sultanate between 1296 and 1316.

Babur, who founded the Mughal dynasty which ruled most of what is now India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th Centuries, also wrote about his love for men.

"He wrote, without any sense of embarrassment, that he was in love with a boy named Baburi. There was no disapproval about his writing during his time or even after that," Prof Mukhia adds.

Historians also believe that India's conservative outlook about homosexuality started with the British Raj and became stronger after independence.

Prof Mukhia adds that the Section 377 remained in place event after India's independence in 1947 largely because of "our ignorance of history and politicians' apathy".

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LGBTQ community wants India to become more liberal

Keshav Suri, the owner of a hotel chain and a prominent LGBT rights activist, believes that young people need to be educated about the country's LGBT history.

"I wasn't taught in school about Khajuraho and the presence of LGBT characters in our mythology. That has to change. Transgender people were considered gods and goddesses. They were great poets, artists and even administrators in medieval times," he says.

He adds that young people need to know that we were a much open and tolerant society in the past.

Prof Mukhia agrees.

"In 2018, we recovered what we had lost during colonial times - a more open attitude toward the LGBT community."