“Against the Order of Nature”?: Postcolonial State, Section 377 and the Homosexual Subject

Shramana Das Purkayastha, Vijaygarh Jyotish Ray College, Kolkata, India


In the light of the theorisation on identity-formation, the present paper proposes to discuss how the post-colonial Indian nation-state, through its multiple apparatus, becomes complicit in the discursive genesis of heteronorm. Issues of national culture and authentic tradition create in India a special kind of problem that queer-activism needs to grapple with. The focus of my discussion would specifically be on the debates surrounding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. I would like to interrogate how legal discourses appropriate the language of power, stereotyping both non-normative identities as well as the normative definition of Indian alterity, and serve to push the sexual minority into a cultural absence within the state.

Queer studies, as the discipline has evolved over time, have repeatedly raised and debated the question as to what kind of sexual behaviour constitutes the very narrow definition of the heteronorm. The possibility/viability of developing a habit of creative scepticism, necessary for deconstructing existing paradigms and imagining alternative forms of identity based on counter-normative sexual practices, has occupied the centre stage in the recent development of queer critical literature. Anthropologist Gayle Rubin is one of the pioneers of such iconoclasm. Critiquing the forcible marginalisation of non-normative people during the 1980s, she, in her seminal 1984 essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”, emphasises the urgent need to see through the very political construction of sexuality. Rubin asserts: “It is up to all of us to try to prevent more barbarism and to encourage erotic creativity… It is time to recognise the political dimensions of erotic life”. (35, emphasis mine) Related to this is Judith Butler’s concept of gender performance, as elaborated in her influential work Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. At its simplest, Butler’s notion emphasises the centrality of “performance” in maintaining one’s assigned gender role. The stability of the mutually exclusive categories of male and female is insured through repeated iteration of normative performative codes. As Butler comments, “…heterosexuality is compelled to repeat itself in order to establish the illusion of its own uniformity and identity…” (Qtd. Hall, 108)

In the light of this theorisation on the very political and contingent nature of identity-formation, the present paper proposes to discuss how heteronorm is discursively and performatively generated in the Indian post-colonial nation-state. I would like to interrogate the politics of systematic ostracism that is carried out against the Indian queer subject through the post-colonial nation-sate’s various machineries of power. The focus of my discussion would specifically be on Section 377 of Indian Penal Code. The issue gains in topical significance, given the current atmosphere of hostility that reeks of homophobia and belies India’s claim to modernity.

It is pertinent to note at this juncture that the politics of gender stereotyping and of the marginalisation of the sexual deviant in India is marked by particular cultural-national specificities. A blind application of western paradigms to understand the identity politics in India would be misleading. The dominant ideology in India does not always function around a simplistic binary between the heterosexual and homosexual. (Kapur, 237) Therefore the resistance faced by non-normative sexual entities too cannot be explained in terms of homophobia alone. Indian society betrays a discomfort regarding all issues of explicit sexual expression, be it same-sex love or the public display of affection. “Heteronorm” in India does not necessarily refer to male-female mutual attraction. Rather, marital, procreative and domestic sexual activity alone is legitimised. Counter-normative sexual behaviour in India therefore includes homoeroticism as well as all those different kinds of heterosexual love that transgresses the aforementioned categories (Bose, xviii). Any discussion of queer politics in the Indian nation-state, hence, must always take into account this complex network of power that permeates virtually all layers of Indian sexuality…Access Full Text of the Article

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