India’s legalisation of gay sex is India’s success, not the West’s

Western coverage of India's overturning of Section 377 was at best uninformed and at worst insulting

Recently, the Indian Supreme Court made a monumental ruling on the rights of LGBTQ citizens. Since 1861, gay sex has been illegal in the country due to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids ‘unnatural sex acts’ – a piece of legislation modelled on the English Buggery Act of 1533, which was not repealed in the UK until the 19th century. This month, Section 377 was overturned and gay people in India celebrated their right to have consensual sex with partners of the same gender. It is important to note that not only was this result achieved by the dedicated campaigning of pro-LGBTQ groups in India, it also came about with little to no international pressure. Far from the image of a ‘backwards’ India that is so often portrayed in the news, this ruling marked a huge step in modern India’s fight for social equality – a fight that has been going on for decades.

In the days that followed the repeal of Section 377, Western media outlets were flooded with headlines about India’s landmark Supreme Court decision – and (most of them) rightly noted the colonial origins of the homophobic legislation. However, in many papers there was little reference to the years of grassroots activism that led up to this decision, or the significance of the ruling upon other key issues such as the right to privacy and individual autonomy. The coverage failed to bring attention to the years of campaigning by pro-LGBTQ groups such as the Naz Foundation, or the growing levels of support for LGBTQ rights in India, particularly in urban communities.

What’s worse, when they did attempt to discuss the contextual issues that led up to this ruling, they did so in the most obtuse and ignorant way possible. Take the following lines from the New York Times’ coverage of the ruling, for example:

Related  5 Minute Tute: NHS Reform

“Many Indians are extremely socially conservative, going to great lengths to arrange marriages with the right families, of the right castes […] India has a complicated record on gay issues. Its dominant religion, Hinduism, is actually quite permissive of same-sex love.”

As a British Indian reading this article, lines like these make my skin crawl. The reductive tone, the oversimplifications, and the apparent surprise that Hinduism may ‘actually’(!) be progressive, is not only insulting, but downright disgraceful when coming from an acclaimed media outlet that ought to know better.

I am not saying, of course, that India is a beacon of liberal morality with no difficulties left ahead. There are many issues still facing the LGBTQ community, and a lot more work needs to be done. However, over the past decade attitudes have been slowly shifting, thanks to the concerted efforts of liberal Indian activists and organisations. And yet, reading the West’s coverage of this Supreme Court ruling, one would hardly believe this.

Western news outlets on both sides of the political spectrum have shown themselves as inept when it comes to reporting on ‘third world’ issues – or, indeed, any issues arising in countries that possess a vastly differing culture from the UK. When we see India in the news, it is usually followed by a report of increasing violence, poverty, and patriarchal discrimination. Unsurprisingly, this works to alienates India and its apparent ‘third world backwardness’ from the supposedly ‘liberal and tolerant’ West. India’s social, economic and political achievements are rarely discussed by Western media, and when they are, they are often framed in a paternalistic tone that implies the West’s moral superiority in having arrived at a state of social liberalism before its global counterparts.

There is, of course, no mention of the fact that the social conservatism which besets much of the Global South is partially the result of past Western colonialist endeavours that imposed a traditionalist morality onto much of the rest of the world. In the case of Section 377, there is a distinct and unavoidable link to the homophobic and morally reprehensible legislation of its coloniser at the time.

Related  Tabloids must stop using children as a bastion for bigotry

So, when political commentators flippantly suggest that India is finally ‘catching up with the times’ and growing towards the West’s liberal, enlightened state, I laugh. To me, it seems like little more than a dressed-up continuation of Britain’s historic ‘white saviour’ complex, swooping in to save the rest of the world from itself. The West must of course be allies with India in the global fight for social liberation and equality, but it must also remember its own role in creating those conditions it now seeks to condemn. It must educate itself before it speaks on matters that it does not fully understand, and must give credit where credit is due – to the Indian people who have brought about this historic achievement.