Vikram Odedra Kolmannskog

"Delhi Queer Pride" 1988  ©Sunil GuptaI got out of bed, showered quickly and put on a white sherwani suit that my cousin had brought from Leicester especially for the occasion. Soon my closest family members were at the front door with the Hindu priest. The priest began making arrangements for the ceremony on the dining room floor. She lit the fire. Andrew and I sat down. Everyone was chanting mantras. May Ganesh remove all obstacles and ensure the auspicious start of this new marriage! I could feel my heart beating and, though slightly anxious about all the smoke on our new, white walls and the fire on our dining room floor, I was mostly excited. It was happening. 

As a gay man living in Norway, I could now get married. Andrew and I had decided that the first part of the wedding, the Hindu ceremony, would be small and intimate. I looked around at the people I loved gathered in our dining room. I was happy. Then I thought about the few family members who did not support the wedding, some of whom had fought in the Indian independence struggle and had also encountered racism when they moved to the UK in the 1960s. They felt no sympathy towards the marginalized community I belonged to now. One of my aunts, a sociology lecturer, had sent me an email two days earlier with “a gentle request not to do anything that could link the family name to this wedding.” 

Refusing to bend to this pressure, I had referred her to a Delhi High Court judgment from 2009. 

In the landmark case Naz Foundation v. Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality. Central to the case was Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine.” The current Indian Penal Code was introduced in 1861 by the British colonial powers pointing to the fact that several such provisions were influenced by Victorian sexual morals. Case law shows that Section 377 particularly affected men who have sex with men and other sexual minorities. While homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967, many former British colonies still have this provision. 

This provision has not been used in Indian courts when dealing with consenting adults for 20 years, but its existence has been symbolically important and helped maintain the country’s rampant homophobia. It has made it easier for police officers and other people to harass, discriminate and seriously infringe upon sexual minorities’ rights, and also made HIV work difficult.

A broad movement of human rights activists, artists, politicians and others have worked for decriminalisation for many years, underlining the colonial origins and unconstitutionality of the law. In 2009, the judges in the Delhi High Court confirmed that Section 377 is imperialist in its origin, form and effect. They referred to the fact that the British imposed such provisions on their colonies, and that it resembled other discriminatory laws from the colonial period based on race and gender. The judges further deemed the provision contrary to the right to dignity, equality, freedom and privacy - fundamental constitutional rights rooted in the Indian independence struggle. In conclusion, they stated that inclusion is the underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, a value with deep roots in Indian society. After the Delhi High Court judgment, Section 377 was to be read in a way that that sex between consenting adults is exempt and permitted. 

This decision is now being challenged in the Supreme Court. 

A few days after the Delhi High Court passed its judgment, Suresh Kumar Kaushal, a Hindu astrologer, filed a petition challenging it. Soon, other conservative Hindus, Muslims and Christians joined in. If there is one thing that can unite the traditional enemies, it is this. The first hearings in the case Suresh Kumar Kaushal v. Naz Foundation were held in February and March 2012, and the judges are expected to decide the case when they reconvene in July. The Indian government was divided in its views when the provision first came up for constitutional testing in the Delhi High Court in 2009. Today, the government stands united, the attorney general requesting the Supreme Court to uphold the Delhi decriminalisation.

Indian authors and artists – several of whom participated in the decriminalisation movement – have sought to highlight the inclusive tradition that the Delhi judges referred to. In the book Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (2000), Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai show how sexuality outside the heterosexual norm has not just been discussed critically but also celebrated from the earliest times. The book has now been introduced as evidence before the Supreme Court. 

Vanita and Kidwai show how the ancient Indian book about Hindu legal code, Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), penalizes homosexuality, but only very mildly. Sex between non-virgin women incurs a very small fine, while a high-caste man who has intercourse with another man "shall bathe, dressed in his clothes." There is no mention of punishment for homosexual behavior between males of other castes. The authors also present several stories from Hindu mythology in which gods and goddesses often have fluid genders and sexual relations. In one story, Shiva asks Krishna to take on the female form Mohini. Ayyappa, the child resulting of their union, never marries, but has a close male companion, the Muslim man Vavar. According to another story, Bhagiratha was born of two queens. Meanwhile, Bahuchara Mata commands her male devotees to dress and act like women and is celebrated by hijras; this group of people of the third nature, tritiya-prakriti, are not regarded as entirely male or female and are mentioned in several Hindu texts, including the Kama Sutra (Book of Desire). 

Same-Sex Love in India also discusses the homoerotic tradition in Indian Muslim literature. “I am desolate and intoxicated because of these pure Hindu boys. Tied up in their locks, Khusro is like a dog with a collar,” writes Amir Khusro, a 13th century court poet and musician who helped develop the Indian ghazal form of poetry and is regarded as the father of qawwali, the Sufi devotional music. Mir Taqi “Mir,” a leading poet of the 18th century who is remembered as Khuda-e-sukhan (god of poetry) and celebrated for giving shape to the Urdu language, compares the young men of Delhi to angels: “The fairy-faced boys of Delhi are far ahead of them.” Vanita and Kidwai also illustrate how parts of the history of Muslim India can be read as a story about young men who share beds with monarchs for political power.

Several people, including the petitioners in the Supreme Court case and some of my own family members, still believe that homosexuality is incompatible with Indian tradition. The Indian decriminalisation movement and the Delhi High Court judgment highlight another tradition and interpretation: Homosexuality is also Indian. 

Commentators have wondered whether the High Court judgment applies only to Delhi and does not bind other states. However, the judgement was celebrated all over India. There have been Gay Prides from Chennai to Delhi. Several same-sex couples have been married since the wording of Hindu marriage law is gender-neutral. We have also seen a significant increase in books and films dealing with the topic, including Onir’s I Am, which won prizes for Best Film and Best Lyrics in the National Awards this year. 

The judgment has had repercussions in other countries as well. Currently, participants in the Indian decriminalisation movement are sharing their experiences with activists in Kenya and other former colonies with similar laws. The judgement is also significant for the Indian diaspora. The UK Hindu Council commented on the judgment and clarified that “Hinduism does not condemn homosexuality.”

The sound of the fire brought me back to the room where the family name was being linked to a gay, Indian wedding. Andrew’s hand rested in my hand as we poured seeds, ghee and other offerings into the transformative fire. 

Being gay makes me no less Indian. Being openly gay is also satyagraha, an expression and exercise in courage and truth. 

Vikram Odedra Kolmannskog has a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary background. His mother is East African Indian and his father is Norwegian. He is a human rights lawyer and has two LLMs (London School of Economics and University of Oslo). He has BA in History of Ideas and Spanish Language and Literature from the University of Oslo he is a psychotherapist in training at the Norwegian Gestalt Institute. He has lectured and written extensively both as a scholar, journalist and author of poetry and fiction. He currently lives in Oslo with his husband, Andrew.

The image, "Delhi Queer Pride" courtesy of Sunil Gupta. Gupta is a photographer, artist, educator and curator based in London and New Delhi. Born in New Delhi and educated at the Royal College of Art, he has been involved with a independent photography as a critical practice for many years. His latest solo show, "Sun City and other stories" is at the Alliance Francaise Gallery, New Delhi 2012 and his last book, "Queer" was published by Prestel/Vadehra Art Gallery in 2011. His work has been seen in many important group shows including "Paris, Bombay, Delhi..." at the Pompidou Centre, Paris 2011. He is Visiting Faculty at NID, Ahmedabad. His work is many public collections including; George Eastman House (Rochester, USA), Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tate Britain and Harvard University.