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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Whither social progress in India?

By Kaushik Basu
Professor of economics, Cornell University

Gays in India
Indian laws say same sex relationships are "unnatural"
In the heady times that followed India's independence, the country may not have done well economically, but in social and political matters - ranging from unsociability to divorce - it implemented a number of progressive policies and laws.

In some of these matters India was actually ahead of many more industrialised nations.

Our current situation is quite the opposite.

The economy is surging with infusions of foreign capital and rises in productivity, but on the social and political front there is little to report. (I am not counting the spread of jeans and hamburgers and the peppering of speech with "like" as social advance).


Our attire may be modern and cars placed on better shock absorbers but in some fundamental ways the contemporary Indian is more communal and blinkered and more intolerant than our forefathers.

The economy is surging with infusions of foreign capital and rises in productivity, but on the social and political front there is little to report

Jawaharlal Nehru used to talk and write openly about his atheism.

In a letter to Gandhi, he wrote: "It is all very well for the likes of [Tej Bahadur] Sapru and me (a curious combination!) to... bless the movement for temple entry when neither has the remotest desire to go within a hundred miles of a temple, except, so far as I am concerned, to see the architecture and the statuary!"

It is a tribute to the tolerance of the times and, even more, to Gandhi - as devout a believer as there ever was - that this did not get in the way of Nehru's political life or closeness to Gandhi.

It is difficult to think of a person with such views, so openly aired, winning an election today in India.

August being the month of India's birth is a good time to take stock of these larger questions.

Gandhi and Nehru
Gandhi and Nehru: A more tolerant time?

Even as we pursue modernity in economics, it would be good to see some initiative and activism on the part of government in social and institutional matters.

And issues there are by the dozen - child labour, gay rights, stem cell research, caste discrimination, gender discrimination.

There is scope for policy initiative on each of these matters and, since money is not a major factor for some of these, there is no reason why India cannot actually be ahead of richer nations.

With George W Bush at the helm of the US, the bar has anyway been lowered considerably.

Somewhere between 10.25% and 19.90% of all Indian children between the ages of nine and 15 are labourers.

Surely this is unacceptable in a nation that prides itself on its economic progress. I have been doing research on this and hope to write about it in a future column.

Sign of civilisation

Let me here consider another subject on which policy changes are long overdue.

This concerns IPC 377 -that is, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This decrees homosexual love as not just illegal but criminal.

There has been an effort to amend this law so that homosexual love, when it is between consenting adults and conducted in private, is not treated as criminal.

To me such an amendment would be a sign of civilisation.

Classroom in Magadi
Too many young Indian children are labourers

Tolerating behaviour that does not have a negative externality - that is, does not adversely affect a third party - is a key ingredient of a civilised society and such tolerance has a long tradition in India from Buddha to Ramakrishna.

But previous Indian governments have staunchly resisted reading down this law, taking the line that homosexuality is perverse and an import into India from the West.

The truth is different.

There is evidence from ancient Indian writings and carvings on temple walls that same-sex love is not alien to India.

In fact, it is the criminalisation and intolerance of same-sex love that is alien.

What many do not know is that IPC 377 was enacted in colonial India, nearly a century and a half ago by Lord Macaulay.

It is true that this law is seldom used to prosecute but it is used to harass same-sex partners and to inflict on them a sense of unnaturalness and deviation.

Moreover, it is a hindrance in the control of Aids and the spread of HIV, since people are often forced to keep their sexual histories hidden, even from doctors for no other reason but the fear of IPC 377.

Ceremonial occasion

The urge not to feel unnatural is natural enough.

We continued to chat for a while about our "partners"... till my wife came and joined us and I had to come out

I realised this at a gay wedding in New York. It was between an Indian and an American woman.

They could not of course formally get married because New York law does not recognise such marriages but it was a ceremonial occasion.

A young rabbi, with a palpable spiritual presence, presided over the wedding.

At the end of the ceremony, with readings from religious texts from around the world and the poetry of Tagore, he declared the couple "married in the eyes of all", he paused deliberately and added with emphasis, "enlightened human beings".

That evening there was a party where most couples were of the same sex.

A charming young woman asked me what my "partner" did.

I replied: "My partner is a demographer", taking care to omit all pronouns-such is the human urge to be accepted.

We continued to chat for a while about our "partners", with me feeling increasingly hypocritical, till my wife came and joined us and I had to come out.

This debate is now closed. Here is a selection of your comments.

It is strange that the author places so much emphasis on homosexuality as a measure of social progress. Surely, this is not the most important of measures. Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cambodia have no laws against homosexuality ... does that make them more socially progressive than India? Singapore has laws against homosexuality, does that make it less progressive than Vietnam which doesn't?
Deepu Prakash, India

I thought this article might put some light on the burning issues of India like unemployment, poverty etc. But alas all the author is concerned about is elevating the practice of homosexuality with legal sanction. I think that assumption that this would resolve all the problems of India is absurd.
Rajeev, UK

India has been constantly and dangerously transitioning into a very intolerant society with increasing religious and caste related violence. Therefore social intolerance with respect to homosexuality, child labour, human rights violations are nothing but a natural consequence of the narrow mindedness of today's Indian Society. I disagree with the author about economic development, I would say that it is economic empowerment of a small fraction of the population. The majority of India is still extremely poor, with 25% of the population going to bed with barely one meal a day.
Girish Ramesh, Mountain View, USA

It is reliably estimated that in any group of 40 people randomly assembled at any level of Indian society that at least 2 will be gay and 2 will be bisexual. This means statistically that more than 100 million Indians are same sex attracted by nature yet the government and the temple and many levels of society see these Indian citizens as aliens and the intolerance and persecution means that many remain closeted and furtive in their behaviours shielded from necessary information and advice that would ensure that HIV transmission begins to diminish. I am not sure how many decades it is going to take before we get some diminution.
Geoff Heaviside, Australia / India

Why is it so difficult for us to accept these behaviours in society and move on to another topic of immediate concern? Why not put as much effort into stopping child labour and slavery, human trafficking and something as simple as hunger in our own cities and towns. If a person is Gay, it does not mean that he or she is committing a grave sin like killing, or deliberately harming another person, they are causing no direct harm to anyone, it's just a stereotype that we are taught to believe in, that being Gay is taboo.
Shuhma, UK

In a way to prove the homosexuality to be legalised the author has used the poverty and Tagore as shield weapon. It is pretty cheap and shows utter foolishness. By the way author should not consider my opinion as intolerant and unusual. Instead tolerate my opinions and respect the values of civil society.
Bilal, Saudi Arabia

It is a matter of looking at the glass as half empty or half full. And the author is on the wrong end of the scale on this one, I'm afraid. The social problems he mentions do indeed remain, and in some cases are still grave. However, the situation is definitely improving, and has been for a while now. Yes, issues such as same sex marriages are still a taboo in India, but there is a big consensus among the public against allowing such practices. Lest Mr Basu forget, India is a democracy- we choose what freedoms and rights we must have, or must not.
Aruni Mukherjee, India/UK

Kaushik Basu deserves kudos. The euphoria of growth in the technology and call centre industry has allowed the elite and the media in India to sweep under the carpet the unfinished social reform agenda. Unfortunately, the compulsions of a democratic polity has meant that the regime is incapable of taking bold decisions which would upset the dominant castes or minority vote-banks. A new social horror is the genocide of millions of girl foetuses enabled by modern technologies such as ultrasound.

Vasu Anisetti, UK

I am pretty confused about the author's priorities. Why do you see west as an example for each and everything. Does civilisation means the west? Dont we have our own individuality....India is a country with values and traditions. Please preserve it wherever you go. I accept his writings about poverty, child labour and other things but not about same sex marriages. I think same sex marriages are unnatural and I want to know that what the author says if his daughter or son or himself is involved in a same sex marriage.

Chandra, AZ, USA

I definitely agree that there is a need in India today to embrace the progress on a socio-cultural level. More importantly though, it should not ape or become western, it has to be a negotiated stand that is true to the Indian identity. Homosexuality, taken for example, should not be made legal simply because it's the trend... rather because we have never had the stigma that is in place today.
Sabitha, India

I think Nehru's views were tolerated primarily because the polity that put him there was an "enlightened" one. In today's India, I do not think the same holds true. In my opinion, as politics becomes more grass roots, intelligentsia seem to go into hiding and we become mute citizens of another "Bush" country. Joseph
Joseph Viegas, Ottawa, Canada

It makes me sad and ashamed when people ask me about issues such as treatment of untouchables, women rights and poverty in India. Although we are doing far better in the developing world with regards to some of the issues, we certainly need to do lot better. For a civilisation wanting to become the so called " super power" we are simply outrageously backward as a society.
Prasad, UK/India

The unfortunate state of affairs in India has much to do with the attitude of the powers-that-be as well, those responsible for introducing social reforms in the country. The current dispute over the Women's Reservation Bill is a case in sight. The bill that will guarantee women politicians a 33% seats in the Indian Parliament and state legislatures has been blocked. This lack of consensus on such an important issue is indicative of the discrimination women have suffered in every aspect of Indian life; in this case it being politics, a quintessential area of male dominance in Indian society.

Same sex living should be allowed and I agree with tolerance. But for any developing country there are priority of things. Child labour, dowry, caste based reservation and treatments, corruption, starvation & malnutrition, education, basic health all hold higher priorities than gay sex. So I would expect all good writers to focus on issues on top priority then we can take this also.
Arvind, UK

Indian culture is not opposed to homosexuality. Many Indians can have casual homosexual relations without needing "counselling" in the following hour. This form of sexuality is considered "barren" and not sinful. The "gay man" is a recent western social construct, most Indians who enjoy same-sex love are married ,it's behaviour, not a social identity. IPC 377, like other laws regarding intimate behaviour is absolutely useless, and will never discourage anybody who's got the drive, just "don't get caught!"
Karthik, India

Why do you think gay rights to be seen as a part of social reforms? Social reforms are necessary but not at the expense of our cultural values. Only these cultural things identify us as Indians. I accept that we need to change most of our so called traditional rituals and I think we are doing that. But we cannot and must not reform each and every thing just because it is traditional. Make sure that you have something which is really Indian (apart from our colour) while promoting reforms.
Sunil, India

I wonder where the author's priorities are. He has listed child labour before legalising homosexuality but dedicates a single liner to the former and almost half the article to the latter. Having had the experience of living in a developed country (Australia) and India, I personally feel that there is a lot more personal and social freedom in India. India is inherently multicultural but does not debate either for or against it.
Kapali Viswanathan, India

The author seems to be very much biased with regard to what he considers right, wrong and his concept of civilization. The question is: does accepting gay marriages make a nation civilized? Or is at least a step towards civilization? Given that tolerance is essential for the development of India, however, this tolerance should be encouraged and improved in terms of caste, religion and gender. Acceptance of gay marriages will in no way civilize India, rather it will only help in creating an India where people are no longer able to differentiate the right from wrong based on the lame concept of moral subjectivism.
Shareef Ismail, India

This shows that for all of its showings of democracy that India is truly not one. It's ironic that the two largest democracies the United States and India do not recognize homosexuality which has been around since the start of man. Democracy is tolerance and that is something that India should aspire to. Adults should have the right to their own sexual desires they should be given the right of freedom. The world nowadays only cares about economy since 2000 human rights are fading.
sonny chopra, Canada

India is a deeply conservative and yet liberal country. All things are tolerated as long as it's done behind closed doors. It is right that the laws of a country should reflect a country's ethos. India does not have to follow the west in implementing neo liberal laws. And laws can never change social issues, as seen by the prevalence of casteism.
Daniel, India

You can't divorce progressive economic policies from social justice. You can't have a liberalist economic stance, and then be surprised at reactionary social conditions. From America to India, wherever a "hands-off, throw rationality to the winds" attitude is prevalent in economic policies, it seems social progress, standards such as tolerance, rationality, and a focus on the material needs of people, take a back seat.
Majed Akhter, Pakistan

What comes in mind after reading this article is the definition of "civilization" for Indians. Is it necessary to following the WEST to consider us as civilized? Does civilization mean same sex marriage, banning on cigarette smoking in public places -what we have inherited from the west? India is a civilized country with her people, values, traditions, and tolerance. Can we not become unique not following the so-called "civilized" issues that west present to the world? Undoubtedly we need to work on various issues like child labour, removing poverty, building strong health care sector, eradicating caste and class system, banning on dowry etc. I think to talk about same sex marriage is not relevant for our Indian society rather to think about developing basic infrastructure that we need to strengthen for a better India.
Somnath Naha, La Paz, Bolivia (Indian citizen)



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