Growing up in Bombay (as it then was) in the 1950s and '60s, I was blissfully unaware of Section 377 or indeed of any legal ban on homosexuality. What I was only too conscious of was a near total social and even conversational taboo on the subject. It was never ever mentioned in the otherwise very liberal and tolerant haute bourgeoisie circles in which my parents moved.
I was conscious from an early age, perhaps six, of being sexually and romantically attracted to male schoolfriends, and also to handsome “uncles” in my parents’ circle. But I was a precocious, 15-year-old college student before I discovered homosexuality as a social category, and that through the novels we read and the plays we performed of avant garde American authors like Tennessee Williams, Carson Mccullers, Edward Albee and William Inge.
It was also at the age of 15 that I had my first love affair with an older fellow student. It was wonderfully romantic, carefully concealed and tragically short-lived. That was when I toyed with thoughts of suicide and confided in my mother, to whom I was extremely close. She responded with admirable sympathy and support, without even a momentary attempt to persuade me that I might be mistaken or misguided about my sexuality. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” she asked. “There’s nothing wrong with the way you are. So many successful people are that way inclined.” And she rattled off the names of people in my parents’ social circle and of prominent artists and actors. Even so, she advised not sharing my secret with my father, still less society at large, as “they might not understand”.
My sexuality remained a secret between my mother, myself and a few close friends for another decade, till I was 25. And then it was the sexually liberated and tolerant milieu of 1970s London and Oxford that enabled me to “come out”, though never as openly as in today’s climate. It was my sexuality and the apparent impossibility of fulfilling it in India that determined my decision to stay on in England as a sort of sexual migrant.
Looking back on those fateful and very formative years of my Bombay youth, I can’t honestly say that the legality or otherwise of homosexuality made any difference to my life. Yes, the law in India made one fearful of blackmail by the police or other men with whom one had casual sex. But I never heard of a single prosecution during those years (and still haven’t!). Far more inhibiting was the fear of social exposure and ridicule among Indian circles who predominantly still despised and shunned homosexuality.
It’s become fashionable to refer to Section 377 as a colonial imposition on a previously far more tolerant Indian society. As with so many anti-colonial tropes, that too is unhistorical and deeply flawed. Macaulay, the imperial policy-maker who drafted the Indian Penal Code, including the infamous 377, was reflecting not merely British attitudes to homosexuality but deeply held convictions among both Hindus and Muslims that it was unnatural and immoral and should be illegal.
Hindus called it the Muslim vice; both Hindus and Muslims attributed it to the Parsis, and the Parsis in turn blamed the Muslims.
Far from being lawful in pre-colonial India, homosexuality carried the death penalty under both Sharia and Brahmanical Hindu custom. What made prosecutions virtually unheard of in both pre-and post-377 times, was the near impossibility of proving a crime that remained so secret. The idea that Indian respect for the so-called “Third Gender” of hijras and other transgenders indicates tolerance of homosexuality is particularly laughable. Instead, the very notion of a third gender seems to me a negation of the possibility of same sex attraction within one’s own gender.
Yes, of course, Section 377 should never have been enacted, and it should have been repealed long ago. Why, one might ask, did India’s post-colonial legislators hang on to this alleged colonial imposition long after Britain and the rest of Europe had discarded it? Both the Congress and the BJP governments have shirked the task, fearful of a multi-confessional religious backlash. Even now, it’s the judiciary not the legislature that’s taken the plunge.
At the risk of putting a dampener on the celebratory parties of our liberal glitterati, my hunch is that the demise of 377 will have far less impact on the lives of less privileged and protected gay people than the social and cultural homophobia that remains deeply entrenched. India is still a long way from the kind of gay liberation that has transformed western European attitudes from the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s to those modern and, yes, Western models of social transformation and sexual liberation that we should aspire, instead of harking back to a mythical pre-colonial past.
(Zareer Masani is the son of the late politician Minoo Masani and grandson of the eminent historian Sir Rustom Masani. He spent two decades as a current affairs producer for the BBC and is now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. The Views expressed are personal.)