Onni Gust with Radhika Govindrajan

Elections in India are drawing to a close with results pending.  Amongst the 814 million eligible to vote are 28 000 gender non-conforming people, many of whom are hijra, who can now register as “third gender.” The competition for seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, is primarily between two contenders. The Congress Party is led by the current prime minister Manmohan Singh, with Rahul Gandhi, and the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party has Narendra Modi at its head.

“The Cow with 84 Deities”, c. 1912, Ravi Varma Press. (Image Source)

Although not central to the election campaigns of either of the two main parties, gender and sexuality has had an important role in recent public debates. The horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi last year sparked discussions about the threat posed by men to women in rural and urban India, gender-based violence and attitudes towards female sexuality. The re-criminalization of homosexuality and the classification of hijras and other gender non-conforming people as “transgender” or “third gender” has raised awareness of minority genders and sexualities. Issues of gender and sexuality in India are wide-ranging and complex, but are often united by their discursive framing around a dichotomy of “tradition” versus “modernity.” Which practices, identities and attitudes count as “authentically Indian” and which can be dismissed as “corrupt,” “Western” imports?

That dichotomy of the “traditional” versus the “modern” is nowhere more evident than on the bumper stickers brought out by a pro-BJP youth group, the Namocars, which asks, “Kisey Chunenge? Gau Rakhsa Ya Gay Rakhsa?” – “Who will you choose? Cow Protection or Gay Protection.” The choice to be made, it suggests, is between “traditional” Hindu values and the “modern” and implicitly “un-Indian” phenomenon of homosexuality and gay identity. To understand the irony of this, we need to look to the late nineteenth century, when homosexuality was criminalized in the British Empire and cow protection institutionalized.

The same period that witnessed the criminalization and pathologization of homosexuality also saw the projection of the sacred cow as an emotive symbol of Hindu community. After the publication of Dayanand Saraswati’s Gokarunanidhi in 1881, cow-protection organizations sprung up across Northern India. These organizations incited riots and violence against those seen as threats to the “Hindu” nation embodied in the cow, targetting Muslims and dalit (formerly “untouchable” Hindus). The Cow Protection movement relied upon a strongly gendered imagery, in which the cow represented the mother of the Hindu nation, sometimes a ferocious goddess and other times a nurturing, maternal figure.  Her protection fell to a nation imagined as male, hyper-masculine, heterosexual and Hindu. In the highly gendered, religious nationalism of the 1880s, which has influenced contemporary Hindu nationalism, there was little room for alternative genders and sexualities.

Far from tradition versus modernity, it is, in fact, at this moment at the height of British imperial power in India and emerging contested visions of the nation that both “cow protection” and what we could perhaps call “gay identity” have their genesis.

Further Reading:

Charu Gupta, “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: “Bharat Mata”, “Matri Bhasha” and “Gau Mata,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol 36, No.45 (Nov 10-16, 2001), 4291-4299.

Onni Gust is Mellon post-doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, researching and teaching on early-nineteenth century gender formation in the context of European imperial expansion, particularly in India. Onni teaches European Imperial History and Gender and Sexuality Studies, works with LGBT youth and takes part in queer anti-racist and trans activism in the UK and USA.

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