LGBT History in India: A Colonial Legacy 

Written by Sophie Whitehead

We often see history as a march towards progress – towards modernity, towards a more liberal society, recognisable in the present day. This teleological rendering of history is constantly criticised, as it often leads to the neglect, or brushing over of history’s greatest anachronism – nowhere is this truer than in the LGBT history of India. Many conservatives within India see the LGBT community as being “un-Indian” and argue that gender diversity and same-sex relationships did not exist prior to British colonial rule – however this telling of the history of the LGBT community within India, is completely in conflict with the sources. According to historian Chelsea Peer, homosexual relationships are highly under-researched in South Asia, as compared to the rest of the continent. Peer argues that the reason for this gap in research comes from the fact that many texts are “either ignored or interpreted as heterosexual by South Asian scholars.” That said, there is a range of scholarship, catalysed by the seminal work from Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature, published in 2001, which comprehensively anthologises texts on same sex love over the past 2000 years of Indian literature, using texts from multiple religions as well as texts written in multiple languages. This reassessment of the source material has led to a broader reassessment of what it meant to be a member of the LGBT community in precolonial India.  

According to a report from the Human Rights Watch, “more than half of the world’s remaining ‘sodomy’ laws – criminalising consensual homosexual conduct are relics of British colonial rule.” This is also the case in India – where, up until September 2018, homosexuality was illegal under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, one of the many “relics of British colonial rule”. Under Section 377 – 

“Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment… for a term which may be extended to 10 years and shall be liable to a fine.” 

This legislation passed was intended as part of a “civilising” reform mission in which the British superimposed Victorian concepts of sexual morality on India. It has been argued that they brought in legislation because the Raj felt that “‘native’ cultures did not punish ‘perverse’ sex enough”. The perceived necessity of the legislation by the British Raj is clearly in conflict with the history told by conservatives who argue that same-sex relationships did not exist prior to colonial rule – clearly for there to be legislation passed there must have been a presence of same sex relationships within India at the time.  

Despite the existence of same sex relationships within India at the time there was no specific term of ‘queer’ or gay or lesbian, in Indian languages. However, terms such as sakhi, kothi, panthi and masti have been identified as equivalents for non-heterosexual love and intimacy. The issue to do with terminology is clearly an explanation for the lack of scholarship about same sex relationships – this issue is particularly prevalent in India, due to regional languages. The concepts of modern gender binaries and sexuality, appear to not be prevalent within Indian society prior to colonial rule, as is evidenced through the Hindu scripture, which has a very fluid view on gender. It is therefore understandable that the texts are often misinterpreted, and that the history of same-sex relationships has often been written out of the historical canon. Despite same sex-relationships being heterosexualised in literature, one place that this is impossible is through art – erotic carvings depicting same-sex couples can be found in many Hindu temples dating back to the fourth century. It appears that same sex relationships were accepted in many forms in India, with couples exchanging vows to create kinship.  

Lesbianism, according to Peer, was common among wealthy women, however as with the concept of gender, the indigenous concept of lesbian relationships was different to that of the present. Perhaps more comparable to the concept of paiderastia in ancient Greek, many wealthy Indian daughters had female companions from poorer families, who were known as sakhi. According to Vijay this version of lesbianism “was not viewed as just a sexual activity between women but more as a spiritual form of intimacy that could carry partners to higher states of consciousness.” The relationships with a sakhi were seen to “reinforce the femininity of both women” with kissing being seen as being associated with the moon governing menstruation – and as such evocative of femininity. Since the implementation of Section 377 however, there has been a broad change in attitude towards same-sex female relationships, particularly relating to arranged marriages – which account for 93% of marriages in India – according to a 2018 survey. There are accounts of women being raped by husbands or fathers or brothers to convert them.  

As has previously been mentioned, the concept of gender in Indian and particularly Hindu tradition is very different from tradition in the West and Christianity. Within Hindu scripture, Sri Bhagavata-Devi is the celebrated goddess of crossdressing. This is not just reflected in scripture – it is also visible through the hijra communities. The term hijras has been suggested to have derived from the Urdu word ezra meaning a ‘nomad’ or ‘wanderer’, but the term now means individuals who were born male who live as either female or as the third gender. The hijras could undergo castration and penectomy, conferring upon them a higher status within the community. Unsurprisingly, they were considered a “distasteful nuisance” by the British colonisers: under section 377, hijras could prosecuted on the basis of their existence. Special rules were brought in to try to address the ‘hijra problem’, included the Criminal Tribes Act (1871). Within this act they listed eunuchs (the British attempted translation of the term hijra as a “criminal tribe”, because they were supposedly prone to “sodomy”. Unlike homosexuality, legislation concerning hijras appears more easily reversible, the 1871 law was revoked in 1952 after India’s independence and in 2014 the Indian supreme court created ‘third-gender’ status for hijras – making India one of the first countries in the world to recognise transgender individuals.  

The impact of colonialism is prevalent in so many aspects of life in India, and – as proven by the criminalisation of homosexuality in India – is still being unpicked in the present day. It seems a cruel irony that less than twenty years after India declared her independence, England and Wales reversed the very laws that Section 377 was based upon when they decriminalised homosexuality in 1967. However, even if this legislation had come earlier, it seems unlikely that it would have made any difference to LGBT rights in India. Zimbabwe declared its independence in 1980 – after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, but still homosexuality has been illegal in Zimbabwe since 1891 and was unaffected by the change in British rule. The impact of colonialism on LGBT history in India is far reaching with a long-lasting legacy that has led to what Peer terms a “whirl of cultural contradictions”, which is still inescapable in the present day.  


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