India re-colonised: the march of Western values

The legalizing of homosexual relationships by a Delhi court shows that a global, secular culture is gaining ground.
Anjalee Lewis | Jul 29 2009 | comment  

Flickr / Carol MitchellWhen homosexual relationships were finally decriminalized by an Indian court this month, the scene was reminiscent of recent court victories in Europe and North America where same-sex partners have won new rights. Hugs were exchanged and cheers went up when India’s Supreme Court refused to stay a Delhi High Court decision repealing the statute in the Penal Code that defined homosexuality it as a crime. The ruling overturned a 148-year-old colonial law which describes a same-sex relationship as an "unnatural offence".

Nothing illustrates more clearly the cultural shift that is taking place in India -- even while old religious customs -- and conflicts -- dominate public life. Driven by globalization and liberalization of the economy, and under the guise of human rights, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia are increasingly gaining acceptability. A global secular culture is gaining ground.

And yet, as gay rights activists led the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in hailing the repeal of the law as huge step forward, leaders from across the religious spectrum made their protests heard. The change was, they said, against the will of God and would lead to the ruination of society and family values.

Harminder Singh, a Sikh leader, argued that homosexual relationships were “against religion, nature, the Constitution and Indian society”. Uttam Chand Jain of the Jain community echoed those sentiments, urging the government not to legalise gay sex. And Mufti Iftikar Ahmed, president of the Jamait, said that the judgement was an attack on the tehzeeb (culture) of Hindustan (India) and showed the country in poor light.

Rev. Dr Theodore Mascarenhas, an Indian in charge of the Vatican’s Departments of Culture for Asia, Africa and Oceania, stressed that the penal code criminalised sexual activity precisely because it is "against the order of nature”. He warns that “decriminalization could be opening up a Pandora’s box where everything may be allowed to everybody”.

Family life and population control

Are we witnessing attitudinal changes through which the very concept of a traditional family and value system is being redefined – an emergence of westernization of India?

Traditionally, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism strongly affirmed non-violence, and all these religions abhor killing. Life was sacred, and in the traditional Indian families the newborns were welcomed and the aged and infirm looked after, but this too is undergoing change.

In fact, it has been changing for a long time. In the 1950s, with much encouragement from the Western nations scared of the “population bomb”, India was the first country to adopt a population control policy, which has see its average birth rate drop from six children per woman to 2.7. This was achieved at times with strongly coercive measures such as mass sterilization targets. Abortion has been legal since 1971 and there are at least 11 million abortions a year.

In India today, as much as anywhere in the world, large families are officially frowned upon and much of the growing middle class has internalized this attitude. This, together with traditional son preference and the availability of ultrasound technology during the last two decades has given rise to female foeticide on a large scale and a badly-skewed sex ratio -- often more so in the urban and richer areas of the country.

For those worried about continuing population growth there is the additional perceived burden as life expectancy is gradually rising. It is not surprising, then, that official support for euthanasia is growing. In January this year Kerala’s Law Reform Commission recommended legalising euthanasia and decriminalising attempted suicide.

Of course, the commission did not represent this as a population control measure but as a humane response to suffering: “Life is sacred, but intense pain with no relief in sight is a torture which negatives the meaning of existence,” it said. Dodging the moral and legal issues (members had “no dogmatic view on the matter”) the commission expressly pointed out that some advanced countries have legally adopted the principle of euthanasia. In other words, what is good enough for the West is good enough for India.

Should it be approved by the legislature of Kerala, the draft law permits “terminally ill persons to put an end to their life under the supervision and advice of close relatives and medical practitioners while also giving ‘competent patients’ the right to refuse treatment, including breathing machines.”

Dr Mascarenhas, for one, was shocked by the euthanasia proposal, especially since it is being mooted by a state that claims to have the highest literacy rate in the country. “One wonders,” he said, “where the so-called educated society of India is heading. One hopes wiser counsel will prevail.”

Unfortunately, however, it is western secular “wisdom” that increasingly determines what is moral and humane. Recently it came to light that a 19-year-old mentally impaired girl living in a government institution was pregnant as a result of rape, for which two employees have been arrested. The girl, who was 18 weeks pregnant when it was discovered, wants to give birth to the child.

But the Chandigarh Administration, which is her guardian since she is an orphan, petitioned the High Court for termination of the pregnancy. The Punjab and Haryana High Court agreed: “Asking her to continue with the pregnancy and, thereafter, raise the child would be a travesty of justice and a permanent addition to her miseries,” the bench asserted and ordered that the abortion should be carried out without delay. The Supreme Court, though, set aside the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruling on July 21st and allowed the victim to keep her pregnancy.

Liberalism and resistance

Indians who abhor these trends should not be too quick to blame everything on the West, says Dr Mascarenhas. “Not everything in western culture is bad. There is great resistance in the West to the liberalist tendencies of leaving everything to personal moral choices.”

Meanwhile, one type of reaction to the waning of traditional culture can be seen in the emergence of fundamentalists groups who are determined to preserve Indian culture. There are attempts to impose what are deemed to be “pure” traditions from the past. These, more often than not, impose restrictions on women, who are considered to be the bearers of the honour of ethnic groups. The dress, deportment movements and mobility of women come in for close scrutiny under the harsher cultural regimes.

New customs to do with life-cycle events and festivals imported from the West are deeply resented. Valentine's Day, a festival that was almost unknown in India two decades ago, has over the years emerged as one of the most controversial. Hindu extremists routinely vandalize shops selling Valentine cards and assault couples who celebrate the day. “Valentine’s Day is definitely not Indian culture. We will not allow celebration of that day in any form,” Pramod Mutalik, founder of the Sri Ram Sena (Lord Rama’s army) has said.

In January people watched in horror the live footage of members of the Sri Ram Sena attacking a pub (named, perhaps significantly, Amnesia) in Mangalore, Karnataka, and assaulting its female patrons. The attackers claimed that the women were indulging in immoral activities, opposed to Hindu culture. Claiming to be “the custodians of Indian culture”, they justified the assaults on the grounds that it would prevent local women from going astray.

In contrast, there are also positive attempts to promote Indian culture, such as television serials based on traditional mythology as well as TV soaps propagating values acceptable to conservative Indian society and that don’t threaten Indian culture.

Can such tactics succeed in holding back the tide of globalization that, along with greater material prosperity, has already brought influential parts of Indian society to accept same-sex relationships and euthanasia? Perhaps not. But if Indians do not find some way of protecting the best in their traditions, we will wind up spiritually and culturally poor.

Anjalee Lewis is a freelance journalist writing from Mumbai.

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