Manju Ludwig, University of Heidelberg
The inconsistencies of discourse: The colonial archive on sexuality, sodomy and 'unnatural' behavior in 19th century North India
This presentation traces the construction of sexual morals, ideas of public propriety and negatively connoted, specific sexual identities in North India in the colonial period and seeks to connect it to the wider discourses about modernity and civilization. The colonial intervention constitutes a radical break in this respect inasmuch as this epoch introduced a hetero-normative reproductive framework as a singular way to understand sexual relations between Indians. Juxtaposed with precolonial articulations of sexuality one could even argue that the colonial period was crucial in creating the need for a clear-cut sexual categorization.
A historical analysis focusing on the role of dissident sexual identities such as ‘homosexuality’ in the colonial framework allows us to question the commonly held assumption of modernity’s emancipatory influence on societal relations among the colonised. In stark contrast, my talk aims to highlight the regulation, restriction and stigmatisation of hitherto relatively flexible and ambiguous sexual identities like the ‘homosexual’ one and the underlying ambivalences.
This presentation’s main argument is that the official colonial discourse in 19th North India on sexually deviant identities presents many ruptures, ambivalences and inconsistencies. This will be exemplified by the case of the criminalisation of eunuchs in the 1880s by analysing diverging official perspectives in the colonial archive.
The general charge of immorality was instrumentalised by the colonial regime to describe and defame the 'other' within the framework of a colonialist rhetoric of civilisational progress. For example, same-sex orientation was used as an indicator for moral and cultural difference. The ascription of a degenerate sexuality was thus one element in the legitimisation-rhetoric of foreign rule.
With regard to the question of agency, I shall underscore that the formation of negatively connoted dissident sexual identities was not the sole product of colonialist actors but represented a collusion between colonial masters, on the one hand, and Indian social and moral reformists; on the other, which constituted an interplay between the 'metropole' and the colony as 'periphery'. Colonial discourses of propriety and sexuality, in general, and ‘homosexuality’, in particular, in colonial North India were constructed in an interwoven transcultural process, in which native agents played an important role. The latters’ yardstick, nevertheless, remained mostly European conceptions of 'civilisation' and 'modernity', whose persistence can still be observed in the 'naturalisation' of discrimination vis-à-vis homosexual identities in contemporary India.