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Imperialism at the Wheels: Re-evaluating the Indian Queer Movement

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court passed a verdict in favour of recognizing the legal right to gender self-determination, legally recognizing for the first-time rights of transgender persons in the Indian context.1 Subsequently in 2018, the same court overturned various other jurisprudence to declare Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional for its parts which were believed to have criminalized same sex relations among adults.2 These two judgements are considered the prominent examples of the success of the Indian queer movement. Since then, Indian law has moved rapidly in the course of the decade, coming up with the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 to further consolidate the decisions made in the 2014 judgement. Every year, India is peppered with various “Pride” parades where celebration of queerness as an identity on the streets is commonplace. Yet, as the movement develops, resistance in these spaces diminishes. Gendered and sexual oppression continue find a hold in Indian society, with no roadmap for liberation in place. The movement’s strategy instead, functions on the agenda of issues, with the next big issue being the legalization of gay marriage. But there is a clear cyclical pattern to be observed in the history of said movement, one where there is a demand from certain sections, largely NGOs and their bourgeois figureheads, for a legal reform followed by legal change. The movement then moves towards materializing the legal mandate through more NGOs which finally culminates with the movement moving on to a new issue to take up for legal reform. In this manner, this movement continues to distort the space into one that may uphold certain progressive demands, but in reality, has been shaped into a bourgeois reformist trend, backed and propelled by imperialist finance capital and armed with post-modernist identitarian ideology. Instead of building a movement aimed towards genuine liberation of queer masses all over India, the leadership of this NGO-led imperialist movement has co-opted the struggle against gendered and sexual oppression and driven it in a corner where there is no actual eradication of gendered and sexual oppression from, but a reliance on the Brahmanical Hindutva fascist state to introduce top-down changes. In this process, fascism has entered and created a space within the movement, with the likes of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi becoming a prominent figure in the queer movement while she backs the Hindu fascist demand of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya as well as upholding the caste system.3 There is therefore an emergent need to highlight the contradiction within the movement and its isolation with the larger Indian people’s struggle as well the need for the Indian queer masses to vehemently reject this imperialist co-optation and organize in unity with the oppressed and exploited masses of India, in the larger workers and peasants struggle on a revolutionary line to transform India, not reform it. To understand the necessity for the same, one must begin by a brief historical overlook of the particularities of gendered and sexual oppression in India.

Understanding “Queerness” in India: Not a Global Identity

Hijras gather for a photograph near a waste dump site and railway tracks

The queer movements in the west have deeply informed the understanding of gender in the colonized world. Marx showed that capital is not merely value but is a social relationship emergent from the method with which it appropriates surplus value in production, through which it continuously produces more capital. As capitalism is now firmly in the stage of imperialism, there is a continuous export of capital from the monopoly capitalists in the ‘developed’ world to the former colonies. This capital brings with itself distorted social relations which affect all aspect of life to subvert our understanding of reality in the service of further capital production, including that of gender. This understanding forces us to then look at the history of South Asia to find the particularities of these distortions in our understanding of the term ‘queerness’ itself and its ahistorical nature on a global scale.
South Asia, like all other societies, displayed its own unique development of gender based on the particularities of the time. There is historical mention of the existence of hijras, kinnars, jogappas, khwaja saras, aravanis etc. as gendered social groups beyond the binary understanding of gender as male and female. One finds that various members of these gendered groups not only had a social function in feudal society in terms of a mythological existence but also an active role in the courts of the feudal ruling classes. Many hijras were engaged in the feudal mode of production as tax collectors for the zamindars, even amassing means of production by ways of gifts.4 Khwaja saras found themselves in the roles of guards, both to emperors as well as their harems, holding an important social role in the Mughal court, with their own unique culture centered around their role in these societies. Khwaja saras function can be enunciated by the fact that many found themselves holding high zat ranking within the Mughal mansabdari system, a system which determined the position of a government or military officer by way of the amount of zat points they hold. The mansabdari system organized the militaristic nobility of the Mughal empire and determined how feudal surplus extracted through taxes would trickle down among the nobility in the form of allowances, military holdings and even land governorship. Khwaja saras like Etmad Khan and Firoz Khan found themselves with the high zat ranking of 3000 while others like Khwaja Agah would become commanders of garrisons.5 Others also played an active role in the Mughal court in other ways as well, either as domestic workers serving the emperor and their families or as brokers who would maintain the existence of khwaja saras within the court.6 Apart from this, these gendered communities would also have a lot of mythical value attached to them, with many being considered as deities along with others being provided sole access to being allowed to tend to shrines. The entrenchment and positions of these gender groups in feudal society is apparent and there is a clear role in the production process which they play. Europeans like Francisco Pelsaert expressed their shock at witnessing this, which serves as a point of enquiry into the different development of gender within South Asian society in contrast with European society.

The demarcation between the development gender is also demarcated by the changes in the relations of production in each society. As pointed out previously, capital is in itself a social relation but the production of surplus capital itself occurs on the basis of relations of production, or in simple terms: class relations. Within European society, mercantile capital would gradually develop into industrial capital, categorized what is termed as the industrial revolution which in reality coincided with the larger bourgeois revolution in European society, marked by the eradication of feudalism in European and the onset of capitalism. The bourgeois democratic revolution not just transformed the economic aspect of life but would pervade in all aspects of life, including the family which would transform into a rigid monogamous and heterosexual structure wherein the role of each gender would be deeply entrenched in the production process, namely in the production of surplus (male gender) and reproduction of labour itself (women and children). Here, capitalism served as a progressive force in overthrowing feudalism but also created new social realities. This process was not allowed to occur in large parts of the world, with European capitalism developing from the stage of industrial capital marked by domestic competition to a period of monopolies where finance capital was exported to the rest of the world, in the stage of capitalism termed as imperialism. Imperialism, functioning by way of colonialism, introduced a distorted form of changes in relations of production wherein instead of the eradication of feudalism, imperialist finance capital would align with the feudal lords to both sustain the positions of feudal lords within society as well as perpetuate ‘development’ in a manner which most benefits the extraction and export of resources as part of the colonial process. Colonialism introduced a backward form of capitalism in India wherein instead of overthrowing feudalism, foreign capital would align itself with feudalism and create new distorted relations of production. This is entirely in contrast to the type of trajectory that occurred in Europe, where capitalism initially played a progressive role.
The colonial project also aimed to transform society in a manner which best facilitates its own interests and creates the best conditions for extraction of resources from the colonies. So there were multiple reforms that the colonial project undertook to transform the colonies into the ‘ideal’ islands for plunder, particularly when it comes to gender. There was a strong pushback against gender groups which did not fall into the European understanding of ‘male’ and ‘female’ in the form of their marginalization from the production process and the legal outlawing of their existence under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.7 Important to note is that this attack sharpened after the Indian war of independence in 1857, wherein anti-colonial, nationalist and peasant forces were defeated, and large-scale social reforms were undertaken to better transform the old feudal society in a manner where it can better serve the cause of imperialism. This saw the imposition of an understanding of gender which is imported by way of imperialist capital itself, that of rigid binary genders. But the outlawing of other gendered communities and social groups does not necessarily see their elimination, given the fact that feudalism was never overthrown the way it happened in European society. Instead, we find Indian society mired by this contradiction wherein the alliance of imperialist forces with feudal landlord class is reflected in all aspects of life. Simply put, this provides us with a society which attempts to be deeply binary while simultaneously seeing the presence of gender groups which developed under feudalism such as the hijras who continue to have both internal practices as well as a larger social position that is derived from feudal society. This is reflected in the hijra guru-chela system (master-apprentice) as well as in the biggest practice that fuels the hijra economic and social life, that of badhai. Under this practice, hijras make their way into celebrations held on hetero-normative occasions such as that of childbirth and weddings and perform a variety of activities like dances, songs and prayers. They would then provide blessings to the occasion and in return for those blessings, they are provided with gifts either in the form of cash or goods.8 The practice is deeply feudal, from its rituals to the medium of exchange being undertaken. Hijras are also engaged in begging as well as sex work as their other activities for subsistence, pushing them into a lumpen class background in certain spaces but even this status requires more enquiry, given the fact that the process of begging itself is still driven by feudal values associated with hijras in that being cursed by them and displeasing them is considered highly inauspicious.9

The marginalization of these gendered groups in this manner did not really change after the transfer of power to Indian big bourgeoisie in 1947. The Indian big bourgeoisie and its nexus with the landlord class continues the marginalization and oppression that occurred in with the onslaught of colonialism. This contradiction wherein feudal gendered groups exist in sharp contrast with the cisgender groups is observed in various countries which underwent colonization too. Nigerian scholar Oyerunki Oyewumi would argue that within the Yoruba community that occupies various countries in Africa, the stratification of gender and the understanding of gender as it is in the present is the product of colonization, with the new stratification unable to reconcile with the plurality of gender prior to colonization.10 Similarly in Philippines, among the Bigus people, among the Javanese people, among the Iban people, various gender groups are found like the bakla, the bissu, the warok and the manang bali which represent similar situations all over South-East Asia too. But as capitalist society in the ‘developed’ world change along with a loosening of the rigid family structure, gendered oppression creates new understandings of what it means to be queer.

Imperialism At the Helm of Change?

Celebrations held marking the legal pronouncements which de-criminalized gay sex

The unique development of gender in the colonized world has started to encounter new realities. The queer movement intensified in the western world, marked by radical events such as the Stonewall riots. Such changes created further reform within western capitalist societies, but as capitalism has not necessarily moved out of the stage of imperialism, it continues to maintain its exploitative relationship with large parts of the world through the tactic of neocolonialism. Imperialist finance capital continues to distort the realities and the question of queer rights in the ‘developing’ world has become a prominent point. For one example, organizations like the legal advocacy group AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan attempted to petition against the constitutionality of Article 377 due to how it affected their work among HIV affected persons but were dismissed. Meanwhile, when the same was pushed for by NGOs backed by imperialist capital, the compliance was represented in the Supreme Court judgements mentioned at the beginning.11 The United Nations also held conferences in India, inviting trans and gay activists to have discourses within its spaces in the 2000s. The World Social Forum, a space that while upholding the agenda of resisting neo-liberalism, relies on NGOs as the primary source of change, also invited certain queer rights NGOs to its forum of big NGOs. The presence of NGOs as the leadership of the queer movement has led to the movement opting for a legal reformist approach, wherein it attempts to first speak the language of the law, seeing the state as an ultimately progressive force. This is on par with the larger structure of NGOs themselves, which provide a perfect space for the class of academics and professionals to take leadership of progressive struggles and subvert them in the service of capital. This has seen the introduction of an inorganic western nomenclature onto the understanding gender within Indian society. Suddenly, pre-colonial gender groups are now falling into the terms non-binary, third gender or transgender in various legal documentation. But there is also a material aspect to how this movement distorts and reproduces further violence, originating from its driving force that is imperialist capital.
It must also be noted that not only has queerness become one among many other issues which NGOs must take up to expand the presence of imperialist capital among any space of resistance, but the kind of legal reform being also pushed for reflects the alliance of imperialist capital with the feudal landlord class. Even when the state attempts to provide gendered groups employment post reform, it can only find a way to reintroduce them back into their old feudal roles. For example, khwaja saras are employed as tax collectors more and more, with the state officials sending them to ‘humiliate’ tax payers into paying them, a role which they also undertook in pre-colonial society.12 Further, there is an astonishing demand of even restoring their status as bodyguards and domestic workers in certain pockets of India, with the Bihar politician Kali Hijra claiming that there is a need to return their community to the status they had in Mughal society.13 Among queer circles, a common criticism started emerging regarding the casteist tendencies not only within queer spaces but within the politics pursued, wherein there is an incredulous comparison of queerphobia with the caste-based practice of untouchability as well as the odd categorization of all ‘third gender’ persons as members of Other Backward Castes. Further, even among the legislations passed, there is an attempt to shift the functioning of queer kinship-based families into “rehabilitation centres” run by the state, where all abandoned queer persons are to live instead of chosen families.14 Many NGOs have taken up the task of running such centres on their own and have proliferated their activities on a topical basis. Missing from these movements are the large sections of oppressed masses within Indian society. The supposed movement for gender self-determination was in reality led by gay lawyers and NGOs without any engagement beyond themselves even though this occasion was heralded as a victory of the “Indian queer movement.” Not only is the movement subverted by a feudal and backward character, it is stuck under a leadership that itself is the cause of the feudal and backward character and has completely diverted any radical position in India upon which a queer liberation movement could be built.
The legal reforms pushed for themselves represent the kind of bourgeois opportunism that has consistently held back the real needs of the queer movement. Section 377 became the symbol of India’s structural homophobia and its reading down in 2018 became a decisive victory for the queer community in India but this in itself represents the class-obscurantist politics of the movement. On the very day the judgement was passed and celebrations were undertaken, hijras and kinnars all over Delhi reported an escalation of police brutality against them, most of them beggars.15 From a testimonial on the day of the judgement itself, “Two-three policemen picked us up and took us in custody, we were hung against walls and tortured. They abused us verbally for a long time and then they raped us. We had only been sitting and talking amongst ourselves […] Is it a crime to exist?”16 While Section 377 was made out to be the figurehead upon which Indian homophobia rested, the legal excuse by the state in its brutalities against the majority of the working class, Dalit and Adivasi queer population has always lied within anti-vagrancy and public nuisance laws as well as the inability to ‘pass’ in normative society. In the struggle for legal recognition, one fails to notice that the fight was merely to seek legal approval for a specific form of desire led by a gallery of rich gay men while serving as a symbolic victory for the queer movement. This politics is not only for the bourgeois but serves to hide the class violence meted out against most of the queer population in India on a daily basis. Queer persons are pushed to the margins, unable to exist within normative society and are compelled into beggary, sex work and trafficking to sustain themselves, where they are regularly the target of further violence by the state. The movement actively hides such aspects and masks its politics within individual expression. The politics of the movement, then is also mired with a post-modernist and identitarian trend, hyperfixating on the individual as an isolated body without truly undertaking an analysis of the social totality affecting the individual. It is devoid of class struggle and relies on individual comfort and strife over collective action.

Individuality, Sexual Anarchy and Imperialist Distortion of Culture

The hyperfixation on the individual experience is a continuous trend that is a definitive part of how neoliberalism distorts the social relations for persons. For the expansion of the market, there is a need to create more identities to sell commodities to and neoliberalism facilitates this by way of creating new identities continuously, even though they may not be completely defined at all. The individual becomes an alienated being within the social reality and the politics reflects it wherein the individual’s experience is given primacy over the totality of things that impress upon the individual. This creates further identitarian politics, wherein queer theory continues to create more and more new gender, sexual, romantic etc. identities purely out of random individual experiences over an objective understanding of reality. To cater to this, the market has hundreds of different queer flags and other commodities for people who align with those identities. This distorts not only how gender plays out in the lives of people as a form of oppression but also creates further silos within silos to individualize oppression along the lines of identities conceived arbitrarily. For example, the Indian Trans Act itself plays out this confusion by listing the existence of hijras, kinnars, transgender persons, intersex persons, genderqueer persons etc. under the umbrella term transgender or third gender. While many such terms represent a material existence of gender, all of them concrete and different from the ambiguous third gender term, as elaborated upon previously, terms like genderqueer are somehow also lumped into this arrangement wherein genderqueer can itself mean anything, from transgender person to non-binary to even its own unique term separate from those two. By creating such arbitrary lines within the queer space, the focus is then on how the individual ‘feels’ regarding their oppression and on nomenclature instead of how gendered and sexual oppression metes out its violence against them on the scale of a collective. Nomenclature itself becomes a point of expression, resistance and liberation. Not only do these silos alienate the individual, they alienate the already individualized queer movement from engagement with larger people’s struggles. Simply put, such nomenclature, even the practice of changing pronouns may provide one momentary comfort from gender dysphoria, a product of gender oppression, but it will not end said oppression itself.
As mentioned previously, the imperialist capital also distorts social reality and creates an inorganic culture around itself that deeply affects classes within a society wherein said capital is taking up space. This has created a culture centered around individuality and nomenclature but also a culture reliant on desire of a few. Since ignorance of the violence that informs who and what is desirable itself is pervasive, desire becomes individualistic and leads to sexual anarchy. The agency to engage in sex, let alone the ability to consent to sex in a patriarchal society is restricted to few classes. The ability to enjoy sex is also reliant on the amount of leisure-time one receives in their work-day. Since the bourgeois classes in a country like India also have the ability to create more leisure-time for themselves, in contrast to the majority of the Indian population, the question of enjoyable sex, the ability to consent to such sex and the agency to have multiple sexual partners is also a class question. The ignorance of class within queer political spaces also leads to the misconstrued understanding of queerness as the right to pursue desire in an anarchic manner. This manifests into anarchic sexual relationships, where sexual relationships are pursued in a manner which is ignorant of these questions and reduces sex to a market in itself comprised of various partners. Tinder, Bumble, Hinge etc. are mere manifestations of such marketplaces. In such a marketplace, each partner is seen as a commodity to be exploited by way of sex. Such spaces and the anarchic sexual relationships pursued within them are themselves manifestations of the distortions introduced by way of imperialist capital and its effect on culture and life. It is no wonder that the desirable bodies shaped within these spaces are marked deeply by caste and the class of those people these spaces are open to, that is, the bourgeois classes. Reduction of queerness to sexual anarchy is a bourgeois practice, backed strongly by feudal and imperialist forces to provide a few with the space to partake in such reduction.
This subversion of reform, expression of individuality, comfort and accommodation, all of which are already limited to the bourgeois classes, as a form of change, hinders our ability to truly rid ourselves of oppression.

Charting the Way Forward

A poster saying “Queers against Hindutva” at a pride parade

In the absence of a genuine communist leadership at the helm of what is the queer movement, there is a genuine need for anti-imperialist anti-feudal line on the queer struggle. How can queer liberation happen in isolation and ignorance of these forces, when the majority of the queer population will not be able to partake in said idea of liberation? Only the ejection of the backward forces of imperialists and feudalism from the leadership can begin the onset of real gender liberation. For those pursuing progressive politics, there must be a confrontation with all forms of exploitation and dominance and politics which aims for emancipation from all forms of oppression and exploitation is the only one that can sustain itself over the course of history by way of class struggle. At the current rate, imperialism and brahmanical Hindutva fascism continue to oppress and exploit the majority of the Indian peoples. While more and more pushback towards the Hindutva agenda has started to occur from within queer spaces, class perspective remains elusive.
It must not be denied that imperialism creates the material and moral foundations for its own destruction and that is seen by the fact that engagement and self-awareness regarding gendered and sexual oppression is continuously increasing. More and more queer persons are actively engaging with the movement, even becoming critical of it. But there is no talk of change, of end of any form of oppression on singular lines. Queer liberation cannot come if it continues to function in a silo and does not function as part of class struggle itself, hand in hand with all people’s struggles in India. Gendered and sexual oppression must be approached from its history, from its presence in the social and economic life of the people facing such oppression and must find its liberation in the change in material conditions and the relations of production. In India, such change begins with the completion of the incomplete democratic revolution that occurred with the transfer of power in 1947. Therefore, such engagement must shift its focus from the post-modernist and identitarian imperialist lines that have been taken up, making a real break from the politics that has already developed, which can only be done with anti-imperialist politics to seek true queer liberation, not reform, not momentary comfort, but New Democratic Revolution.

by Shri Rishi, student of law at Jindal Global Law School


  1. National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) v. Union of India, AIR 2014 SC 1863.
  2. Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, AIR 2018 SC 4321.
  3. TCN News. “Trans, Gender Nonconfirming & Intersex Collectives Strongly Condemn Kinnar Akhara’s Support for Ram Temple at Ayodhya, India.” Two Circles, November 28, 2018.
  4. Roychowdhury, Adrija. “When Eunuchs Were the Mid-Rung of Power in the Mughal Empire.” Indian Express, July 19, 2018.
  5. Irfan, Lubna. “Stories of Khwajasaras Should Be an Important Part of the Study of Mughal History.” The Wire, August 4, 2018.
  6. Irfan, Lubna. “‘Third Gender’ and ‘Service’ in Mughal Court and Harem.” The Servants’ Past Project. Orient BlackSwan, August 12, 2019.
  7. Hinchy, Jessica. “The Long History of Criminalising Hijras.” Himal Southasian, July 2, 2019.
  8. Hossain, Adnan, Claire Pamment, Jeff Roy, and Simon Shepherd. Badhai: Hijra-Khwaja Sira-Trans Performances Across Borders in South Asia. S.1: Bloomsbury Metheun Drama, 2022.
  9. Bhaumik, Udayan. “Fear of the Hijra and Their Existence-the Sad Truth of the Community and Need for Change: A Case Report.” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and Neuroscience 5, No. 5 (2022).
  10. Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  11. Tellis, Ashley. “Disrupting the Dinner Table: Re-Thinking the ‘Queer Movement’ in Contemporary India.” Jindal Global Law Review 4, No. 1 (August 2012).
  12. Boone, Jon. “Pakistan’s Tax Dodgers Pay up When the Hijra Calls.” The Guardian, June 8, 2012.
  13. Press Trust of India. “Eunuchs Want Mughal Era Role Back.” Times of India, April 27, 2018.
  14. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, Section 12.
  15. Dutta, Aniruddha. “The End of Criminality? The Synecdochic Symbolism of Section 377.” NUJS Law Review 13, no. 3 (2020).
  16. Rastogi, Vartika. “Transgender Community Face Increasing Violence Since 377 Ruling.” The Citizen, September 17, 2018. Face-Increasing-Violence-Since-377-Ruling

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