Near the steps of the Jama Masjid of Delhi is the mazar of Sarmad Kashani, a saint of Armenian origin. A man who walked naked in Shahjanabad and spent his life in spiritual practice but also in devotion to a younger Hindu man, Kashani was loved by the people of Delhi. In these times, he would probably be accused of same-sex “love jihad”. Love jihad is a falsehood propagated by Hindutva supporters that Muslim men are conspiring to lure Hindu women into romantic relationships merely to convert them to Islam.
In mythology, there are stories of Ayyapa, born of the union of Shiva and Vishnu. Bhagirath, the king who brought the river Ganga from the heaven, is arguably born of the union of two women. If one studies diverse tests in Hinduism, as also other social religious movements, there is an umbrella of beliefs that in their purest form view marriage as a rite of passage. From these many perspectives, it is not a union between a man and woman but two souls.
This history reminds us that same sex unions in South Asia are neither Western nor elitist but the continuation of a long sub-continental culture where same-sex love and unions were acceptable. In Hinduism, Islam and across South Asia’s history and religions, tolerant and accepting views of same-sex love and companionship can be found. Here, love, in all its forms is divine. It is ironic then that as India’s LGBTQIA ++minorities ask to legitimise same- sex marriage, there is strident opposition from the conservative right.
Comments by numerous political constituencies on same sex unions being unacceptable to Indian society are misleading. South Asia’s diverse history tells us differently. Though not recognised as marriage, same sex companionship and cohabitation was visible and accepted and these unions were no less than marriage in devotion.
The recent idea of same sex unions or companionship as wrong simply has no historical basis. While colonisation and Victorian morality and laws pushed us towards homophobia, we should not forget an inclusive South Asian culture.
Ironically, those that oppose same sex unions, do not seem to realise that they are taking the same line of argument propounded by conservative western ideologues whose cultural moorings they oppose.
On the other hand, the fallacious argument that same-sex relationships are acceptable, but legal unions or marriage is not, contradicts all tenets of natural justice. If an individual is recognised as an equal in law, how can the state deny them the right to marry or form a legal partnership, irrespective of society norms? Can they be denied the right to seek happiness in their chosen unions? Is that not a violation of the right to life and liberty?
Of course, marriage provides only legal recognition, not acceptance. Some would argue that to embrace, oppressive heterosexual institutions is a mistake. Perhaps true. But, why should the option not be available to those that want to exercise it? Who is the state to choose what union and with whom an adult wishes to establish? Do we not need a broader, non-religious alternative narrative to engage in mutually-designed legally-recognised unions?
An oft repeated question is: what are the benefits of legal, same-sex unions? Numerous. For starters, it is inalienable human right. On the legal front, it allows two consenting individuals to form a union and pool together physical, mental and financial resources to achieve happiness and well-being. It allows them to plan their lives, own property, have investments and healthcare plans irrespective of what society allows.
It also bolsters the mental health and well-being of LGBTQIA+ individuals who wish to imagine families, have children and create a more mainstream socialised life. It has extensive public health benefits. Evidence shows that when minorities are allowed to create happy, functional relationships recognised by law, their mental stress and self-harm reduces.
It also allows our communities and society to imagine a new paradigm of unions. This will make society more diverse and inclusive, reducing institutionalised discrimination. Currently, LGBTQIA++ communities live in fear and loneliness, afraid of backlash from communities and families.
One cannot help but wonder if this opposition is about religion, social conventions or control? The truth is that our political leaders, law enforcement, religious and social institutions, communities and the health system will be forced to give up their internalised hate and bigotry on the basis of which they currently exercise control on all minorities.
They will be forced to relinquish their rigid exclusionary control and monopoly over definitions of families, love and partnerships. This loss of control would be destabilising for them, not for society. It will also make hollow opposition to inter-caste and inter-faith marriage .
So, let us ask ourselves if we will allow a small group of powerful, prejudiced folks diminish a long history of inclusiveness, tolerance and peaceful co-existence? Should we allow them to limit the human rights of minorities by what they consider acceptable? Because the answer will not just determine the human rights of one minority, but all our rights.
Let me end with the story of Shah Hussain, South Asia’s revered queer Punjabi saint whose darbar rests in old Lahore. Here he is buried beside his Hindu lover Madho Lal. Companions for life, Shah Hussain, was so devoted to Madho that he adopted his name, asking to be addressed as Madho Lal Hussain. Despite such devotion, even today, an intolerant religious establishment still questions the truth of their union. Is that who we want to be?
Chapal Mehra is an LGBTQIA++ rights advocate, activist, writer and public health specialist.