This is the second in the set of five interviews included in the SLR Special Series on Marriage Equality entitled Queering the (Court)Room.
Ruth Vanita is an academic and author who has written extensively on issues of gender and sexuality in Indian literary history. She co-edited the path-breaking Same-Sex Love in India, first published in 2000, and is the author, most recently, of two novels – Memory of Light (Penguin, 2022) and A Slight Angle (forthcoming Penguin, 2024). Her other works include The Broken Rainbow: Poems and Translations (Copper Coin, 2023), The Dharma of Justice in the Sanskrit Epics: Debates on Gender, Varna and Species (Oxford University Press, 2022), and On the Edge: A Hundred Years of Hindi Fiction on Same-Sex Desire (Penguin, forthcoming 2023). She has translated several works of fiction and poetry from Hindi to English, including Chocolate, Ugra’s 1927 collection of stories on male homosexuality, and Mahadevi Varma’s My Family.
Her book Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriages in Modern India (Penguin, 2005; 2023) focused on the phenomena of same-sex marriages, signified both by religious and legal processes, and joint suicides of young women in rural India. In this case, the assertion being made was not of identity, as these women often did not have access to terms like ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer,’ but of the legitimacy and seriousness of the relationship itself. This stands in contrast to the arguments that were made in the marriage equality hearings that derived their force from the assertion and negation of identity-based terms – whether it is the moment of verbal recognition accorded to non-binary people, the questioning of who would take on the identities of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a same-sex relationship, or the public identification of the petitioners and many of the lawyers with identities associated with the queer community.
Thus, we reached out to Dr. Vanita to reflect on queer people’s right to form a relationship that is based in non-heterosexual love, but recognised and sanctioned by the state in a way that it is presently not. Her answers highlight a fundamentally relational, rather than identity-based, understanding of same-sex marriage and partnership in India. This contribution thus suggests that the ongoing hearings may not be so much about the assertion and formation of a queer self alone, as about the assertion of the existence and legitimacy of relationships beyond the heteronormative constructs that the law bases itself on.
Your monograph Love's Rite which was first published in 2005 showed how many same-sex relationships in India were predicated on the couples' idea of their love being equivalent to marital love. To what extent do you see the notion of love, as against legal notions like rights and morality, playing out in the court hearings on marriage equality?
In the current hearings, Menaka Guruswamy has given Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriages in Modern India (2005; updated edition 2021; commemorative edition 2023) to the Supreme Court justices, so they will, hopefully, glance at it and will see that from the 1980s onwards, numerous young couples, mostly women, all low-income and non-English-speaking, have been getting married by Hindu rites or committing joint suicide as a form of union, and that all the couples said and say that they are inspired by love. It is, in any case, obvious that all the petitioners in the case are together because they love each other. Many petitions state this. These are what are called ‘love-marriages’. The right to love and to establish relationships on the basis of love is part of the right to live with freedom and dignity.
Love's Rite focused on young rural women who, you emphasised, were not in contact with any queer movements or with identities like ‘lesbian’ that they could use to describe themselves. Do you think the current hearings are engaging sufficiently with the existence and aspirations of queer people like them?
The Union of India made the argument that the demand for marriage is an upper-class, upper-caste, Westernized one. I don’t think the lawyers on the side have sufficiently emphasised that the demand for marriage equality has been made since at least the 1980s by non-English-speaking, low-income couples all over India, and at a time when there was no marriage equality anywhere in the world and no LGBT movement in India. The couples in Love’s Rite include Dalits, several tribals, agricultural labourers, fisherwomen, factory workers, construction workers. In the updated editions of the book, I have attached a list of couples at the end (covering a historical range from 1980 to 2022), although it is not of course an exhaustive list. Today, it is possible to hear the voices of some of these couples, for example, there are video interviews on YouTube with Deepshikha and Abhilasha, two rural women from Hamirpur, UP, who garlanded each other in front of the office of the Registrar of Marriages who had refused to register their marriage. They also signed a contract together in court. From the early 1990s onwards, such female couples in rural areas and small towns have been trying to get their marriages registered and have been refused (for example, Vinoda and Rekha, from two Maharashtra villages, to whom this happened in 1993).
In the marriage equality hearings, arguments were made that same sex relationships are counter to dharma and ‘Indian values’. To the contrary, your book shows that practices condoning or even sanctifying queerness have existed in pre-colonial Indian culture. How do you see the historical revisionism at play in the hearings influencing how we talk about same-sex love and relationships, both in the court proceedings and in society at large?
I do not use the word ‘queer’ for pre-colonial Indian culture. No equivalent for this word was used in any Indian culture until very recently. My research specifically examines same-sex relationships. “Queer” suggests the non-normative. Same-sex relationships are normative in many pre-modern Indian texts. As for same-sex relationships being called counter to dharma, culture, and values, this argument is nothing so fancy as ‘historical revisionism’. It is simple ignorance and it is exactly the same argument that has been made in every society where marriage equality has been demanded and even established. India is no different from any European or South American country or from the US in this respect. Everywhere, opponents of same-sex relationships claim that these relationships are unknown to and opposed to the particular country’s culture, values, and history. Those who put forward these arguments are either unfamiliar with the evidence and have not read the texts, or else they deliberately choose to ignore it. My work has clearly disproved this argument for India, where the argument is much weaker than it is for the Christian West.
On your discussion about the use of the word “queer”, in Love's Rite, I didn't think there was much presence of a "queer self" as an identity chosen by the people you profiled. Queerness as we see it today was not a fundamental identity. How do you see this changing, especially with the increased recognition of queerness by the law and legal system, but also persistent homophobia?
Queerness is a recently invented urban, Anglophone identity (now translated into some other languages and anachronistically used for the past), and it can mean whatever one wants it to mean. Love’s Rite is about non-English-speaking young couples all over the country who fought for the right to marry and live together. The vast majority of them did not use any identity whatsoever – not just queer but even lesbian, gay, transgender, or homosexual. They were not trying to define an individual identity; they were defining a relationship. I think this is one significant difference between modern, Western culture and non-Westernized Indian culture; the former is often (not always) focused on individual identity and the latter on relationships within which identities form themselves in relation to others. Hence the fact that in the West today, there is a high suicide rate among LGBT young people but these are almost all individual suicides; joint suicide among both cross-sex and same-sex couples, highly prevalent in India, is virtually unknown in the modern West although it was, of course, prevalent in the pre-modern West.
You’ve been in favour of reading same sex marriage into the Hindu Marriage Act and Special Marriage Act. While this may seem like an easier way to make same-sex marriage possible without the lengthy process of legislation, would you also see this opening the judiciary to criticisms that this decision does not in fact reflect public or majority opinion? How does one balance this?
Judgements are not required to reflect public or majority opinion. The judiciary exists precisely to defend those rights which majority opinion may not accept at a particular time. The legislature will often follow majority opinion, right or wrong, because legislators have to seek votes. Judges are not elected; this is so that they can be independent of ever-changing public opinion and their judgements can be based on the Constitution. It has repeatedly been demonstrated, both in India and elsewhere, that after a judgement upholds a socially disapproved right as constitutional, majority opinion changes in favour of that right. The majority of the public in any country has rarely been thinking much about or studying marriage equality in depth. Since it is a new idea to them, they tend to reject it without much thought, but after public debates on the matter, and after judicial rulings establish marriage equality, majority opinion has invariably changed in favour of equality.
Do you see the fight for marriage equality in India as in some way different from the way this particular struggle has played out in other countries, especially in the West, where there were often decades between decriminalisation and the recognition of marriage equality?
It is basically the same. The same arguments are put forward on both sides. There are no new arguments. The situation was the same too. Both in India and in other countries, same-sex couples were getting married by religious rites for decades before decriminalisation and before there was legal marriage equality anywhere in the world. There were decades between decriminalisation and marriage equality in some countries, such as the UK, but not in others, such as the US (decriminalisation in 2003; marriage equality in 2013). Most democracies have established marriage equality, and the fight for decriminalisation took decades in India, so it is natural for the demand in India to occur now. In the last two decades, many middle-class Indians got married in other countries to same-sex partners, some Indian, some foreign. This has produced the absurd legal situation of Indians being treated in India as single and being treated in other countries as married.
The book Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, which you co-edited with the late Saleem Kidwai, was given to the judges deciding the Navtej Singh Johar case, for what it said about the queer experience in India. What do you think you’d want the judges in this case to take away from that book, especially with regard to the current legal and judicial understanding of same sex marriage?
I’d like them now to read Love’s Rite, which has been given to them in the marriage equality case currently before them, and which is specifically about marriage in India. The book was first published in 2005, before decriminalisation, and in it I analyse in much greater depth many of the pre-modern texts briefly discussed in Same-Sex Love in India, for example, the fourth-century Kamasutra, the eleventh-century Kathasaritsagara, the fourteenth-century devotional narratives about the divinely-blessed birth of Bhagiratha to two women, and the 18th-century Urdu poetry and prose about unions and marriages between women.
This is the concluding question we are asking all our interviewees in this series. The judgement in the present case has been reserved and is expected to be out soon. Irrespective of the judgement, what do you think the marriage equality petitions and hearings mean for the queer movement, and how we think about questions of love, desire, sexuality, and marriage more broadly?
Media debates have brought these questions to everyone who watches television and popular movies (such as Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan or Badhaai Do), surfs the internet, reads newspapers or uses social media. This will help the public to recognise the same-sex relationships (many of which are virtual marriages) hiding in plain sight in their own families, communities, and neighbourhoods. Now that the question has been broached, it can never be silenced. Whatever the judgement may be, same-sex marriages have been occurring for decades and will continue to occur except that now they will be more clearly seen for what they are.
The questions for this interview were prepared by a member of the SLR Editorial Board who have chosen to remain anonymous.
Read the other pieces in Queering the (Court)Room