Sexuality, Identity and Censorship

On March 16, 2011 by admin

Charu Gupta

What I am going to say is nothing new. While exploring the linkages between sexuality, identity and censorship, I want to talk about certain key elements, which reveal the intersection of the three. There are multiple sites of censorship, which of course is done by the State over and above all, but there is explicit and implicit censorship done in India by dominant castes, majority communities and patriarchies. I am interested here in this kind of censorship, which is done to silence and marginalize alternate sexualities, ambiguous religious identities, sex workers, certain languages, people, symbols and culture. Such censorship of sexuality has historical roots. My examples come largely from a colonial context and from contemporary India, exploring how sexuality becomes a key arena for the imposition of censorship by the moralist Hindu brigade particularly, in literary genres, print and visual media, and in actual practices.

I would also like to ponder how identity politics, in a manner, contributes to a different kind of censorship. I want argue that in the construction of a homogenous Hindu community identity, which operates and works through a reworked and updated patriarchy, censorship becomes a critical tool, as it helps to control sexualities on the one hand and impose a fixed identity on the other. In fact escalation of sexually repressive censorship is intricately tied to heightened assertion of a Hindu community identity. The pogrom in Gujarat has brought home to us how implicit censorship imposed by dominant religious communities and castes operates in tandem with State censorship.

The influential work of Michel Foucault has revealed how propagation of disciplinary regimes requires an intensification in the management and policing of sexuality, which further leads to distinctions of identity. It has been also asserted that obscenity also emerged as a distinct regulatory category in the modern period, and was subject to intense censorship particularly in Europe, in part due to the rise of literacy, the spread of print and a wider dissemination of written texts, and in part due to Victorian notions of chastity. Combined with this of course, this debate has extended to pornography. Sharp lines have been drawn between anti-pornography and anti-censorship feminists in the West. Catherine MacKinnon in her powerful critique of pornography claims that it institutionalises the sexuality of male supremacy, fusing the eroticism of domination and submission with the social construction of male and female. However, feminists like Judith Butler question the pervasive power of pornography. She builds a case for performative contradiction, whereby utterances cannot be assigned a consensus of meanings. Divisions often made between legitimate erotic art on the one hand and obscene pornography on the other, where the latter is subject to censorship, have been attacked, linking it to debates on high and low culture. It has also been pointed out that distinctions need to be made between sexually explicit representations and sexism. Consensual and coercive sex cannot be collapsed. Some even say that pornography actually reflects male anxieties and fears. Moreover, it is argued that while women are victims of violent crimes, the persistent foregrounding of pain and political correctness marginalises women’s sexual pleasures and desires.

In India, feminists have pointed out that there has broadly been a ‘conspiracy of silence’, combined with censorship, regarding sexuality. In recent years examples of such censorship abound, be it the attack on songs like ‘choli ke peeche’ or M.F. Hussain painting Saraswati or the withdrawal of the 1997 Delhi Tourism Diary due to the protest by BJP for the inclusion of a representation of the bronze statue of the nude Yakshini or ‘Dancing Girl’ from Mohenjo-daro.

There is a long history of such censorship, and in the colonial period particularly, moral and sexual worries of the British combined with those of an aspiring indigenous Hindu middle class. There was a moral panic of sorts that gripped a section of the British and the Hindu middle classes, creating anxieties regarding questions of sexuality, which was reflected in various arenas. Implicit and explicit censorship was used here for a coercive and symbolic regulation of women, which helped in replenishing colonial authority, updating indigenous patriarchy, and proclaiming a collective identity. In north India for example, there were endeavours made particularly by the Hindu publicists to redefine, control and censor literature, entertainment and domestic arena, especially pertaining to women, to forge an empowering Hindu identity. The discursive management and control over sexuality was essential to project a civilised and vibrant sectarian Hindu identity. Regulation and censorship of sexuality thus was, and continues to be, central to identity politics, be it fundamentalist, racial or nationalist. It is needed in order to control women, justify domination and subordination, and uphold community honour.

However, sexuality, pleasure and love have been expressed in diverse ways. Through various mediums women and men have found ways to undermine implicit assumptions about gender systems and to negotiate codified sexual relations. We have a rich variety of experiences and practices, which are indifferent to and sometimes even subvert the tyrannies of respectability and standardisation. Such transgressions have precluded the crafting of a master narrative, and ‘disorder’ has crept into the ‘moral order’ of the censorship brigade.

In dominant narratives of love and sexuality, monogamous, heterosexual, same community/caste marriages and relationships continue to be the predominant ideal. In colonial period too same-sex attractions or inter-religious love represented a dangerous breach to nationalist ideals and Hindu community assertions. Deviance from ‘normal’ codes of behaviour revealed the possibility of diversion from the accepted and the expected. I want to first explore a book written in this period on male-male sexual bonding, which became a major target of attack by the Hindu publicists and faced severe censorship and condemnation. This was a period when efforts were being made at linguistic standardisation of Hindi, combined with attacks on any hints of eroticism and obscenity in Hindi literature, which were seen as hallmarks of a decadent, feminine and uncivilised culture. There was a growing fear of romance, of sexual and bodily pleasure, seen as a transgression of the ideals of the nation itself. Aesthetics became an exercise in ethics.

At the same time, print facilitated the widespread production of ‘ashlil’ (obscene) material as a commodity, and erotic consumerism became a part of the publishing boom in UP, surreptitiously disturbing the dominance of ‘clean’ literature. Such popular literature came under increasing attack, especially with charges of obscenity levelled against it. The first obscenity laws appeared in India in the late nineteenth century Sections 292, 293 and 294 of the Indian Penal Code were explicitly designed for censorship of any form of obscenity. However, in spite of various rules, regulations and agreements, the term obscenity has remained vague. It has often been used to censor not only pornography as it is often defined today, but also in nineteenth century England to outlaw publications on birth control. In colonial India too there was not clear definition of the term, and it could encompass a variety of meanings in common usage and debates. Extremely divergent material could thus be classified as obscene and thus subject to censorship. For example, the erotic epic Radhika Santwanam of the eighteenth century Telugu poet and courtesan Muddupalani was republished in 1911. This classic work placed the sensuality of Radha at its centre. The British soon banned this edition on charges of obscenity, and a long controversy followed. The Indian social reformists too offered a vehement criticism of the work, and denounced it for alleged crude depictions of sex, and asked for its censorship.

The strongest however was the case of Pandey Becan Sharma Ugra’s book Chaklet published in 1927, which dealt with issues of sodomy, sexual acts between adult males and adolescent boys, and other aspects of male homosexuality. Chaklet was a collection of eight short stories, variously titled ‘He Sukumar’ (Oh, Beautiful Youth), ‘Vyabhichari Pyar’ (Adulterous Love), ‘Jail Mein’ (In Jail), ‘Hum Fidaye Lackhnau’ (I am a Fan of Lucknow), ‘Kamariya Nagin si Bal Khaye’ (The Waist Twists like a Female Snake), etc. Written in a titillating fashion, these stories were against sodomy and homosexuality, claiming to draw inspiration from real life incidents. However, by the process of condemnation, they also acknowledged the wide prevalence of such practices, especially in UP, where the beautiful young boys were called ‘chocolate’, ‘pocket-book’ and ‘money-order’. Chaklet hinted at homosexual tendencies between Krishna and Arjun, Ram and Tulsidas and Krishna and Surdas. It proved to be a commercial sensation and within six weeks of its publication, two editions of it were sold out. However, it was soon banned and its next edition could come out only after independence.

The guardians of morality actually launched militant criticism against the book, and through it, against many writings like Ugra’s Dilli ka Dalal (Delhi’s Broker) and also books like Vyabhichari Mandir (Adulterous Temple) and Abalaon ka Insaf. Such works were referred to as ghasleti sahitya, and a movement against it, known as ghasleti andolan was sustained for 12 years. Banarsidas Chaturvedi, the editor of Vishal Bharat, took a lead, and was largely backed by the new Hindi loci of authority — university departments, literary associations and important journals. In UP, the magazines, Chand and Sudha published material against such literature, and the associations, Hindi Sahitya Sammelan and Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha adopted resolutions against these books. Gandhi initially wrote against Chaklet without reading it, but later after going through it, did not find it obscene. He wrote a letter to this effect, which, however, was brought to light only in 1951.

The point is, why did a book like Chaklet, which actually attacked sodomy and homosexuality, lead to such a hysterical reaction? The campaign against it was at once a paternalist and a moralist stance, deployed to ‘protect’ the public from ‘unhealthy’ influences. However, its reach hints that here there was something more volatile at stake than the mere offending of ideas of purity and respectability. Ugra wrote on a taboo subject, an unmentionable act, and spoke the unspeakable. The critics claimed that the actual effect of Ugra’s writings was to titillate and excite his readers and thus to encourage, not discourage, homosexual desire. Colonial presence, growing nationalist movement, emerging high literary trends and its links with Hindu identity gave the campaign a specific colour in north India at this time. The attack on Chaklet was also part of a nationalist critique, as the de-gendered male was one stereotype of colonial domination. Chaklet threw into doubt the stability of the heterosexual regime, procreative imperatives and modern monogamous ideals of marriage. It was a stigma and a disgrace of effeminacy and sexual inversion in male behaviour, which was at best unmentioned.

Chaklet brought into public view emergent urban male attachments and alternate sexualities, posing a danger to civilisation, at a time when the imagery of a strong, masculine Hindu male was a concern of the nation. It opened an epistemological gap, a void in maleness itself. The consequences of this conflict, which pitted critics against popular literature, and by extension against entertaining fiction, was a long-lasting rift between Hindi literature that was enshrined in a large part of the canon. Reading such books was considered a crime for students, and critics made sure that they were never included in the syllabus, indeed in the history of Hindi literature. But this literature survived, thanks to its popularity. The conflict continued well over the coming period and saw many debates in the 1940s as well — over Jainendra Kumar’s Sunita, Yashpal’s Dada Comrade, and Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaf (The Quilt).

Another result of such censorship for example was that there was a pervasive and systematic attack on sensual poetry of the earlier times. Serious charges were levied by an influential section of Hindi writers against sringar ras poetry, particularly that of obscenity, centring on the woman’s body. It also appears that obscenity was redefined by many literary writers, specially to control certain female sexual identities. The debate on obscenity was largely a debate on sex for pleasure and recreation versus sex for reproduction. The figure of Radha also almost completely disappeared from the canons of Hindi literary syllabi and normative standardized poetry. In earlier poetry, Radha was a potent symbol of a woman in love who is neither mother nor wife. Her sexuality could not be contained within any rigid bounds of conventional propriety. But now from a predominantly aesthetic category, the image of woman became a stiflingly moral one.

Even in the case of films, we see that in colonial India the Censor Board banned various films like Strange Interlude and Passion on charges of ‘obscenity’. The opposition was to bathing scenes, short skirts, kissing and embracing, as they were supposed to have a ‘demoralising’ effect on the spectators. In fact, the Hindu Mahasabha wanted its representatives to be nominated to the Censor Board of each province to ensure a proper scrutiny of films, in order that they did not corrupt the morals of Hindu boys and girls.

However, it would be incomplete to stop here. Such censorships and attempts at control have received a constant challenge, and various forms of assertions and resistances question the given models of sexuality and the so-called homogeneity and cohesion of community identity. Besides formal sites of protest, again we see that our everyday lives are an arena where resistances to such censorships abound. Everyday is an area, where maybe due to pragmatic reasons, maybe due to sheer indifference and unconcern, it is not so easy to continue to impose such censorships and draw rigid boundaries, as they show the messy complexities of working together. Even amidst new regulations of control, examples abound of freedom, of sharing, of assertion. They inspire us to come to terms with ‘difference’ and conflict and live with such differences. Perhaps these examples can be seen as subversions and alternative assertions. But more than that, to borrow from James Scott, they are everyday forms of resistance, in their own way challenging stereotypes, and refusing to be silenced. Such interventions through documentaries, street theatre, media, women’s movement, our daily living practices etc. highlight the messy complexities of reality and inchoate ways of life, suggesting a different order of rationality against efforts made through censorship to categorise, classify and project a particular kind of sexuality and identity, and silence or marginalize others. Such interventions weave a narrative thread, which illuminate ruptures in dominant paradigms of sexuality and identity. When we celebrate our freedom of expression, when we resist censorship and break silences, we are in a way challenging and, within limits, transgressing an oppressive social order. We are celebrating our heterogeneity, our differences, and pluralities of our existences and experiences in spatial and political practices. We are disrupting the logic of rigid boundaries and providing moments of vulnerability in the dominant discourse.

Charu Gupta is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi.

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