Imagining ourselves to be free, we Indians are a nation of happy slaves, not the true libertines we should be

  • For Indians to experience genuine freedom, we need more libertines — not right-wing sexual scolds or earnest left-wing reformers.

  • India’s most significant struggles of the 2020s will pit personal freedoms against moral authoritarianism.

  • This struggle will be decided not by high-minded causes, but the cultural choices we exercise in our everyday lives.

They found Princy Tiwari in a sack dumped by the side of the road, her body sawn into three. Her father, police say, murdered the young Kalyan woman, for insisting on marrying a man who happened to be from another community. Mahendar Gupta allegedly shot his daughter for eloping with her boyfriend, then burned her body. A girl in Sasaram was shot by hitmen hired by her father, because she shamed her family by speaking out against local men who tried to rape her.

No one took out candlelight vigils for these young women, all killed this month gone by; nor did any politician call for the perpetrators to be hanged or castrated. There are some kinds of killing everyone understands.

Tradition is the most sophisticated form of tyranny, one so subtle that we rarely recognise its fetters. This tyranny is total. The most intimate — who we have sex with, or do not have sex with; the how and why of personal pleasure — is the most intensely policed. The enforcers, and the executioners, of this order are embedded not just on the streets, but in our homes.

For Indians to experience genuine freedom, we need more libertines — not right-wing sexual scolds or earnest left-wing reformers.

Glossy magazine accounts of the erotic lives of urban millennials mislead: most Indians inhabit a bleak sexual prison. In a recent paper, the scholars Tridip Ray, Arka Roy Chaudhuri and Komal Sahai pointed out just 5.82 percent of Indians marry outside their own caste — and that the percentage who do so has remained more or less invariant for over four decades. Three-quarters of marriages are still arranged by parents; 70 percent of women met their husbands only on the day of their wedding.

Findings by KG Santhya and others show that just 0.2 percent of young women, and 2 percent of young men, reported ever having casual sex.  Four percent of young women and 15 percent of young men had even experienced sex before marriage — the higher male figure, likely, having something to do with encounters with sex workers.

Imagining ourselves to be free, we are a nation of happy little slaves, dutifully carrying out our assigned roles; endlessly reproducing, as if by binary fission, a dystopic social order.

 Imagining ourselves to be free, we Indians are a nation of happy slaves, not the true libertines we should be

A million acts of defiance against an order which punishes the pursuit of pleasure are already evident. Photo for representation only. Getty Images

Liberals, for the most part, have been reluctant to talk about personal freedoms. To challenge sexual norms, the family and the community, the argument goes, risks sacrificing more important social gains for petty, personal causes. Instead, liberalism has sought to invoke and appropriate tradition for the purpose of social reform — a strategy that has served, mainly, to legitimise the repression of the religious right.

Tiwari, and the two other women killed for transgressing sexual taboos last month, were martyrs to no faith. In spite of its growing popularity as a slogan with campus radicals, freedom is not an Indian cause.

Libertines have, through history, played an important role in engendering liberalism. London, in the 18th century, was awash with material we would now consider pornographic: The historian Peter Wagner has correctly called the “age of Enlightenment” the “the age of Eros”: “a sort of downward osmosis” of these values leading to their absorption into popular culture — and then flowering, among other things, into the free speech protections of the United States constitution

Enlightenment erotica was, not infrequently, political: in L'orgie royale, published in in 1789, Louis XVI sleeps while the Empress Marie Antoinette has sex with the Comte d’Artois and the Duchesse de Poignac beside him; Gervaise de Latouche’s anti-Catholic History of Dom B, in 1743, was built around sexual adventures involving nuns and priests, part of a genre of work hammering away at the Catholic church’s repressive control of society.

Pornography, Wagner concludes, served as a “vehicle of protest against the authority of Church and State, and finally against middle-class morality”.

This work drew on a tradition of libertinism dating back to the middle ages, and earlier. Geoffrey Chaucer’s famously bawdy work is possibly its highest expression. In The Miller’s Tale, he has Alison, a “wild” teenager with a body “slim and small” and a “lickerish eye”, cuckold her rich, possessive husband with the charming Nicholas, even as the violin-playing Absalom stalks her without respite.

Alison succeeds in using sex to overturn power: her jealous husband is exposed as a delusional idiot; the stalker, Absolom, humiliated. Her lover, Nicholas, ends up wearing the brand of the adulterer on his buttocks, not her.

For classical Romans — inhabitants of the greatest empire the world has ever known — the idea that the state ought have a role in regulating free sexual expression would have seemed bizarre. Ovid, for example, wrote about homosexuality, impotence, menages-e-trois, and adultery, even encouraging husbands not to fret over their wives’ infidelities.

Explicit scenes of sexual intercourse — anal, masturbation, and fellatio — are common on early-classical Greek vases and terra cottas; the work of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles are replete with sex.

Pre-Islamic poet Imra’ul Qais, similarly, described ‘the contentment of love’ as “hugging, kissing, and belly-lapping/then hair-pulling and body-rocking that floods the eyes”. Even following the rise of Islam, the tradition continued: Abu’l Ala al-Ma’arri’s magnificent Epistle of Forgiveness, despite its religious themes, is charged with bawdy, irreverent humour.

Explicitly-sexual themes, in Indian tradition, feature not just in poetry, like Amru’s famous Sanskrit poetry, but in the temple architecture and the arts. From the Sringara Malli of the court of Bidar to Muhammad Muzdar Mehdune Lizzat-un-Nisa, a rich tradition of the erotic thrived across India.

In the 19th century, the nation-state and the dreary cult of Improvement acquired hegemony. This new kind of state did not just protect frontiers; it guarded society’s ideological boundaries, and punished deviance. Now, sexuality had to be policed; obscenity was the new heresy. In a 1968 essay, the critic Theodore Adorno pointed to the organic “relationship between sexual prejudices and fantasies of punishment, on the one hand, and ideological predispositions and inclinations of an authoritarian nature on the other”.

Victorian England’s vision of the sexual permissiveness as a threat was deeply internalised by Indians. Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign to annihilate desire, and the fetishisation of the male body by his Hindu-nationalist contemporaries weren’t that different: for both, the human body was a mere tool for an ideological cause.

The Indian republic embedded those authoritarian impulses into its cultural fabric, institutionalising the moralism of its freedom movement into a semi-official ideology. The possibilities of a different kind of culture represented by an Amrita Sher-Gil or Faiz Ahmad Faiz were consigned to the margins. Indian tradition itself was sanitised of its sexual possibilities: few Indians even know of the existence of erotic Sanskrit literature.

Faced with challenges to this official moralism, both India’s state and civil society have responded with repression. This is unsurprising. Battling claims for racial and gender equality in the 1950s, the United States sought to cast both as handmaidens of a corrosive tide of vice.  The idea had widespread support: in 1952, the board of trustees of the progressive, racially-integrated Earlham College publicly opposed the engagement of two of its students, a black woman and a white man.

Every ideological state draws, in some form, on this trope: Nazi Germany, after all, was built on stamping out the sexual individualism of the Weimar Republic, replacing it instead with the lebensborn camps of the SchutzStaffel, where the Master Race was to be bred.

The still-incomplete, and sharply contested, struggles for freedoms that began in the industrialised world in 1920s have been the crucible in which our world has  been forged. It is impossible to separate an Albert Einstein from the ideas of a Sigmund Freud or Erich Fromm; from the efflorescence of creativity in Weimar Europe. The birth of Apple or Microsoft were inextricably enmeshed with William Reich and the sexual revolution of the 1960s: Great ideas emerge in those historical moments when the world is stood on its head.

Emily Honig, among others, has thoughtfully documented how a generation of young Chinese sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution ended up experiencing personal independence and sexual freedoms, despite the efforts of Mao Zedong’s ideological commissars. Those social transformations laid the foundations for the new kind of China which would emerge under Deng Xiaoping.

India’s most significant struggles of the 2020s will pit personal freedoms against moral authoritarianism. This struggle will be decided not by high-minded causes, but the cultural choices we exercise in our everyday lives.

In universities and in coffee shops; in online comedy and music; in the acts of a Princy Tiwari: a million acts of defiance against an order which punishes the pursuit of pleasure are already evident. The backlash, of course, is also building.  The outcome of this contestation will determine whether India will be ruled by its people, or the love-jihad police and the cow vigilante.

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2020 12:44:43 IST