‘The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity.’ (Giorgio Agamben, What Is The Contemporary?, p. 45)
This is a line I often quote because it captures the sheer effort needed to understand the present moment we live in, in which being bombarded by positions, polarizations, innovations and identities is a daily affair. The lights of the century tell us that we are now to know exactly what to call ourselves, how we feel about ourselves and others, what work we want to do and how to behave if we want to succeed in this work. They tell us that there is a citizen figure that must align itself to the state or to development if it is to succeed in life: it must not dissent, it must approve of ‘surgical strikes’ that the government carries out in the name of national security, it must show love for the nation before it starts to watch a film in a theatre, and it must acquire the ‘skills’ demanded by the 21st century. We must therefore also look to the state to legitimize ourselves, our ‘innermost’
selves, our ‘sexual selves’, our ‘sexuality’ (I put all of these in quotes because I take issue with an understanding of sexual practice as specially private and interior to us).
Jyoti Puri’s book is an attempt to get a glimpse of the shadows, the intimate obscurity as Agamben names the aspects of the present that are not immediately available on the surface. She tries to step beyond the given-ness of the need for ‘sexual citizenship’ and the narrative of the always already homophobic state that criminalizes the readily available homosexual subject. In order to do so, Puri has shaped her methodology around the following arguments: a) the state is not a monolithic entity that acts on objective neutrality and rationality, it is a creature of subjectivity, inconsistencies and paradoxes; b) the regulation of sexuality does not take place through a singular law and neither is it directed at a single putative subject; c) there is no self-contained homosexual subject that emerges as a result of the discourse of sexuality in the Indian context; d) this regulation of sexuality is necessary for the state to maintain its own authority and its presence in the face of changes that are taking place in the era following liberalization; and e) we all participate in this daily production of the state as a rational and functional entity.
Puri argues that it is precisely at this moment in time that the relationship between ‘state and sexuality’ surfaces: ‘Useful as the issues of dance bars and other cases explored at the end of book are, it is the protracted struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in the contemporary Indian context that provides insights into sexuality’s constitutive effects on states’ (p. 6). For Puri, this moment seems to enable the entry of a string of terms/phrases that frame her work, connected to trends in theorizing sexual politics in the last decade: ‘sexual justice’, ‘sexual citizenship’, ‘sexual state’, ‘pivoting to the state’, ‘bio-politics’, ‘excess’, ‘post-liberalization’ to name a few.
Just as it is hard for the author to look beyond ‘the lights of our century’, as a reviewer who has participated in the debates around Section 377 it is difficult for me to keep my own ready-at-hand positions from leaping onto this page. So I only attempt to read the book in terms of its own desires: to expose the subjective aspects of statecraft, to dismantle easy readings of the relationship between subject-hood and state mechanisms, and to reveal a ‘sexual state’ that feeds off regulating what it terms sexual excesses in order to actively constitute itself.
The chapters in the book move from a pursuit of statistical data related to anti-sodomy law and an analysis of the spaces, iterative practices and procedures within the National Crime Records Bureau, both of which feed Puri’s argument about sexuality and bio-politics; to exposing the irrationalities of anti-sodomy law and its pulling of a range of sexual practices within its ambit; to ethnographic work on the racialization of religious and other minorities vis a vis the question of sexual crimes and who commits them, in order to unseat the idea that the homosexual is the object of such criminalization (Muslims, Sikhs and hijras are shown to occupy this place in the collective imagination of the policemen interviewed); to the pitfalls of any movement that ‘pivots to the state’ in search of legitimation; to finally an analysis of the two so-called landmark judgments of 2009 and 2013 as different approaches to the relationship between the state and sexuality in ‘post-liberalized’ India.
The argument that the state is not an entity carved out of rationality, that it acts through bias, hatred, passionate attachment, disgust, jealousy, shame, love, loyalty, nostalgia, arousal, sympathy, and memory, has been made by a range of scholars in the past.1 Puri here introduces the concept of the ‘sexual state’, and what she essentially means is a state that is constituted by what are staged as concerns surrounding sexuality (public interest, social and moral order, ‘excess’ and so on). ‘Analysing how states are constituted partly by the mandate to contain sexuality’s putative threat to the social order, this stance looks at the ways sexuality easily affects every aspect of the assemblage abbreviated as “the state”’ (p. 13).
The addition of ‘sexual’ as an adjective in front of terms that exist within the world of political science and legal studies (justice, citizenship, rights) is a move that has to be interrogated carefully to see if it holds analytical potential. We find an example of this kind of move in Jeffrey Weeks’s work, where he offers us the term ‘Sexual Citizen’, a ‘new phenomenon in the erotic firmament … could be anyone, in fact, but for one key characteristic. The sexual citizen exists—or, perhaps better, wants to come into being—because of the new primacy given to sexual subjectivity in the contemporary world … this new personage is a harbinger of a new politics of intimacy and everyday life’ (1998, p. 35).
In Puri’s argument (as in Weeks’s) the adjective is not simply meant to ‘include’ considerations of sexual practice in intellectual traditions that have excluded them (though she does repeatedly mention that scholars have tended to ignore sexuality as an aspect of bio-political configurations). She argues that ‘sexuality’ is indeed constitutive of the Indian state, of citizenship. But there is a taking for granted of this very ‘sexuality’ here that disallows the term from offering a real understanding of the relationship between the everyday and the official, between socio-cultural practices and legal injunctions. The book falls back on precisely that which it claims to be suspicious of: the law and its place in subject formation. Though Puri establishes that Section 377 is not the beating heart of sexual politics, she declares that it is this that reveals the state’s need for sexual regulation (the dance bar issue and the issue of migration are dealt with peripherally to this). While she herself rightly states that the ‘law has come to define the interface between state and sexuality’ (p. 8), she falls back on an in-depth analysis of legal texts and the discourse surrounding them. This book on anti-sodomy law should precisely have not been about the cases in question. While her ethnography is rich and could offer much by way of discussions on translation, disjuncture between transnational grammars and local imaginations, the relationship between cultural/social formations and the law, the continuing tension between the much-vilified ‘public morality’ (which I still think holds some value for analysis and understanding) and the celebrated ‘constitutional morality’ (that firmly places the law at the centre of everyday life and its affects), she is forced to lead these rich texts back into a rescue of ‘us’ from Section 377, by implying that since what the police and government officials act on the basis of has nothing to do with the Section in question, it should be repealed.2 The political usefulness of such a gesture is in question because it does not actually address the ways in which sexual regulation can be addressed in sites other than the law and identity politics.
Returning to Weeks’s category of the sexual citizen, the primacy that he says it is given is not to be carried on our shoulders as a triumph of a new age, since it is deeply complicit in the logics of capital in a world which continues to deny marginalized caste and religious groups their citizenship and their freedom. ‘Sexuality’ has entered the glossary of every corporate multinational and global NGO, in such a way that while companies happily send contingents to pride marches they still refuse to acknowledge other kinds of difference within their workplaces. No one funds the eradication of caste and religious majoritarianism. Sexuality has also coalesced into an aspect of identity that holds many categories one can place oneself in, simply offering us a multiplication of *blank* sexuals instead of an analysis of either transactions in the world or practices that cannot easily be represented within existing political languages. While on the one hand Puri sharply picks up on the use of terms like ‘galat kaam’ or ‘Mohammedan’, used by the police and other officials, in positing ‘sexuality’s constitutive effects on state’ or ‘sexuality’s excesses’ (p. 117) or ‘sexuality’s irrational, excessive, and ever-present potential to disrupt the social order’, she almost makes sexuality sound like a coherent entity that has these effects, giving it a personhood. With this is lost the transactional and relational nature of sexual practice or gesture or act. Issues of language, translation, representation, public-private divides that get transgressed—these do not find a place in the analysis to the extent that they should3 in order to establish the nature of this sexual state, as an ‘assemblage’. Puri argues that the replies given by the government during the legal proceedings produce sexuality as ‘essentially disorderly and given to excess in ways that require the tempering effects of the state on behalf of the public’ (p. 125). This is exactly the way in which the ‘public’ itself is imagined, as both needing protection and yet always threatening to cross the line to become immoral, deviant, depraved and unruly. Isn’t it then a problem of public-ness rather than sexuality that we are faced with? A problem of transactions that cross over between the realms of private and public domains?4
The larger point I’m trying to make here is that inspite of attempting to step outside the narrow frameworks instituted by sexuality politics in the contemporary moment, she returns to that same narrowness in her analysis, by paying heed to the demands of sexual citizenship being made in our present. For instance, her reference to the ‘decriminalization’ and ‘re-criminalization’ of homosexuality in the ‘post-liberalized context’ (p. 126) ends up erasing some of her own analysis, in that it assumes that these have indeed taken place: that 2009 did decriminalize and 2013 recriminalize homosexuality,5 in spite of this imagination of the law’s power over us having had terrible effects on how many of us understand our lives.
In the book the term post-liberalization serves as a placeholder for all the changes that the country is going through and the assumption made is that liberalization has shaken the foundations of the Indian state, leading it to obsess about sex and sexual practice in a way that offers it an oar (or rather the whole boat) while it’s floundering in choppy seas. The example Puri gives is of Russia, which she argues is attempting to gather shreds of its disintegrating self through the discourse of patriotic oneness in the face of homosexuality. But there are no such clear examples possible in the ‘largest democracy in the world’, because caste and religion are the social aspects of the self used here to construct patriotic oneness. Even the rape and murder of Monica Ghurde in Goa led to vicious fights about India and Pakistan on online forums! So why then, in the era following economic liberalization, does the struggle against Section 377 provide the insights needed to understand sexuality’s constitution of the state? One answer provided by Puri to this question is that between the two judgements an analysis is made possible of the relationship between sexuality and state—that the 2009 judgment tries to mitigate the reach/role of the state and enable personal autonomy in the face of statist oppression; and the 2013 judgment tries to reinforce the role of the state precisely because it’s already being threatened by forces of globalization. For her, the struggle against Section 377 provides an entry point through which to analyse the regulation of sexual practice and how it serves a state in crisis
(p. 17). What is missing here is an understanding of the trajectories that led us to a transnational legalistic imagination of the future, and the book merely touches on the ‘transnational grammar of gay rights’ without travelling any further into why ‘we’ desire what we do and how this desire is organized in the present. Yet another argument about the relationship between sexuality and state lies in the term ‘bio politics’, which is several times repeated (especially in the chapter on the NCRB) but without laying out the extent of the bio-political terrain of sexual politics in India.
Before I end, a thought on her process, since this troubled me when I first read the book. In her introductory chapter she refers to the work of scholars in ethnography and historiography who alert us to the dangers of seeing archives and ethnographic sites as simply sites of information gathering and not discursive production. She displays carefulness about trusting the legal archive at face value by ‘taking the caveat that legal materials are not merely descriptive but normative, and the caution that legal archives are often used to produce the very histories and subjects that they ostensibly corroborate…’ (p. 51). It is then curious that she does not discuss the ways in which her own intervention in the NCRB records could act as a moment of discursive production. A section that explains how she tried hunting down the statistical data on crimes registered under Section 377 ends with her demanding that the numbers be collated, the information be produced in a coherent and accessible form. This move, for her, is justified in the idea that ‘a fate worse than being captured by numbers is being neglected by them’ (here she paraphrases Terry Marsden), and she goes on to argue that the absence of these numbers in the crime records is telling of the ways in which bio-politics requires the negation of the numbers from the archive. What is sorely required here is an analysis of the possible effects of such a move, of pulling ‘ourselves’ into the numbers. The effect cannot be explained simply through the idea of ‘inclusion’, for now there is a neat file on Section 377 that can be pulled and can be framed within governmental discourse in a number of ways. In yet another section in which she describes her conversations with a group of constables, she says, ‘I ask the constables whether Section 377 should change’ (p. 94). Ten years ago these same constables would not have known what Section 377 referred to, but now they do, and are being asked to take a position.6 The value of this historical shift is ignored in the analysis, which takes a presentist stance in that it assumes that everyone knows what Section 377 is and has a position on it.The discussions with constables and police commissioners throw up crucial insights into the ways in which sexual crimes are imagined—to the members of law enforcement agencies, Muslims, Sikhs and hijras are the over-sexed and potentially dangerous communities that are likely to perform sexual crimes. Puri makes an observation at one point that while she, the feminist researcher, is there hunting for evidence and hard facts, the policemen lay claim to the category of experience to explain their views. So while she continues to observe and comment on her own movements within the archive, she doesn’t allow space for an analysis of her own place in the larger play of languages, formulations, and ways of framing what she sees as the question of sexuality in the contemporary.