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Issue in Focus: Desire and the Discourse on Difference

The word diversity reminds me of three things: imperialism, national integration messages and the liberal market. So I can’t say I am a fan of the word. If we are to use the word to speak of a politics that is inclusive and open to pluralistic possibilities, I think it is important to excavate its past, to see how it’s been used so far and to what ends.

I love reading the diaries of European travellers. Their fascination with difference fascinates me. I do not mean to imply that no one was fascinated by differences before them – but only that I am interested in the way differences were taken up by Europeans, particularly in the late 19th and 20th centuries. By this time, European women were traveling to the colonies, mostly in search of eligible officers they could settle down with. As Ann Laura Stoler’s brilliant work shows, this migration of European women to the colonies ensured that the children born to European officers would be European, not mixed. In her book Race and the Education of Desire, she traces the Empire’s concerns with racial purity. As the study of racial difference and racial superiority evolved into a science, offering commentary on how the white race was not only considered superior culturally but also biologically supreme, it became important that white men produce white children, even when they were posted to the colonies of the empire. As large numbers of European women began to move to the colonies in order to become wives and mothers, it shaped discourses on what could be acceptable sexual relationships between white men, white women, brown men and brown women. If brown women were seen as seductive dangers in the colonies for white men and future mothers of mixed race children, brown men were seen both as sites of seduction and violence for white women. This led to strictly policed spaces – rules were made about how everyone could move within public and private spaces in relation to each other.

As we know from conversations on Article 377, the 19th century was also the time when sexual practices, other than those with a procreative purpose, were labelled perverse and criminal. So just as the discourse on racial superiority was moulding ideas of ideal desire between the races, discourses on criminality and medical normalcy were also simultaneously shaping what one could think of as “normal” desire between gendered bodies of any race. Working together, the discourses on race and desire made both non-heteronormative as well as interracial desire seem perverse. Since the empire was concerned mostly about the “health” of its primary citizen – the white man, the brown male body became all at once risqué not only for white women, but also white men. While white women were expected to become the epitome of domesticity, brown women became interesting for two reasons. They needed to be saved not only from their own seductive sexuality through laws that banned everything from public soliciting to sensual dances, but also from brown men, who could abuse them through what was considered culturally specific patriarchal norms in the colonies, such as child marriage, domestic abuse and sati. I do not mean to eschew the role these laws have played in facilitating feminist agency in India, and in drawing both brown men and women into the heart of liberal feminist politics. However, what I seek to underline here is that certain “cultures” were more likely to be suspected of violent or licentious behaviour. Thus, laws policing sexuality automatically engendered particular assumptions about race, and vice versa.

While on the one hand, the hand of the empire squashed diverse expressions of sexuality in order to maintain a certain kind of racial and familial order, what I want to point to is also how it co-opted the word diversity. At the very same moment that it was formulating rules on how white men must desire and marry in order to perpetuate “a good stock” for the empire, it was also interested in biologically and culturally classifying the colonies. So even as certain forms of diversity were being discouraged, the empire was busy making catalogues on other forms of diversity – everything ranging from butterflies to people was being classified to produce gendered stereotypes, and cement the idea that only two genders were biologically possible or normal. For example, photographs from the North East of India, where I work, show how tribes differed from each other in their use of clothes, ornaments, tattoos and piercings. Within tribes, these very same metrics are used to calibrate differences between men and women, boys and men, unmarried girls and married mothers. Once again, gender and sexuality were calibrated along racial lines – this time to showcase the racial diversity of the subjects of the empire. However, diversity among gender identities, itself was masked. If there were other gendered modes of being beyond the male/female binary, they were only studied in as much as they were understood or not at all.

In India – or in fact, the Indian subcontinent – these classifications were also shaped by precolonial knowledges. British travellers and early anthropological surveyors did not work alone; they relied on local scholars for their research. These scholars were often times men from the ruling classes, upper castes or from privileged families within tribes. Their positionality both in relation to those being studied and to the empire shaped colonial knowledge of race, gender norms and sexualities across the subcontinent.Thus, precolonial hierarchies informed colonial hierarchies — allowing precolonial ways of knowing to become enmeshed with newly emerging, sciences of race and gender. Thus, colonial knowledges often folded in local and precolonial ways of knowing, and reinscribed some of the prevalent gender. racial and caste hierarchies.

While Independent India inherited these complex knowledges, laws and policies, it also inherited the task of building a nation. The country was already given knowledge of its diversity but now had to be taught to stay together. Emerging media – newspapers, books, radio broadcasts, television, movies, billboards, public vehicles and even school syllabi – became channels for a message many of us grew up with: “unity in diversity.” This message acknowledges what one might call ‘cultural diversity’ but does not really talk about how this diversity shapes caste relations and gender relations in the country. It does not quite acknowledge that colonial discourses on the diversity of the colonies are essential to the formulation of Indian gender stereotypes – ideas about what the ideal Indian man and woman should wear, eat, and desire, and of Indian differences – how Indian Muslims, Christians or tribes may differ in what they wear, eat, and desire from the normative Indian man and woman. Not only do these norms reinscribe gendered stereotypes, but they also formulate normative Indians as upper caste Hindu subjects and all others as ‘differences’ from the norm, contributing to Indian diversity.

Social norms and criminal laws that stabilised race during colonial rule continued to inform both social as well as legal processes in independent India. The discourse on sexual violence makes bodies of different castes visible differently. Across the country, a wide majority is unsurprised if the perpetrator of sexual violence is revealed to be a man of a lower caste/class. Similarly, it is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to use caste and class as a basis for targeting different spaces within a city or town in different ways for preventing what they consider licentious or perverse sexual behaviour. Thus, policing of sexuality often reinscribes caste prejudices. Similarly, policing of caste is often intertwined with sexuality: for example people policing inter-caste relationships and marriages are often attempting to prevent the mixing of castes and are agents working to preserve caste purity. Here, I do not mean to imply that colonialism is responsible for the hostility towards inter-caste relations, but only to underline that precolonial aggressions against inter-caste relationships found new tools – the law and the police – during the colonial era. In the postcolonial period the manifestation of aggressions and microagressions is informed in equal part by precolonial and colonial norms.

Additionally, a discourse on diversity that is invested in national integration does not allow us to discuss how the sexuality of particular classes and castes are shaped by the selective liberation of others. Recently, a friend forwarded an article written for Firstpost by Christina Thomas Dhanaraj. The author is a Dalit writer and activist and notes that feminism in India often fails to note caste relations. I want to reiterate here her argument that women of upper classes and castes become liberated only at the expense of women of lower castes and classes who continue to labour, raising the children and cleaning the homes of upper caste feminists. This bears an eerie resemblance to colonial homes where white women were slowly becoming politically involved and were able to do so only because brown aayas watched over their children. In fact, like several colonial aayas, lower caste women living and working as nannies in upper caste homes either live away from their own children or are forced to pause their romantic/sexual lives for the fear of being dismissed from their jobs. As Dhanaraj rightly notes, we cannot stand in solidarity with each other simply by noting and acknowledging the difference between upper caste women and lower caste women. That kind of acknowledgement sometimes essentialises caste in order to show gender and sexual diversity. In fact, intersectionality as we know it is not enough. What we need is a relational approach that forces us to acknowledge how race and gender don’t simply intersect, but in fact co-produce each other. In other words, anxieties about race and caste superiority almost always shape how we think of gender and sexuality. Similarly, anxieties about “normal” or “natural” sexual behaviour often reinforce prejudices about caste and race. A relational approach can be of real value in India today, where heteronormativity is being reinscribed by groups invested in ethnic and caste purity. In order to truly oppose this emphasis on heteronormativity, it is not enough if we stand up for LGBTQI rights and diversity, but also that we understand that the policing of sexuality has also been intertwined with the policing of caste and race.

While anti-colonial sentiments tend to run high in India, the country hasn’t moved in the direction of decolonising diversity. Instead, with the liberalisation of the economy, diversity has become a marketable commodity. India’s tourism departments sells ‘Incredible India’ as a place where a traveller can see diverse people, animals, and places. Colonial writing echoes through these ads, in tour guides’ speeches, and in brochures about places. Through all of these discourses the Indian man and woman also often become a marketable commodity. It’s not as obvious in upper caste communities where perhaps ‘Indian clothes’ and ‘food’ are the most coveted objects. But in places like Majuli, where I conduct anthropological research, or across the North East, where various tribes live, the bodies of the tribal man and woman are still interesting to tourists because of their ‘difference.’ In fact, in some places where tourism is the only source of revenue, people wait in their ‘traditional’ wear in order to provide ‘authentic’ photographs of tribal masculinity and femininity for the tourist.

Diversity, I think, can be a deceptive word. On the surface it carries the promise of plurality and multiple possibilities. Yet, it is deployed in ways that simply reinscribe normative two-gender stereotypes and heteronormativity. Otherwise, it makes difference obvious in exploitative ways. To move past this problem and to reclaim the idea of diversity, what we need is not simply an education on sexuality and on gender, but on the role of desire in segregating the world into races and castes. A different discourse on desire would help us understand that to be diverse is not to divide the world into categories or to formulate laws that preserve the purity of some of those categories at the expense of others. To be diverse is to learn that these categories are unstable and they will fall apart as we choose to become intimate across differences and against the grain of norms. For such ideas of diversity to develop we need to recognise that race, gender, and caste co-produce each other and to decolonise one we need to decolonise them all.



Stoler, Ann Laura. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cover Image: India Today


Article written by:

Shweta's life is a little bit like a patchwork quilt. She started her career as a medical doctor, and then worked as a medical writer, producing multimedia content on sexual and reproductive health for several NGOs. Currently, she is a student of sociocultural anthropology, discovering the pleasures of being entangled with transnational and queer feminist scholarship and activism. She is grateful to the many people she has met in her life—family, friends, co-workers and mentors—who constantly push her to made her political views more and more nuanced. She hopes her writing reflects her openness to new modes of engaging with the world, and her curiosity about life. She writes about gender and sexuality both from her personal experiences, and from the academic interest she takes in the subtle textures of human experiences. She has called many places home in her life. Currently, she resides in Washington DC, USA and Chennai, India.