Indian patriotism, and by extension our current strain of nationalism, is deeply rooted in patriarchy. It views queer and inter-faith/caste marriage equality rights as a threat to its ability to organize society and wield power in the manner that it has.
Patriotism and Patriarchy are bros
Ultimately, the term “patriotism” is derived from the Greek word “patriotēs,” which means “fellow countryman.” It in turn comes from the root word “patris,” meaning “fatherland,” where “pater,” means “father.” The term “patriotism” is defined as the love, loyalty, and devotion that a person feels toward their country or nation. It often includes a sense of pride in the country’s leaders, heroes, history, culture, and achievements, and a willingness to defend and promote its interests.
In India, patriotism is often translated as देशभक्ति (“Desh-bhakti”) in several regional languages. Where Desh (देश) refers to a person’s or a people’s native land and Bhakti (भक्ति) refers to devotional worship. So a ‘bhakt’ is usually a devotee who is directed toward one supreme deity or practices “emotional devotionalism,” particularly to a personal god or to spiritual ideas.
Desh-Bhakt is not unlike the concept pati- parameśvara in a Hindu marriage wherein the husband is considered the lord and the supreme deity for the wife. The wife should serve her husband with love, devotion, respect, and obedience, and regard him as her protector, provider, and guide. Or how in Indian Muslim and Christian societies, the husband is considered the head of the household and is responsible for providing for his family. Duty towards one’s conjugal family is a necessary virtue of the masculine practitioner of faith.
However, patriarchal cultural norms can be conflated with religious teachings, leading to the marginalization and oppression of women. This can take the form of denying women education or employment opportunities, restricting their freedom of movement, and limiting their participation in public life.
“A wife must always obey her husband”
In the Indian context, Patriarchy and patriotism are intertwined and both seem to operate with the objective of maintaining the hierarchical power structure. To understand how these concepts are intertwined, imagine a ‘typical’ conservative patriarchal Indian family.
In this family, the father expects his children and wife to be obedient, just like how a country expects its citizens to be loyal. The patriarch may use fear and punishment to enforce his authority. The wife or children may feel trapped by their roles and unable to speak out against the patriarch’s actions, out of fear of retribution. Not unlike today in India, where individuals who dissent or critique the government may face British-era sedition laws or UAPA.
Today, most Indians (55%) agree that “women and men make equally good political leaders,” yet in the very same study 80% also responded that “men should have more prominent roles than women” with 9 in 10 Indians agreeing with the notion that “a wife must always obey her husband”, including nearly 2/3rds who completely agree with this sentiment. The patriarchal structure has been in existence for centuries and has shaped our culture, values and how we engage in politics.
However, this unbridled loyalty is often undemocratic in its nature and does not allow room for dissent or questioning. In India, this loyalty is usually driven by our need to be dutiful and fulfilling children to the Motherland. The country is viewed as a mother figure, “bhaarat maata” (भारत माता), who needs our devotion and sacrifice, without acknowledging its flaws or problems. Blindly following religious leaders without considering their motives or actions is pervasive, and individuals tend to conform to gender norms that favor men over women and suppress their individuality.
The Patriarchy Vs Same-Sex Marriage Equality – Supreme Court
The debate in the Supreme Court of India for marriage equality challenges the premise of patriarchy in several ways. It presents marriage as a sacrosanct institution, one that is supposed to only occur “between a biological man and biological woman” according to the Centre, with the stated purpose of procreation.
“The petitioners want to re-write, re-structure and re-engineer the special marriage act to suit their requirements. Would an enactment be read in such a way that it applies in one way to heterosexuals and in another way to the same sex?” – Solicitor General Tushar Mehta speaking for the Center in the Marriage Equality Hearings.
Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud later countered the argument by stating “there is no absolute concept of a man or an absolute concept of a woman” for the Indian government based on how the Transgender Persons Act of 2019 is read. Senior Advocate KV Vishwanathan argued for the petitioners that “Centre says that … we cannot procreate. Is procreation a valid defense … None of the marriage statutes prescribe any upper limit for marriage. Women … who are unfit for pregnancy, are allowed to marry. Heterosexual couples who cannot have children are allowed to marry”.
This is probably why SG Tushar Mehta also said in court, “Right to marry can’t mean compelling the State to create a new definition of marriage.” In the eyes of the Centre any other kind of marriage is outside the very definition of marriage. He also stated, “There are prohibitions related to age of marriage, bigamy, who you can and cannot marry, the concept of marriage is not only a union of two individuals but also a union of two families”.
Marriage historically and even today, is a social tool used to maintain ‘purity’ of caste, class, religion etc. According to a report by Pew Research Center, most Indian families still prefer marriages arranged within their religion and caste. Today with the fear around supposed ‘Love Jihad’, marriages outside the rigid boundaries of religion often lead to violent consequences, including “honour” killings. “The caste system is hereditary, and the practice of marrying within the caste ensures that the hierarchy is perpetuated”. Srinivas Goli observes, “Inter-caste marriage among Dalits is an expression of their resistance against the oppressive social order and an assertion of their human dignity”.
“To say that heterosexual marriages are the norm and are foundational to the existence of state has a similar ring to the theoretical underpinnings of the miscegenation statutes law” Adv Vishwanathan stated (Miscegenation refers to interracial sexual relationships). Drawing similarities between the opposition of same-sex and interfaith marriages prevalent in Indian jurisprudence and society.
Our society often views marriage as the only legal and socially legitimate relationship of any respect and value. In the eyes of the Centre much like Mother India, this sacrosanct institution of marriage needs protection. Lest it be corrupted by the influence of the west and elite. This is why the opposition to marriage equality is often couched in the language of religion and culture. However, this argument is a smokescreen to hide the real reason for opposition – that it threatens the existing social hierarchy.
Whether it is in the matter of queer marriages or interfaith marriages, marriage equality is viewed as a challenge to the existing social hierarchy and patriarchal gender roles, which are based on heteronormativity and the binary understanding of gender. SG Tushar Mehta said, “Who will be a wife in a man-man marriage?” In case a partner died for claiming support, who would be called widow/widower, he asked. Highlighting the fear around destabilizing the prevalent gender roles.
The majority vote of India did not decriminalize queer relationships, the supreme court did. Something the Centre seems to assume has not changed since 2018, “Societal acceptance is needed for recognition of a union and this has to be through the parliament and if it is done by the court then it is detrimental to the LGBTQIA+ community since you are forcing something against the will of the people.”
‘Let us be blessed just as heterosexual couples are (in the eyes of the law)…Not elite at all. So many people have called me…from Hissar, Chhattisgarh, Surat…Let the union bless us just as they do any other couple’, Adv. Nundy said for petitioners. Adv. Arundhati Katju remarked how “Every progressive country has recognised same-sex marriages… We are no different, and we ask for the right to not be different”
The demand from the petitioners of the court and their fellow countrymen is a plea to be seen as equals. This very demand for equality and justice is looked upon as criticism of the country, the ruling government, the patriarchy and our culture.
Criticism and dissent do not equate to a lack of love for our country. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. When individuals point out the problems within our country and work towards resolving them, they are showing their loyalty and love for the country. It takes courage to speak out against the status quo, and we should be encouraging this behavior rather than stifling it. However, in India, this notion is still not fully ingrained, and we still seem to have a long way to go before we can truly call ourselves a democracy that values free speech and dissent.
The intertwining of patriarchy and patriotism in India has led to the marginalization and oppression of women and the LGBTQIA+ community. This is evident in the current strain of nationalism that views queer and inter-faith marriage equality rights as a threat to Bharat Maa. Blind loyalty to the country and its leaders without questioning their actions or motives has become the norm, leading to a lack of dissent and acceptance of individuality.
The ongoing debate in the Supreme Court of India for marriage equality challenges the patriarchal, sexist and exclusionary notions of marriage in India. It is time for India to recognize the flaws in its patriarchy-coded patriotism and work towards building a more inclusive and equal society where everyone can live with dignity and respect.
“Reforming Family Law in India: Uniform Civil Code vs. Gender Justice” by Dr. Archana Parashar
“Personal Law Reforms and the Indian Constitution” by Flavia Agnes