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Hijras are described as eunuchs and intersexed individuals, and they are a subgroup within the transgender community in South Asia. They go beyond Western descriptions of LGBT persons and are better understood as a complex interplay of gender, sexuality, traditions, and kinship. Hijras face social stigma and legal discrimination due to their nonconformance with the gender and sexual norms of hetrosexuality dominant in India’s society. They negotiate their identity through religion and mythology, whereby they undergo rituals of castration and emasculation, by virtue of which they play a significant role in ceremonies and festivals. Previously, legal frameworks like the anti-sodomy law of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the lack of a gender category for the transgender in official government documents resulted in discrimination and marginalization of the Hijra community. They faced harassment and violence from the police, medical establishment, and other individuals, and they experienced systemic exclusion from vital social services like employment and healthcare. Legal reform in India, such as the Supreme Court’s recognizing the transgender community as a “third gender” in 2015 and the decriminalization of sodomy in 2018, have been positive steps to improve the status of Hijras. However, inconsistencies in the definition of transgender persons and ambiguity in operationalizing the self-identification process remain, posing a challenge to effective policy implementation. Sociocultural norms of Hindutva and homophobic ideology are still prevalent, resulting in little improvement in the marginalized status of Hijras and the transgender community in India.

Article

Kristina M. Teater and Laura Dudley Jenkins

Freedom of religion is a constitutional right in India, but this religiously diverse democracy regulates religion in several ways, including enforcing religious personal laws, regulating religious minority educational institutions, monitoring conversions, limiting religious appeals during political campaigns, and outlawing acts that outrage religious feelings. The 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976 added the word “secular” to the Indian constitution, which provides a distinctive model of religion-state relations and regulation that is rooted in historical struggles with colonial rule and abundant religious diversity. The “personal law” system grants major religious communities distinct family laws. Religious minorities have regulated autonomy in the sphere of education based on constitutional commitments to minority colleges and educational institutions. The religious freedom clause in the Indian constitution is one of the most comprehensive in the world, yet several state-level “freedom of religion” acts prohibit “forcible” or “induced” conversions. Affirmative action or “reservation” policies also necessitate regulating conversions, as low castes lose their eligibility upon conversion to Islam or Christianity. Appealing for votes on the basis of religion or caste is a “corrupt practice.” A colonial-era statute continues to outlaw “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Constitutional and state regulations of cow slaughter also protect the religious beliefs of some Hindus. Whether defending “religious freedom” by limiting conversions, or criminalizing insults to religious beliefs, laws in India to “protect” religions and religious persons at times threaten the practice and expression of diverse religious perspectives.

Article

Rina Verma Williams and Sayam Moktan

With over one billion adherents worldwide and 15% of the world’s population, Hinduism is the fourth largest, and among the oldest, of the major world religions, with important political aspects that reverberate well beyond South Asia. Yet it is perhaps the least studied of the major world religions. Hinduism is also one of the most geographically concentrated religions of the world. The majority of Hindus are concentrated in two South Asian countries, Nepal and India, where Hindus constitute 80% or more of the population. Small but politically influential diasporic communities of Hindus are found throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada. Key characteristics of Hinduism that set it apart from Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), especially politically, include its polytheistic nature and lack of one single authoritative text; the tremendous variation in its practice across locality and caste; and its frequently informal practice beyond the confines of official institutions such as temples. Hinduism has been compatible with a range of regime types over time in India and Nepal, including empire, monarchy, and democracy. Both India and Nepal are officially secular countries, but the status of secularism in both countries is contested by the forces of Hindu nationalism, a movement that seeks to institutionalize the political, social, and cultural predominance of Hinduism. Religious conversion is expressly prohibited in Nepal; in India, it is increasingly under legislative attack. The politics of caste are an important political aspect of Hinduism in both India and Nepal. While politics in both countries remain dominated by upper castes, important lower-caste political mobilization has appeared in India, but has yet to take hold in Nepal. A better understanding of Hinduism’s political aspects has enormous potential to enhance knowledge of religion and politics more broadly.