“We’re still being policed on our food, dress, consumption, writing [and] choices, by the society, government and its machinery…Murders, rapes, thefts, false charges, shootouts and lots of other problems will not allow us to celebrate the [Section] 377 [strikedown] tomorrow. We all know who is going to benefit out of this.”
These words of hijra trans activist, A. Revathi, after the Supreme Court verdict which decriminalised consensual same-sex relations between two adults in 2018, were foretelling.
With the only hurdle in living otherwise privileged lives being removed, the Hindu savarna respectable queers were now free to take their place as homonationalist subjects. As one writer remarks – the LGBTQ+ community was now finally free to separate itself from being forcibly perceived as left liberal and declare its fidelity to the current right wing government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
If the events from September 2018 onwards are anything to go by, this has glaringly been the case.
On February 3, 2020, sedition charges were filed against 51 people for shouting slogans at the Mumbai Queer March in support of a PhD student from the Jawaharlal National University (JNU), who himself has been charged under the same draconian colonial law of sedition. The latter’s charges are yet to be adjudicated. Notably, the local police had earlier denied permission for the Pride march, out of fear that slogans opposing India’s new citizenship laws, which has been at the centre of turmoil and opposition for months now, would be raised at the march.
The police officials insisted that the Pride march be limited to “LGBTQ” issues, seeking to employ an artificial separation between queer identity and other marginalised identities that most queer people inhabit. This conditionality for the Pride march comes in the backdrop of over 2,000 trans persons being excluded from the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), the exercise for which concluded in Assam last year.
Concerns have been expressed by trans activists of similar exclusions if the citizenship law processes go ahead as planned by the present government.
Noted gay rights activists, known for their support towards a right-wing Hindu agenda, were quick to jump on the issue, blaming “left scumbags” for “forcing intersectionality down our throats” and inviting the state to unleash its punitive powers on a young trans-activist.
Their tweets not only invited the wrath of a police state on fellow members of the LGBTQ community but also went on to mis-gender trans activists using their deadname, and became a cesspool of sexist, misogynist tirade against a queer activist.
The ‘good’ queers in aid of the nation-state
This is far from the first time that members of the queer community in India have supported the ruling right wing government in using sexual politics to advance suppression of constitutional and legal claims of other communities.
On August 5, 2019, when the present government unilaterally read down Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which preserved Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, many queer groups such as the Queer Hindu Alliance, and other LGBT identifying people were quick to weaponise LGBT rights in support of the government’s actions.
Their misplaced claim was that the reading down meant that the ruling on Section 377 (decriminalising same sex relations) by the Supreme Court of India would now apply to Kashmir and this herald “gay liberation for Kashmiris”.
Kashmiri queer activists, however, were quick to point out this “pinkwashing” of the Kashmir issue and the artificial separation sought between their identities as queer and as Kashmiris.
The term “homonationalism” was coined by noted queer theorist Jasbir Puar, to indicate this exact phenomenon – a liberal gay and lesbian rights discourse is used to gain access to cultural and legal forms of citizenship by some “good” queers at the expense of the exclusion of sexual and racial “others”. What we see, therefore, is a collusion between homosexuality and hyper-nationalism generated through the buy-in by gay, lesbian, and queer subjects themselves into the nationalist rhetoric of patriotism, in return for symbolic inclusion.
This biased incorporation of queer subjects as protected by the state rests upon specific performances of “acceptable scripts of homosexuality”. Homonationalism in such scenarios creates the ‘ideal’ sexual identity based on homonormative ideologies that reproduce dominant caste, class, racial, gendered and national ideals.
This is defined in direct opposition to the un-modern and perverse sexuality of the racial “other”.
Thus, the “other” in the Indian context – the Muslims, Kashmiris (always signified by the figure of the “terrorist”), Dalits, Adivasis, immigrants and those who are not considered modern – are the ones who express and perpetuate homophobia, merely by virtue of different cultural and religious systems and norms.
With this, the state, through the active and willing participation of some gay, lesbian and queer subjects, is able to divide queer people into those who must be protected and those who are eliminated from protection.
Behind the veil of decriminalisation as progress
Many LGBT activists in India have been quick to come to the rescue of the ruling government as the vanguard of LGBT progressiveness, primarily on the basis that the Supreme Court judgment came at a time when they were in power and the government did not actively present an opposition.
This is far from reality.
Not only are state institutions – personified by elected officials – steeped with negative stereotypes about the queer community, the Indian government has refrained from actively protecting queer persons from violence and discrimination, by abstaining from voting at the UN Human Right council last year.
Most egregiously, the government of India passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Acts, which has been uniformly lambasted by the trans community for being more violative than it is protective, including violating right to self-determination, not providing reservation in education and employment, not recognising trans families and discriminating in punishment for physical and sexual violence against trans persons.
Moreover, postcolonial queer theorists have long noted the pitfalls of using legislative inclusion as the marker of progress as it is steeped in colonial, racialised, classed, caste-based and gendered understanding of “progress”.
Instead, looking at the conditions of lived realities of queer lives that are shaped by caste, religion, class, ability, geographic location, and gender, amongst other axes of identities in which one exists, paints a less than happy picture for “queer rights” in India. Queer activists in India, and Dalit queer scholars in particular, have been deeply critical of what a liberal rights framework can achieve.
They have been at the forefront of exposing how caste, class and religious lines deeply shape and construct acceptable sexualities and gender expressions in India, which lie much beyond the purview of decriminalisation.
What the last few months in India establish is the successful creation of an ideal sexual subject protected by the law, in return for their loyalty to a majoritarian politics. For these homonationalist queers, the fight for a narrow “gay liberation” may have ended with the Section 377 verdict in India.
But, for other queers whose lives do not allow them or those who refuse to see queer liberation as towing a state sanctioned normative living, the fight is far from over.
Shreshtha Das is a gender and sexuality rights activist and lawyer presently based in New Delhi, India. Shreshtha has a Masters degree in Gender, Violence and Conflict from the University of Sussex and is exploring how gender and sexual identities are created and employed during periods of conflict and instability.
Dr. Aijaz Ahmad Bund is a LGBT activist from Kashmir. He is the founder and chairperson of Sonzal Welfare Trust that works for the welfare of gender and sexual minorities in J&K.