The Fight For Identity

Fight for identity rushati mukherjee

The anxiety of an already-marginalised people, set apart not only by sexuality but also the accompanying issues of religion, caste and class has been addressed by placating the Right Wing. And the results have been troubling, says Rushati Mukherjee as she tries to take a look at how India’s LGBTQ community reconciles the national with the personal.

On the 30th of November, 2016, the Supreme Court of India ruled that playing the national anthem before every film screening had become mandatory. The pronouncement, as laid down by Judges Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy, stated that citizens are obliged to stand up on it being played as a mark of respect for the nation-state.

“It is a fascist ruling,” she says bluntly. “It is coming from an institution that does not accept criticism of itself. That should tell you something.”

A few weeks and half a country away, Anindya Hajra, talking over the phone with this correspondent, does not mince her words. “It is a fascist ruling,” she says bluntly. “It is coming from an institution that does not accept criticism of itself. That should tell you something.” Hajra is a member of Pratyay Gender Trust, an NGO that fights for the rights of transgender women in Kolkata. Her statement is reflective of the unease unleashed by the ruling within the country. But coming from a member of the queer community, the statement is especially stark.

“In our country, there is still an archaic law that has not been rectified yet,” says Souvik Som, a resident of Kolkata. “When, according to one section of the constitution, one is already a criminal, yet another mandate to prove one’s worth as a citizen is not appreciated.” Som is the organiser of Kolkata’s Rainbow Pride Parade, an annual celebration of queer identity. During the Parade, hundreds of citizens of India walk the streets demanding recognition of their identities from the Indian state. Som is referring to the notorious Section 377, the decriminalisation of which by the Delhi High Court was overturned by the Supreme Court in December 2013. With the existence of Section 377, the identities represented by the Pride flag: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and non-binary, amongst others, are effectively invalidated. They are not merely erased: there is no acknowledgment of their having existed in the first place.

In a country where identity politics, on various levels, has repeatedly led to conflict between minority communities and the Nation-State, the passing of the mandate by the Supreme Court has struck a sharp nerve.

In a country where identity politics, on various levels, has repeatedly led to conflict between minority communities and the Nation-State, the passing of the mandate by the Supreme Court has struck a sharp nerve.  “Identity politics goes back to the independence struggle in India, or even longer back in time,” says Pawan Dhall, queer activist. “In the queer context, identity politics has emerged through community mobilisation efforts. We fight against social stigma, discrimination and violence.”

Within the queer community, the national identity and the self-identity are set for a head-on collision. Clashes with community members on the issue have become common following the sharp rise in nationalist sentiment across the country.

If identity politics, or a desire to assert one’s unique self-identification, created the country of India, it has also propelled tensions within the Nation-State. The irony is undeniable but unfortunate. Some conflicts, such as those in Kashmir, Bastar or the more successful Telangana campaign, raged with armed voices. Others are closer to home. “For the past few months, I have been observing a rise of a pseudo-nationalist perspective,” says Hajra. “There has been a codification of a lot of things, such as what it means to be a patriot or what it means to be a citizen or what it means to be an Indian. All other forms are being wiped out. It has got me worried and angry.” Hajra’s fears are not just focused on the society outside the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Within the queer community, the national identity and the self-identity are set for a head-on collision. Clashes with community members on the issue have become common following the sharp rise in nationalist sentiment across the country. The anxiety of an already-marginalised people, set apart not only by sexuality but also the accompanying issues of religion, caste and class, has been addressed by placating the Right Wing.  And the results have been troubling.

“There is a lot of homo-nationalism and homo-normativity within the queer community,” says Hajra. “One of the ideas that emerges from this is that a certain gender identity is correct because it is ‘Indian’. Community members often point out that because it has been shown in Hindu mythological stories, it is valid. Aren’t you then saying that an identity is acceptable because it is ‘Indian’? Does this not imply that the others are somehow false alien imports?”

The temptation to justify the existence of a group of people by citing precedence is understandable. It is a safe, easy route to take. It suggests that the idea did not originate from a specific individual or group, and if such a culprit cannot be identified, no one can be blamed. But where, then, does this idea leave the people whose culture does not offer any such escape route?

“When leaders of communities declare our identities illegitimate under their beliefs, then the space to negotiate becomes that much narrower,” says Som. “Legal battles are the least of it. Socially and morally, we are placed under attack.”

Effectively, these are the people who inhabit the no-man’s-land between queer identities and cultural identities. It does not ensure them their safety: quite the contrary. They are exposed from both sides: they are ostracised within their own culture for their sexual or gender identity, while on the other hand they are attacked within larger society for their cultural identity

Effectively, these are the people who inhabit the no-man’s-land between queer identities and cultural identities. It does not ensure them their safety: quite the contrary. They are exposed from both sides: they are ostracised within their own culture for their sexual or gender identity, while on the other hand they are attacked within larger society for their cultural identity. It would seem that in the rise of ultra-nationalism in India, these are the victims we forget. Som brings up the people of Kashmir as a unique example of how such paradoxes intersect.

“There are queer people there as well, no doubt,” he says, “And they are doubly under attack. The conflict there has left no individual unaffected. But support from them within the queer community can be missing. Their identity does not make them immune to perceptions about Kashmiris and Muslims.”

Concern, however, is steadily on the rise within the queer movement about these citizens. “This year, Kolkata’s Pride Walk featured discussions and posters on many topics,” says Som. “Bastar and Kashmir were two of the most common conflict zones in whose support members took out posters. There was a heated debate on social media, such as Whatsapp and Facebook, about whether or not such ‘external’ political issues should be brought into the community’s purview.”

The desire to stay ‘apolitical’ reflects poorly within a community naturally politicised. The queer movement is directly in opposition to the nation-state’s current position, and yet the desire to not ‘cross’ the nation, both as proud citizens and as fearful members of the community, remains strong.

Dhall’s experience is similar. “Responses of status quoists within the community is often along the lines of ‘Be thankful, at least India is not like China or Pakistan’,” he points out.

Clearly, then, the queer identity and the national identity do not sit well with each other in this country. The contradictions frequently arise from issues that stem outside both of those selfhoods. Religion is one such factor. Class is another.

“A working class hijra person has a far more troublesome relationship with the state,” says Hajra. “The employed upperclass transperson can afford to say, I work. I pay taxes. So they may have a far easier relationship with it. The working class hijra person, with far less cultural capital to encash, is far more at risk.”

For Hajra, the greatest of the troubles, in the context of urban India, is gentrification. As India’s political and economic position in the world is strengthened, slums in its metropolitan space are considered pollutants in the cityscape. The existence of the slums is glaring in a threefold manner: it points to the State’s inability to provide resources for its urban population, while exposing the imbalance in the development of the urban and rural sectors in India. Many of the slums have come up in areas of prime real estate. Consequently, the State has made its mission to erase the slums, more often than not at the cost of its residents. As the area is redeveloped into a more affluent neighbourhood, the residents get displaced to the fringes of the city, and then elsewhere once more.

“As the city expands, developments are being pulled down and razed. So many are being displaced,” says Hajra. “Where does the queer person who lives in a slum go then? There are people within the queer community as well who push this project forward, either not realising or ignoring how problematic it is.”

A transperson who begs at traffic signals is seen as a criminal for anti-beggary laws by the local police and the municipality, or simply as a nuisance to be taunted or ignored. A queer person from a red-light area may grow up viewing the state as the enemy. One of the steepest barriers to affect this treatment is the issue of visibility.

Even the law, in whose eyes all are said to be equal, functions differently for different individuals. There are various legal provisions for transpeople and queer communities within India. But how does the law apply to the daily-lived experiences of the community’s lives? For a working class individual, it is much more difficult to be able to contest the public space where the law does not support the person. A transperson who begs at traffic signals is seen as a criminal for anti-beggary laws by the local police and the municipality, or simply as a nuisance to be taunted or ignored. A queer person from a red-light area may grow up viewing the state as the enemy.  One of the steepest barriers to affect this treatment is the issue of visibility.

“If I was to walk down the street as a working class hijra person, the way I would experience the public space and legal provisions within it is very different from what someone whose deviation from the norm is not as visible, would,” says Hajra. “Someone who is more visible is more at risk. If such a person is detained, then for them to attain legal representation and then fight their way out will take three to five years at least.”

Section 377, then, is certainly not the only legal caveat to affect the community. The nation state’s dealing with it takes place through the lens of power and privilege, much as it does with everybody else. Patriotism is a fractious concept within the community, as a result.

“Personally, I feel cheated and let down!” says Dhall, referring to the Supreme Court mandate. “Used to as I am in fighting for change, this development has made me feel helpless. The State denies me my rights due to completely unsubstantiated claims of sexual morality. Then it also takes away my right to differ on something so close my identity as an Indian. The State is not playing fair – as if it ever was, but this is rubbing it in your face!”

The sense of betrayal is tangible in his words. And it perhaps this sense that has spurred the community’s outrage in response to the ruling.

Criminal lawyer and queer rights activist Kaushik Gupta approaches the clashing identities of the community from a different perspective. According to Gupta, with regard to the constitutional framework of India, the rights of the community are not denied.

“Under Article 14, everyone is considered equal in the eyes of the law,” he says. “There have been cases in which the judiciary has upheld a queer individual’s integral identity.”

Gupta refers to the case of K Prithika Yashini, Tamil Nadu’s first transgender police officer. The governments of West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur and Tamil Nadu are the only ones in India to have transgender development boards. Such sporadic moves have not removed the struggles the community is faced with, the most famous of which is the Supreme Court’s recriminalization of Section 377.

“There has been a judicious announcement with regard to Section 377, which has been challenged with a petition pending at the Supreme Court,” says Gupta. “It was a legal pronouncement and it must be fought legally. The community has been doing so continuously.”

For Gupta, the judgment regarding the National Anthem is questionable. But it is not the idea of respecting the flag itself that he has an issue with. “There is no specific definition of disrespect in the Constitution,” he says. “But if you look at Article 51[A] of the Constitution, we see a mention of our Fundamental Duties. It is our fundamental duty is to show respect to the National Anthem, National Flag, and so on. The standing up itself as a mark of respect is a social construct, a gesture that has been taught to us socially from our childhoods.”

A rather arbitrary measure to mandate, one would think. Additionally, one remembers that the Fundamental Duties are not legally enforceable.  But Gupta has an interesting take. “It is important to consider the history of the judges who passed it,” he suggests. “Though this is the order of the Supreme Court, we need to realise that the Court is also run by human beings.”

He is referring to a curious case of a long-forgotten agenda. In 2003, Bhopal resident Shyam Narayan Chouksey had filed a petition alleging that the National Anthem was being routinely insulted in film and media. The specific movie in question was the blockbuster “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham”, still considered to be one of Bollywood’s greatest hits. Chouksey had objected to the ‘commercial’ use of the Anthem in the film. The judge presiding over the case had been Dipak Misra.

“As a judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, Judge Misra had ruled against the use of the national anthem in film,” says Gupta. However, at the time, the Supreme Court had allowed the screening to continue. Thirteen years later, the ghost of the past returned to haunt India’s screening theatres once more, throwing into sharp relief the tensions within the State. Of course, the real threat from the ruling does not lie merely in the legal aspect of it.

On the 18th of December, writer and theatre artist Kamal C Chavara of Kerala was charged with sedition because of a Facebook post. The complainant alleged that the post had been disrespectful to the national anthem.

On the 18th of December, writer and theatre artist Kamal C Chavara of Kerala was charged with sedition because of a Facebook post. The complainant alleged that the post had been disrespectful to the national anthem. “Nationalism is becoming similar to a terrorist act,” says Gupta. “The citizens, by dint of such unfounded accusations and judgments, are being put into terror to perform their national duty. The modus operandi of these so-called nationalists is entirely morally wrong as well as illegal. Even if one plays into the patriotic angle, love cannot be forced. One cannot fear their country and therefore love it.” Gupta’s concern, as a professed patriot and a long-serving servant of the State, seems quite similar to fears expressed by members of the community.

Despite ongoing activism, the reality of exclusion is still rampant. In government medical institutions, such as the one he teaches in, the textbooks have not changed to reflect positive attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ identities. The very method of teaching is queer-insensitive and strongly heteronormative.

“There has been a huge shift in India towards endorsing homophobia in the recent nationalist movements,” says Dr Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, Kolkata-based psychiatrist and queer rights activist. “Feelings of insecurity have risen dramatically as a result. A citizen cannot love a country that does not love them back.” Guha Thakurta has spoken about the institutionalised homophobia in the teaching of the medical profession. Despite ongoing activism, the reality of exclusion is still rampant. In government medical institutions, such as the one he teaches in, the textbooks have not changed to reflect positive attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ identities. The very method of teaching is queer-insensitive and strongly heteronormative.

“Many people in the LGBTQ community have expressed concern about ultranationalism after the Supreme Court ruling,” he says. “People are scared that spontaneous love for the nation is turning into an imposed political identity.”

The issue, as Som points out, is not with having love for one’s country, although that in itself is a difficult concept to tackle. The issue is with being forced to show one’s love in a specific, codified manner. The very definition of the word ‘Indian’ is being narrowed into a set of rules decided by a particular section of Indian society. That same section carries maximum privilege in the patriarchal, heteronormative, predominantly Hindu culture currently existing in India. It is worth noting that the judges who made the pronouncement are upper-caste Hindu men.

“I have almost always stood up when the national anthem has played and when I have sung it, but sometimes also no,” says Dhall. “I have hoisted the flag on Independence Day at community functions, I have walked holding the flag in a march abroad to the Indian High Commission to submit a letter of protest. I have at times had tears in my eyes during the national anthem. But I have always had the space and liberty to look at the gentle sway of the flag and question in my mind whether it really had the right to sway unfettered.”

In an India where theatre-goers must accept the myth of a unified India just before being exposed to a work of art that can potentially overturn this idea, the space to pose such a question is slowly shrinking.

In an India where theatre-goers must accept the myth of a unified India just before being exposed to a work of art that can potentially overturn this idea, the space to pose such a question is slowly shrinking. One could even argue that the mandate is violating our guaranteed Right to Freedom of Expression in Thought, Speech and Action, by making it unconstitutional to act in any manner other than standing up.  The space for debate and dissent, the very signs of a healthy democracy, is disappearing Act by Act.

“To me, over the years, being Indian has been about the peoples who live in this land, their cultures, their histories, her-stories and zer-stories, even about their biases and prejudices, but not so much about its political boundaries,” says Dhall. “I will perhaps still stand up when the national anthem plays, but with anger and even fear. Why are we reducing the rich symbolic potential of the flag to a symbol of unthinking authority?”

Perhaps a problem greater than this is the question of accepting it as a worthy flag-bearer of one’s patriotic beliefs.  “The country is not merely a map,” says Som. “If we take help a deprived person, take care of a stray dog, show small acts of everyday kindness, only then can we claim to be patriots of human worth. What is the point in only loving the symbols, forcing people to love those and considering that the highest mark of respect to the country?”

The passion in his voice spills over the telephone line, but I wonder if anyone else is listening.

 

Image via http://www.thebetterindia.com/

Rushati Mukherjee is a blogger, poet and aspiring journalist. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate studies in English from Jadavpur University.

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