Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Learning from the Ganesh fiasco: Temples, Churches, their demolition and reconstruction

The issue of the demolition of older structures, be they temples or churches and the erection of new buildings is a topic that causes much consternation in heritage sensitive circles. The attempt at demolition, renovation is invariably opposed by heritage circles leading to a standoff between the demolitionists and the conservationists. As with all standoffs, neither side will blink first, there is no communication, leaving all of us that much poorer for the situation. Given that the Ganesh fiasco from last week was framed along the lines of the right to the freedom of expression (of artistic sensibilities) I wonder if it would not be instructive to study the heritage debate from this angle.

If the argument of the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) is that the appropriate form of Ganesh has been fixed in the past and we would do better to turn back to the past for inspiration, then the argument of the Kerkar supporters was that artistic creativity is constantly evolving and must be allowed to flower. The issue of creation of new temples and churches over older structures can similarly be looked at from this angle. These new temples and churches stem from the innate desire of people to create. This creation does not necessarily stem from an older idiom, but it nevertheless represents their aspirations, their emotions and their vision of themselves.

None of these arguments should be construed to imply a personal validation of these projects of demolition and reconstruction however. On the contrary I would find myself on the side of the heritage activists on the issue of preservation. And yet, there is another point of view that I believe needs to be understood and respected.

The issue was perhaps captured best when the priest of some slated-for-demolition temple told this prominent heritage activist “So! You’re the one they call Deshmukh? You guys are very xana! You live in Panjim, in bungalows, and drive cars and you want our God to live in a hut!!” The problem with most approaches to heritage is the strange relationship it has with the past. While appreciative of the past, a good number of heritage activists are not willing to use it to mount a critique of the present. Thus the preservation of heritage is the preservation of a few artifacts as representative of the past, while ‘development’ is allowed to rumble on undisturbed. The problem with the temples is that for the managements of these temples, as captured by our priest above, the deity is not apart from modern and contemporary life, S/He lives in it. As such, as the most esteemed member of the community, it cannot do that the rest of us live in concrete homes, tiled with granite and marble, lit with electric light, and the deity be made to live in a tiled mud house, red cement flooring and oil-fed lamps. The management of these temples does not recognise a distinction between the modern and the archaic, that the heritage activists do, for them the temple and ‘real life’ are a continuous part of one whole and the temple has to be articulated within the idiom of the contemporary. The new temples that are coming up therefore, are an expression of contemporary creativity, and our engagement with it needs to be along lines similar to what we proposed in the Ganesh fiasco.

It is for this reason, that these kinds of heritage activists would do well to perhaps rethink their relationship to the past, using their fascination for the past to mount a stout critique of present practices of development. To the credit of some of our activists in Goa, going by their participation in the movements of our times, this is already being done. However there is perhaps one more engagement that is possibly necessary before we can persuade communities across Goa to not pull down their temples and churches. This would be an active engagement with the larger public in Goa, communicating the basis on which we see structures of the past as beautiful and worth preserving.

Another one of the possible reasons why these structures are coming down, is that communities in charge of their management are unable to read the buildings for the statement that they were (and are) making. Or perhaps the statement that needs to be made is changing. There is clearly, a break with tradition in a manner that the new development does not speak to the older. One possible way to remedy the first situation is to flood the public domain with information regarding the manner in which one can read Goan structures. Dr.Paulo Varela Gomes, the soon-to-depart Delegate of the Fundacão Oriente has done a wonderful job of proposing a manner in which we can read the specificities of the Goan Church. He argues that the Goan Church is not merely a reproduction of foreign elements thrown together, but a confident articulation of a local sensibility, not found anywhere else in the world. Subsequent to his explanation of the buildings, it is impossible not to look at the Churches and chapels across Goa with new eyes. Indeed, the very placement of stones start to tell you elaborate and complex stories! With such knowledge, the destruction, or even an alteration of a Church becomes an extremely difficult proposition.

How does one supply this knowledge to people across the Goan territory, such that they the language of the stones is made comprehensible to all, and not just an erudite few? This perhaps is the challenge for heritage activists, and the lesson from the Ganesh fiasco, that there is a need for active dialogue and conversation, not merely at the time of the confrontation, but as a part of daily life itself. The responses at the time of confrontation are invariably not amenable to dialogue. The time is too late for that. Indeed, what we often resort to are legalistic responses. These responses may use official force to prevent a punch-up but nevertheless leave gaping wounds in our psyche, making us prime ourselves for another confrontation. The challenge before us then is, to we create viable options and systems for dialogue that are not one-off events, but perpetual engagements. Such engagements would allow for creativity to continue to march forward, but always in a healthy engagement with the past.

(Published in the Gomantak Times August 26 2009)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Postpartum depression: Complications after the birthing of the Hindutva project

This festival season my old friends from the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) have again stirred up the hornets nest. They started this particular round of agitation by protesting against the presence of an entirely innocent artwork at the Goa State Museum. The only irritant the artwork provided was it was produced by M.F. Husain. In response to this protest, Subodh Kerkar, one of the more famous Goan artists, brought out an image in the Marathi newspaper Lokmat, depicting the Shivaji’s reputed mentor Swami Ramdas in a suit. Normally portrayed as wearing only a caxtti*, the aberration was explained as done so as ‘not to offend the sensibilities of anyone’. In response, the HJS launched themselves at Kerkar, pointing to his illustrations of Ganesh in a variety of postures, including one as a sumo wrestler in a caxtti, as derogatory. They have now orchestrated a campaign that has threatened the life and limb of both Kerkar, and Raju Nayak editor of Lokmat.

The response has been predictable. There are demands for the State to take a stand, and punish them. Others have asked them who they are to define Hinduism for all. Some have pointed to Hindu tradition and the right to depict the gods in this manner. There is also a response asking them to be ‘real Hindus’, in a case of secular Hindus fighting the non-secular. There is every possible manner of response. And yet, I suspect that these responses are missing a point.

Visit the HJS’s website and you will see that they have a problem not just with Kerkar and Husain, but also with the manner in which the Ganeshotsav’s are being conducted. They very surprisingly encourage quiet, orderly celebrations that are eco-friendly and focus on the spiritual. They oppose huge figures of the deity and the melas that have currently become the norm for Ganeshotsavs. If one were not familiar with the normal violence of their method, one would assume that they were another eco-friendly group urging a responsible celebration of the festival.

It is these features of the HJS that complicate the scenario, forcing us to see the problem from other angles. I would like to reflect in this column, on the rather curious connections and circumstances of this entire fiasco that paint an image that refuses to be explained by the simple Hindu right wing versus secularists formula.

It was at the time of the Sri Ram Sene’s attacks on women in Mangalore, and the BJP’s official condemnation of the Sene that a friend suggested to me that what was going on showed an interesting tendency within the Hindutva family. There were now groups like the Sri Ram Sene that were even more Hindu than the BJP, threatening the position of the BJP to represent Hindu-ness across the country. This was a challenge that the BJP had to deal with, and hence the condemnations by the BJP. The BJP Chief Minister of Karnataka made a very telling statement when he indicated that “Sri Rama Sene has nothing to do with the Sangh Parivar. I am telling you honestly.” This was a surprising statement since Sangh outfits very often engage in similar acts of violence and intimidation. One way to explain this response therefore, is to return to suggestions that Hindutva, the RSS, BJP are in fact upper-caste organizations that have mobilized lower-caste groups as foot soldiers. These upper-caste groups hold the arrogant assumption that they as natural leaders can hold these soldiers in check. History has proved such assumptions terribly wrong and the upper-caste leaders of Hindutva are slowly and surely beginning to learn this to their dismay. They have unleashed a Frankenstein that they are not going to be able control, on the contrary, the monster will consume them as well, moving the country closer and closer toward conflagration.

I would argue that something similar is afoot in Goa. Let us not assume that the HJS is the first demonstration of Hindutva in Goa. In Goa, communalism has had a very nuanced presentation and should be seen in the context of the project of integrating Goa into the Indian Union. Given that a Hindu-ness was necessary for Goan integration, (since at the end of the day India was assumed to be Hindu) and Hindu-ness is defined on brahmanical terms, the project proceeded on those lines. The votaries of this project have been both Catholic and Hindu upper-castes, and the assumption of the project was clear, that leadership of the community would remain, either directly, or behind velvet curtains, in upper-caste hands.

Incidentally, the movement against brahmanical domination, in Goa, as in Maharashtra, has also used the language of Hindutva. These two caste tendencies have fed-off each other for a while, thus combining to give us the rowdy Ganeshotsavs, Dahi-handis and Narakasur Nites. The traditional upper-caste response has been to let the ‘children’ play, since they perform the useful role of asserting a Hindutva agenda and rolling back the polluting colonial impact. And yet, the internal tensions of this movement have not been resolved and I would argue that what we see happening right now is a confrontation between these two groups. There is no doubt that the HJS is poised to assert itself as the singular voice for Hinduism in Goa. The contradictions that the HJS has displayed between wanting Swami Ramdas to be depicted in a caxtti* and Ganesh not in a caxtti are in fact not contradictions. They are assertions of independence. The recommendations of the HJS for the appropriate celebration of Ganeshotsav are the posturing of a group that is seeking a larger legitimacy in society.

To understand this we have to also recognise that there are certain overlaps between the secular groups and the upper-caste votaries of Hindutva. Both support a certain soft Hindutva (i.e. Indian nationalism) that intertwines with the project of strengthening the power of the nation-state. Just as soft Hindutva allows upper-caste Hindus leadership of the national enterprise, the largely English-thinking secular group seeks control of the national project. Both groups use the lower castes and classes but don’t credit them with much intelligence or other capacity. They are seen as incapable of being responsible citizens, merely a lumpen that have to be held on a short leash. When comparing the HJS to the Taliban or the Wahabi elements in Islam, and accusing them of puritanical interpretations, they are using a similar grammar, one that suggests that these lower-order boors are incapable of nuanced, philosophical appreciation. Philosophy and nuance ofcourse are seen as the exclusive domain of the upper-classes, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or otherwise.

This ‘lumpen’ is now asserting itself, indicating that it can be both, the foot-soldiers of the Hindutva Reich, as well as the cultural aristocracy that can hold the foot-soldiers in control. The response is to both, the secularists of the Indian nation-state, and the upper-caste leaders of the Hindutva project. To all of us this should be bad news, because this means that things are simply spinning out of control.

In a season that traditionally welcomes Ganesh, the destroyer of all obstacles, I also herald the imminent arrival of Frankenstein. God save us all.

[Subsequent to the publication of this column, I have to confess that I am as yet a little unsure of the analysis above. The HJS is not primarily a ‘lower’ caste group, and has in fact a large member of ‘upper’ castes (women who I encountered at their earlier exhibition on Kashmir) as well. Indeed, its leader has a Brahmin surname.The effort of this column, and its intended impact, is not to freeze analysis on the issue, but to suggest that there are other multiple factors in this equation that need to be probed as well. What has bothered me was the manner in which all discussion, and response, on this issue is being limited to a rather narrow and legalistic understanding of 'the Right to Freedom of Expression. While I do not wish to suggest that this right and debate around it is unimportant, I am convinced that looking at the manner in this way is going to allow us to believe that curbing the HJS, or banning them, will resolve the problem. It will not. On the contrary the problem will continue to fester. What we require to do is to address the emotive issues also involved in the case, which in any case, law does not seem capable of doing.]

* Caxtti : Konkani word for langoti, or loin cloth.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 19 August 2009)

The Dilemma after the Decision: Strays thoughts after Gay Liberation

The decision of the Delhi High Court on Section 377 of the IPC (377) has generated huge amounts of euphoria throughout the country, and rightly so, given that sexual relations between consenting adults have been decriminalized. However, it is the contours of this very euphoria that suggests to us that all is not well with the Indian LGBT movement, and that it needs to be probed and critiqued if we are to be able to genuinely contribute to larger and more sustainable freedoms within the Indian Republic.

Associated with the LGBT movement, if somewhat peripherally, I have always experienced some amount of discomfort with the movement. This discomfort only grew after my viewing of the film Between the Lines, India’s Third Gender at the Tricontinental Human Rights Film Festival in Bangalore a couple of years ago. There was something in the film that was deeply disconcerting, one that I was until recently not quite able to place my finger on. The best I could get was that a certain upper-class agenda was being articulated, while adopting subaltern image of the transgendered (hijra) Indian as symbol of the movement, in what I called the Shikhandi maneuver[1]. It was in this context therefore, that the proverbial penny dropped on reviewing the reception of the Delhi High Court’s decision on 2 July 2009.

What I suggest in this essay is that the route of the PIL to achieving ‘gay liberation’ in India and the responses to the decision of the High Court reveal the priorities of a upper-class, and upper-caste English speaking group within the country. The path of this group, not surprisingly seems to twine with that of the rightist Nationalist forces that have in recent years increasingly laid siege to the project of the Indian Republic endangering in particular the security of minority groups within it.

The PIL route

As anyone reading the decision of the High Court[2] will realise, the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) while initially filed by the Naz Foundation, subsequently saw a number of gay rights activists interpleading themselves as respondents, giving the case the significance that it has achieved today. The case has achieved significance not merely because it has decriminalized same sex activity in the country, but because a significant number of LGBT groups joined issue with the Naz Foundation; groups whose social position, was able to leverage the kind of attention that the decision eventually got. To this extent therefore, these groups consciously took up the case as the single legal route through which to tackle the issue of gay liberation.

The instrument of PIL is however, as many of us will know, not without a critical and problematic history in India. The PIL first found favour in the Indian judiciary in a particular context. The crusading zeal shown by the Justices Krishna Iyer, Bhagwati and others in the Supreme Court, a trend subsequently followed by High Courts across the country, emerged from the judiciary after the lifting of the Emergency, a particularly dark period in the history of the nascent Republic. There was a need for the judiciary, which had failed the Republic at that crucial time, to lift itself up in the eyes of the Indian citizenry and reaffirm once more that it was up to the task of administering law for the country. A bulk of the progress of constitutional law as regards fundamental rights of citizens occurred in the course of the 80’s as a result of the liberal swing of the Indian Supreme Court (and subsequently the State High Courts) and the PIL was established as the favoured route for frustrated activists fighting insensitive governments and their executive machineries.

As with any swing however, the Supreme Court and the rest of the Indian judiciary soon swung toward the other extreme, as the Courts with the prestige and power they had now re-generated, took over the business of the legislature and the executive. Classic examples are the cases of T. N. Godavarman, a case where the Supreme Court has set itself up; to determine the definition of forests, and become the overseeing authority for their protection. Very often this has meant the loss of rights of the marginalized groups. Other famous cases where the Supreme Court has over-stepped its limits have been the cases of introduction of lead-free petrol in Delhi, regardless of the impact on the livelihood of the labouring classes, who had to undergo definite hardships as the switch was made to lead-free fuel. It was not as if the fuel was the only choice before a concerned authority, since there were other fuel-options that could be considered, and had been suggested. And yet the Supreme Court went ahead. More famously the result of the PIL filed by the Narmada Bachao Abhiyan was a clear indication of the swing of the Supreme Court to the Right and its lack of concern, if not contempt for the rights of marginalized social groups. This contempt has only been displayed repeatedly in more recent times (the works of Usha Ramanathan in the EPW[3] provide a succinct focus on these charges). The impunity with which the rights of the subaltern have been trampled by the Supreme Court has however happened only with the active collaboration of the ‘civil society’ that has continued to place petitions before the Higher judiciary.

More crucially however, the implications of the PIL route has meant an emptying of democratic politics from space of civil society and placing it at the hands of the Judiciary as overseers of justice. Rather than take the long and bitter path via social contestation for the rights that were in question, activists have very often chosen to skip this crucial negotiation and get a quick fix via a decision of the Court. As necessary as some of these decisions may have been, indeed, like the case of 377, what it has done is to contribute to the emptying of politics from the civil space, and make the word politics itself a dirty word.

This shift has hugely benefited the Indian middle class constituents of ‘civil society’ (largely composed of English speaking higher rung feudal elements, upper castes, and dominant castes) who have had a traditional dislike for the base-level workings and negotiations of democracy. Indeed a scan of the decisions of the PIL-related judgments will show a marked preference for the sensibilities of this class, as well as the privileging of their point of view over others within the democracy. The rise of the PIL and the acclaim it has won, should also be seen in tandem with the wide-spread disdain among these same middle-classes for the politicians of the country. While the antecedents of many of these elected representatives are not praise-worthy, nor their actions while in office, it should be borne in mind that these politicians are elected by the ‘great unwashed’ of India, and very often returned to office. A criticism and dismissal of these politicians therefore, is also a dismissal of the vast majority of the Indian population and their modes of democratic reasoning. In sum, the PIL route has been the route for India’s privileged middle classes, a way out of democratic negotiation within society as they push their way into the 20th and now 21st century, desperately seeking to cease being a ‘third-world’ ‘developing’ country.

It is not as if any of the above analysis is news to the prominent members of the LGBT movement in India who have supported the case in the Delhi High Court, and have constructed it into a symbol of Queer Liberation in India. What is shocking however is the statement of Arvind Narain, a prominent gay-rights activist, in an interview with NDTV[4] that that “[T]he Parliament is not the best place to protect ‘unpopular’ minorities”. It would not be preposterous to assert that this statement was possible only because of the systematic dismissal of the elected representatives of India and their politics, which as already argued, do appear to have some relevance to the vast majority of the Indian population who continue to repose their faith in this system. Granted that the task of lobbying with members of Parliament may seem an uphill task, the tough question that nevertheless needs to be asked is whether this LGBT leadership, did in fact attempt such a Parliamentary discussion of the whole issue of persecuted sexual minorities. A refusal to engage with the Parliament in a systematic manner, as appears to have been the case of the LGBT leadership, similarly works as a dismissal of the elected representatives of this huge country. The Courts should ideally, within the system of the ‘separation of powers’ be seen as the appeal of last resort. Given that the PIL route is potentially dangerous in that it empties the civil space of politics, and is geared toward a middle class conception of order, it is surprising that this leadership, that has consistently made claims for solidarity amongst minority groups, should have so unproblematically taken the route of PIL. This choice therefore, reveals something of the makeup of the LGBT leadership that has constructed the 377 case as a watershed moment in Indian history.

This is not to suggest that the LGBT movement in India has not been involved in social mobilization. On the contrary the past few decades have definitely seen the creation and consolidation of a queer community in India, that unites homosexual men and lesbian women, ‘upper-class’ English speaking gays, and ‘lower-class’ vernacular queers, and this is a commendable achievement. However the question needs to be asked is, if rather than pursue the PIL route, other methods, more suited to retaining politics within the civil space could not have been adopted. As I go on to inquire, would a leadership concerned with the subaltern not have focused on issues other than 377 that has been posited as the most crucial problem for sexual minorities in India?

It would be incorrect to attribute the huge media interest in the case, which is what has primarily created the judgment as ‘landmark’, solely to the existence and filing of the case. On the contrary, the ‘landmark’-ness of the decision is also the result of the Pride marches that first commenced in Calcutta and subsequently progressed to other cities in India. Marches that have grown in strength from year to year. Clearly there is also an inclination at the national level, as evidenced by the statements of both Chidambaram and Moily, to reconsider the issue of decriminalising same-sex engagements. This interest it should be noted, is not necessarily born from the proceedings of the case. Similarly, in the aftermath of the decision, and until the writing of this essay, the BJP has been suspiciously silent, indicating if anything a discomfort with openly contesting the issue. In the circumstances therefore, where all possible legislative options were not extensively and exhaustively tried, the adoption of the PIL route displays not only a lack of confidence in the legislative channels, but also a failure to contribute to the development of the democratic processes of Indian civil society. The decision of the Delhi High Court therefore, may be a victory for the immediate goal of India’s LGBT leadership, but it definitely sets back the much needed process to enforce judicial accountability, as well as halt the breakdown of the separation of powers

A Queer Nationalism?

This abandoning of the commitment to the larger health of the Indian democracy has not been the only problematic position into which the LGBT leadership seems to have slipped into. There also seems to be an unproblematic acceptance of the vernacular nationalisms that have marked the recent years of the Indian Republic. For example, the Pride March in Bangalore this year was titled the Bengaluru Pride.

The shift across the country for vernacular names for the cities, Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkatta, Madras to Chennai, Bangalore to Bengaluru, should not be seen merely as a recovery of a native subaltern identity from the suppression of an alien colonialism. On the contrary, these shifts have been the result of the growing right-wing Indian nationalism that has displayed a capacity to accommodate sub-nationalisms so long as they fit within a larger rubric of Hindu nationalism. Additionally, these legislative alterations of city-names refuse an existing pluralism in the names of cities. As such, as per law it is henceforth only Mumbai and not Bombay, only Kolkatta and not Calcutta and solely Bengaluru and not Bangalore. These acts of legislation have changed not just the name of cities, but in fact delegitimized and erased ways of various minority groups in the country of claiming the city and belonging to it, and are problematic therefore beyond their assertion of the power (and violence) of law .

These positivist acts of assertion have often been pointed out as assertions of the Hindutva forces. However, I would like to suggest that these assertions while actively pushed and supported by the Hindutva lobby, also find favour through daily acts of quiet submission to these blatantly discriminatory laws by the larger populace. This populace either consciously or unconsciously sees the nationalist logic in these changes as unproblematic and goes along with it. This movement thus is more appropriately seen not merely as Hindutva, but right-wing Hindu/ Indian nationalism that most of us in fact consciously or unconsciously support. We should bear in mind also, that Hindutva is merely the more radical version of the ‘Indian culture’ that was actively manufactured by the secular Nehruvian state; a culture that located India largely within a brahmanical framework. To meekly go along with this fascistic nationalism therefore, as did the organizers of the Bangalore Pride, is indicative of either an inability to see the problems with this form of fascism, or an unwillingness to stand up and challenge this fascism even as one stands up to assert the rights of the LGBT community. Clearly I am progressing to suggest that the dangers of an unreflexive LGBT leadership could, and as I will go on to argue already has, support a fascist Indian nationalism that can accommodate Queer people. A question that needs to be explored, but one for which there will be no space here, is to inquire if the ideological location of this LGBT leadership within the paradigm of Nehurvian secularism, and their social location in what Partha Chatterjee has called the ‘nationalist class’ is not in fact responsible for the blind eye that has been so strikingly displayed in this case.

It was quite frankly, the celebratory status messages on Facebook that drew my attention to the worrying nationalist under-tones to the reception of the Delhi High Court case. Two themes came out loud and clear from these messages. The first that it was about time that we rejected a colonial imposition on us, namely Section 377 of the IPC introduced through the offices of Lord Macaulay; and secondly with the High Court verdict, India had now finally entered the 21st century. Both themes on the face of it are clearly nationalist in nature.

The idea of a rejection of a colonial imposition is not an idea that is limited solely to the assumedly politically less-correct denizens of Facebook. Speaking to NDTV, Arvind Narain, inexplicably felt “proud to be an Indian”. Quite distressingly Human Rights Watch too, pitched on the same field. Its report on Section 377 was titled, This Alien Legacy: The Origins of “Sodomy” Laws in British Colonialism. The title of the report seems to suggest, as indeed do many discussions on Facebook, that Section 377 should go primarily because it “is a colonial construction of morality and in no way…an articulation of an Indian one.…the Penal Code was framed in 1860 by a Victorian Colonialist called Macaulay and there was nothing remotely Indian about his concern to nail the buggers”. There is also a suggestion that were it not for the colonial-vintage Indian Penal Code, we would not have had a 377. This is a tall claim in face of the religious and moral prohibitions that exist in most religions present in the subcontinent, and around which sub-continentals had to skillfully maneuver around.

There are a number of problems with this articulation. First of all it suggests a certain authentic ‘Indian-ness’; a sensibility and self-hood which is untouched by the colonizers. It is this form of reasoning that has allowed for the acceptance of the change of city names in India, despite the fact that colonialism has marked all inhabitants of the country, some more evidently (anglicized and westernized Christians being one group) than others (the assumedly naturally-Indian Hindu). Thus what such statements and positions (and movements) eventually result in, is the consolidation of a certain legitimate national subject, wholly authentic, and bearing none of the stains of colonial impact.

This is not a new phenomenon however. Indian nationalism, supported by the same ‘civil society’ has thrived on the distinction between the public and the private. The public was (is) amenable to colonial touch, indeed it is a touch that is even celebrated, since other colonial impacts which are problematic in their own right, like the Indian railways, the Indian police system, the Indian judiciary are all cherished. To the nationalist mind, it was the private, the realm of sexuality which has (is) to be untouched, and indeed purged of colonial touch. Thus, “one last British relic was overturned in India. Cricket and marmalade can stay”. That LGBT activism too seems to unwittingly continue this strain is disturbing, and frankly quite scary.

The celebration of the public features of colonial rule operate to support the image of a ‘civilized’ India, which has been another strain in the various arguments often proffered in support of doing away with 377. It is therefore not surprising therefore that a second strain in Facebook status messages, strongly marked pride (pun intended) in India coming of age or entering the 21st century. What is remarkable however, is that most of these messages, seem to be similar in tone to the ‘India Shining’ slogan of the former BJP-led national government.

The India Shining image was geared to cater to exactly the kind of crowd that would normally take recourse to the PIL, the kind that turns its nose up at the dirty nature of Indian politics. Indeed, the whole trope of India Shining, was in the recently concluded General Elections to the Lok Sabha, most vociferously rearticulated by the BJP’s support group Friends of the BJP. The group stressed the role of the BJP as a clean party, able to represent ‘people like us’ namely those of the middle class, who in their imagery (and imagination) were radically different from the rural, vernacular citizens of India[5]. Indeed many of the core group members of the Friends were in fact ‘foreign-return’ Indians. It should be logical that is primarily those Indians who have gone abroad, hope to go abroad, or those who rely on the world’s (read as ‘the white west’) image of India, who should be so significantly invested in a progressive, civilized image of India. Once more this category falls by and large into a very definite group within Indian society. The upper-class, largely dominant/upper caste and English speaking (or aspiring) groups within the country, the very groups that constitute ‘civil society’.

In this context, it should not be surprising that there was, at the time of the writing of this essay, no official response from the BJP, and this absence is significant. The BJP often branded as Hindutva party, should be seen as the rightist nationalist party, since it also holds persons who while not rabidly pro-Hindutva, are definitely rabidly rightist nationalists. Particularly concerned with the image that India projects abroad, this group would be loathe to block the challenge to 377 and risk India’s comparison to “regressive blackholes like Syria and Iran” rather than “socio-democratically progressive states like Sweden and Norway”.

Liberating the Subaltern?

A good amount of the rhetoric around the gay movement in India has been about a solidarity in the liberation of the subaltern. To more sensitive audiences, the strongest argument has always been the fact that 377 is used by policemen to intimidate and harass subaltern men, or sex-workers soliciting MSM clients. To be sure, this was one of the significant arguments with which the Naz Foundation approached the Delhi High Court. The question we need to ask in the context of the decision is whether the reading down of the Section will result in an end to this harassment and liberation for this group. This conclusion seems shaky. The impact of the decision will be to allow queer people to have sex freely in private spaces. It will prevent them from being caught and harassed if caught ‘in the act’ while within private spaces. However, they will still not be allowed to solicit for sex. Indeed, if effeminate men have been picked on by police to be harassed, this will continue, since soliciting for sex continues to be a crime. It seems logical that if the liberation of the subaltern was a primary task, a challenge to the criminalization of soliciting for sex would have been the primary target. Such a target would have in fact mobilized a larger community and have had larger implications for gender liberation. For those persons living in suffocating social environments, hurried sex in public spaces will still be norm, and sex in public spaces is still not condoned. Same-sex couples showing affection in public, will still be treated to verbal and physical assault that hetero-sexual couples are often shown. The reading down of 377 will not therefore result in an immediate or automatic liberation for the supposed beneficiaries of the decision.

What the decision, if allowed to go through, will allow however, is for the LGBT movement to take a critical turn. Recognizing the right to intercourse between two consenting partners of the same sex, will allow the movement to progress toward demanding the right to marriage for same-sex couples. This path has already been demonstrated by their white brothers (and sisters) in the west. This path has effectively suffocated the larger question of marriage supporting patriarchal notions of family and property ownership. Civil union rights, automatically carry with it the rights to property in the estate of the partner. This aspect was rather artlessly highlighted by Wendell Rodricks, a reputed fashion designer who has on numerous occasions has bravely stood up to be counted as gay. He perhaps inadvertently revealed the significance of civil union when writing in the Indian Express, “If one of us passed away, all that we earned together would go to family and not the partner of 25 years. Cruel. Unjust. Depressing”[6]. The significance is clearly larger for propertied queers which imperils the liberative potential of the gay movement should it unreflexively move forward.

It is possible that a pro-subaltern leadership of the LGBT movement seeking solidarity with other embattled minorities in the country would have prioritized struggling against police practices that harass under the provisions for nuisance within the same Penal Code, that under the guise of preventing solicitation for sex prevent sex workers from engaging in their livelihood. It would have been aware of the difficulties of religious and social minorities that chaff under the restrictions imposed by the rightist regimes within the country.


An analysis of the decision to exercise the PIL route, some of the strategies in the course of mobilizing against 377, and the subsequent responses, reveals to us the following features. The focus on 377 as the locus of the movement betrays the priorities of the largely urban, English-speaking middle class leaders of the movement. The danger that this presents is that it seems to continue the problematic patterns of Indian nationalism, that even as it mobilizes the subaltern, rides of the backs of these subalterns, and even as it proclaims inclusivity, is capable of making its peace with the severely exclusionary politics of Indian nationalism.

In conclusion, I feel obliged in to indicate that the purpose of this essay is not to damn the very obviously positive move that the decision of the Delhi High Court represents, nor to suggest that there is a deliberate ignoring of the issues that this essay seeks to raise. To the contrary, the essay believes that it is crucial that we be aware of these implications if we are to not becoming unwitting participants in the consolidation of the rightist nationalism that marks the contemporary period of the Indian Republic.

(Published in the web addition of Tehelka, available at http://www.tehelka.com/story_main42.asp?filename=Ws220809The_Dilemma.asp)

[1] Shikhandi was a warrior in the battle of Mahabharatha, who despite possessing the genitilia of a male, was considered to be a woman. In order to vanquish the invincible Bhisma and bring the battle to an end, Krishna suggested that Arjuna stand behind Shikhandi and attack Bhisma. Given that Bhisma did not attack women, he would not fire in the direction of Shikhandi and Arjuna would remain unscathed. A more nuanced rendering of the myth is presented at http://devdutt.com/on-krishnas-chariot-stands-shikhandi The essay also displays some of the contradictions on Indian nationalism and the LGBT movement that I seek to draw attention to in this essay.

[2] http://lobis.nic.in/dhc/APS/judgement/02-07-2009/APS02072009CW74552001.pdf

[3]Demolition DriveEPW VOL 40 No. 27 July 02 - July 08, 2005; http://epw.in/epw/uploads/articles/815.pdf

Illegality and the Urban PoorEPW VOL 41 No. 29 July 22 - July 28, 2006 http://epw.in/epw/uploads/articles/796.pdf

[4] http://www.ndtv.com/news/videos/video_player.php?id=1132014

[5] I have discussed the casteist implications of the Friends in a short column available at http://dervishnotes.blogspot.com/2009/05/taking-caste-seriously-iii-caste.html

[6] http://www.indianexpress.com/news/i-never-thought-of-myself-as-a-criminal.-the-court-mercifully-agrees/484476/

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Opening up or Ushering in?: The Panchayati Raj amendments, Activists, and Public participation

Over the 25th and the 26th of July I was in Pondicherry, to participate in a workshop around the theme of public consultation and citizen participation in urban governance. ‘Opening Up or Ushering In’ was the rather enigmatic name for the workshop that mystified most of the participants. It was only later that we got an inkling into this framing of the workshop. Given that public consultation and citizen participation that have become rather fashionable catchwords; are these processes being used to open up spaces for citizens to participate in the articulation of plans and projects in their cities and neighbourhoods, or usher in technocrats and their consultancies under the guise of public consultation and participation? You have to admit with me that the organizers were more than clever in their framing of the workshop title, as well as placing on the agenda, an interesting issue for debate.

I would like to reflect on this idea within the Goan context, returning in the process, to a theme that I have not taken up for some time, that of the frustrated moment of the Goan revolution. What has not ceased to amaze is the manner in which, despite constantly brandishing the issue of public participation and decentralization, most of the groups in the fray have been singularly unable to actually realize the objective. All of this despite the fact that the GBA, at that time the more powerful among these groups, held the trumps at a crucial moment in the struggle.

Trying to understand why they failed to seize the moment, two options emerged. One, because of the conviction by some of the more prominent Margao activists that decentralization was a bad thing, the average citizen would make a mess of the powers they were given. The second, because for the architects and urban planners involved in the movement, participation and consultation began and ended when they were ushered into the planning process. In their well-intentioned estimation, this was also participation and consultation, so at least they were taking the process somewhere. As the recent ‘stepping down’ of Edgar Rebeiro has shown us, this assumption was not just terribly naïve, but eventually impotent as well. Participation is not achieved until the entire body of citizenry is enabled to participate in planning. The question that needs to be seriously posed is if this association with the State executive, right from the time the GBA joined the Task Force, an association entirely outside of a legal process, was useful or not.

The reason for distinguishing between the two reasons stated above, is because I would like to distinguish between a conscious option to prevent genuine and large-scale participation (in the first case), and a misunderstanding as to what participation and consultation actually means. In the second case, the error is possibly unconscious, the result of a blinkered vision engendered by one’s professional training. It is a different matter that this professional training is rooted in the same fear of the ‘ignorant masses’ held by our Margao activists. When imbibed through education however, it gets internalized unconsciously. That these professionals belong to a class that in any case has a tendency against mass participation and towards a surprisingly firm belief in its own capacities does not help them in thinking out these biases that are educated into them.

To be sure, these biases have a longer history, as displayed in the history of the anti-colonial struggle in British-India. The early forms of the ‘national struggle’, in particular the demands of the liberals and Swarajists, was not for ‘freedom’. Whenever this potentially explosive term was used, it was in fact rather ambivalently articulated. Their aspiration was in fact for a greater ‘share’ in the governance of the country, as reflected in the demands for greater opportunities in participation in central and provincial legislatures and executive councils. There was no contemplation of universal participation for all Indians, the attempt was to only share the pie of governance with the white man. It was only later, in the event of the failed expectations of the Indian National Congress on most offers of constitutional ‘reforms’ that the discourse and practice got radicalized to lead to the situation of a robust non-cooperation against the British Raj. Popular support was garnered through the eventually unrealized promise to the unwashed masses of their having a say in the future, in matters of governance.

What we must not forget is that there existed right from the very beginning a tension between the freedom struggle led by Gandhi, to whom we can trace this liberative notion of local self governance, and the representative ‘consultative’ democracy that eventually triumphed. This latter form took for its inspiration the structures of the colonial State, and this is why today, we experience nothing less than a colonial violence, as demonstrated by the recent changes effected to the Goa Panchayati Raj Act by the representatives in the legislative house. The fight in Goa, for greater transparency and more participation in governance is in fact a continuation of this unresolved fight against colonialism, and one can see uncanny resemblances. The State apparatus in Goa is that inherited from the Raj, the GBA-mobilization was led by elites for whom sharing of power is sufficient.

It now looks as if this earlier history from British-India is repeating itself. The failed expectations of the leadership of the GBA are prompting queries if we should not now push forward into more radical measures against the Government. As suggested on numerous occasions, that may not be such a bad idea. However, this radical action CANNOT be the goal of the movement. Any action (radical or otherwise) has to necessarily acknowledge that the goal of the movement is nothing less than a legally recognized system of meaningful consultation with the citizens in their wards, and an effective system of participation in village-level and city-level meetings. It is because of our longer history, where colonial institutions and logics have prevailed over the genuinely participatory logics that we have to make sure that in the next mobilization that seems to be imminent, we ensure that the lessons from the history of both the Indian anti-colonial struggle (popularly called the freedom struggle) and the ‘Save Goa’ campaign are not forgotten.

What we need is an opening up, not an ushering in.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 12 Aug 2009)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Possibilities of a Christian politics in support of Gay Rights: Loving the Magdalene – II

Over the 25th and the 26th of July I was in Pondicherry, to participate in a workshop around the theme of public consultation and citizen participation in urban governance. Fortuitously, on the 28th of the same month the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) organized in Madras a symposium on ‘The Indian Church and repealing of the Section 377 of IPC’. Since my return journey home would have to take me through the city of Madras, it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to tarry a while longer in the south and listen in on some of the discussions that would take place at the symposium.

The decision was not made in vain. Over the course of the day long seminar, a variety of positions on the issue of Section 377 (which as we know relates to the issue of homosexuality) were presented, some of which reaffirmed my faith in the capacity of institutional Christianity to respond with the caritas it affirms as its central tenet.

Those conscious of sectarian divisions, should note that the NCCI is an organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches in India. The Catholic Church in India is not a member, though the Council seems to include representatives from the Catholic tradition in its events. This particular symposium hosted a Jesuit priest who works with the youth. The key note address delivered by Rt. Rev. Dr. V. Devasahayam, the CSI Bishop in Madras displayed a profound change from the Catholic position. As previously discussed in this column, the Catholic response to the Court decision on 377 has been to acknowledge that while religious morality cannot be the basis for criminalization, homosexuality itself is immoral. This position is in keeping with the Vatican’s counsel of the need to reach out in love to homosexual people, even though acting on homosexual desire is an ‘intrinsic moral evil’. The position of the CSI Bishop however was an unconditional embrace toward the members of the LGBT community. This trend continued in two other papers presented by the theologians associated with the Protestant Churches. In the discussions that followed later however, it was clear that these positions were not universally accepted. Christian acceptance could be extended to the eunuch, but to the homosexual?

Dr. George Zachariah, a theologian at a Lutheran institute, presented a paper that was very closely argued, and a delight to listen to. His argument offers a significant axis around which a Christian response to the entire issue of homosexuality can turn. Given that the debate around sexuality is about the place of sex in human life, he quoted from Marvin M. Ellison to argue that “The primary norm for sexual and social relations can no longer be marriage or even heterosexuality, but rather justice-love in all relations”. This term of justice-love was understood as “the pursuit of right relatedness as mutual respect, care and the sharing of goods and power”. Based on this logic, Dr. Zachariah argued that the gay-friendly or queer perspective “does not reject family or marriage; rather it proposes a justice centered ethical framework to examine power and powerlessness in intimate relations”. He recognized that “power relations shape all aspects of life” and that the ‘romanticising of family life ignores power, abuse, exploitation and oppression among intimates’. Justice in marriage and married life therefore, “involves respect and care as well” and further, that “we need to distinguish between marriage as an experience and marriage as an institution”.

Zachariah brings to us a valuable key to understanding the family without collapsing it into the patriarchal model of the family. I do not however, want to pursue this aspect of his argument further, but return to his original question and take a different route from there. For a queer (and Christian) politics, what is the place of sex? Returning to Ellison’s formulation, the place of sex in a queer-friendly Christian politics would be the realization of justice-love.

This formulation, that centers the realization of justice-love in the Christian experience to my mind clashes with the dominant understanding of queer/ gay/ LGBT politics. A good amount of LGBT politics is premised on the centrality of sexuality as defining one’s identity. Thus it is imperative for this politics to argue, as indeed some activists at the symposium did argue, that homosexuality is not a choice, it is a genetic condition. It turns out however, that this position is not without challenge. In such a situation, what is the gay-rights defender’s position? Does the choice of homosexual over heterosexual love place this person afoul of a Christian politics? Using this notion of a commitment to justice-love, clearly it does not. On the contrary, the commitment to justice-love would make the sex of the person we love immaterial, placing the human-being at the centre of our eroticism. It demands that this eroticism be respectful of the individual, not treating, as we are encouraged to by the culture of consumerism, the individual solely as an object that will gratify our physical desire and emotional needs. Eroticism via justice-love compels us in this context to the virtue of a giving and an emptying of ourselves for the beloved. In these thoughts, I believe Marvin Ellison would agree with me.

A commitment to justice-love engineers another powerful move. It prevents us from making sexuality the sole marker of our identity. It compels all of us to fight for the rights against discrimination of all sexual minorities, whether we are a member of a sexual minority group or not. One of the problems with LGBT activism that places sexuality at the centre of identity, is that it fetishizes sexuality (and sex), such that whether we like it or not, our life is defined by our sexual behaviour. With our identity defined by sexuality, it could turn out that sex-seeking becomes one of the centers of our existence.

The problems of such a sexual-identity based politics do not extend merely to making sex-seeking the centre of our existence. It encourages a limited view of politics, such that we seek the liberation of sexual-minorities alone, to the exclusion of other minorities. Thus, it would lead to a politics of ‘me first, then others’. The battle against 377 is perhaps an example of this. Some of the arguments and strategies mobilized by the LGBT activists are deeply problematic, in that they seem to have employed strategies that may have difficult implications for other groups. For example, we know that the result of PILs has resulted in an unaccountable judiciary that has very often trampled on the rights of the poor. Has recourse to the Court in the case of 377 via PIL not justified the problematic politics of the PIL? Further, when arguing that 377 is a colonial British imposition, has it not latched onto the power of a certain anti-colonial nationalism that is unforgivingly cruel to those people (like the various varieties of Indian Christians) that are more obviously touched by colonialism?

It turns out therefore, that it is possible for an individual to be both true to Christian values and be in favour of the ending of discrimination against sexual minorities. A queer Christian politics does not threaten the institution of the family, as many fear queer politics will do. On the contrary it liberates the family from the constraints of a patriarchal imagination. More importantly however, it turns out that a Christian spin on queer politics could wind up liberating queer politics itself. And this perhaps, is the sweetest thought of all!

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 5 Aug 2009)