(This piece was written for Pragati, and was first published on 28th August 2018. That was prior to the Supreme Court of India’s landmark ruling on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.)
Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics is a book I have grown to love in the many weeks it has been with me. Having read the entire publication at a stretch, and parts of it multiple times, I cannot help but appreciate what a remarkable contribution the author, Naisargi Dave, has made to my understanding of queer politics in contemporary India.
I stumbled upon it around the time when the Supreme Court of India was hearing petitions against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes ‘carnal intercourse’ against the so-called ‘order of nature’. I was happy that mainstream media outlets were devoting plenty of screen time and column inches to the fight against Section 377, but it irked me to see how a larger conversation about love, intimacy, romance and pleasure had been framed rather reductively as the moment when India would march from a medieval era into the modern world by decriminalizing ‘gay sex’.
I am not sure if it was ignorance or laziness that made several reporters and commentators omit the fact that this law also criminalizes anal and oral sex between a man and a woman. It brings the state into a scenario where it should have no place. If there are two consenting adults who desire each other, they should not have to seek the state’s approval, blessings or protection before they act upon their feelings.
Why am I writing about Dave’s book now, when Section 377 is off the news cycle, and it is being said by many insiders that the law will be scrapped just before the present Chief Justice retires? This seems like the perfect time to write because reflection can happen only when the urgency and emotion surrounding an issue has quietened down, and new questions have the room to emerge. They demand patience, and a readiness to sit with discomfort.
Dave’s book is a thoughtfully crafted ethnographic work which allowed me to engage more deeply with what I found missing in the media coverage. It familiarized me with the formation of lesbian communities in India from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and took me deeper into the diverse terrain that queer activism in India is. This diversity was not represented adequately in prime-time panels on television shows or in print and digital journalism presenting stories about ‘the LGBT community’. Clearly, patriarchy is so pervasive that men tend to occupy the spotlight even in discussions about queer identities, experiences and issues.
While there is a widespread practice of lumping together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people into one seemingly homogenous category of ‘sexual minorities’, individuals embracing either of these identities have some overlapping but also many unique concerns in terms of their relationship with the law, access to networks and resources, visibility in public discourse, and vulnerability to violence. Moreover, there are numerous individuals who reject the man-woman binary as well as the homosexual-heterosexual binary to pursue intimacy outside conventionally understood frameworks.
Dave’s writing indicates a profound openness to understanding how individuals explore and articulate their sexuality. Though her primary interest is in lesbian communities, she does not seem to be in a hurry to classify the people she meets, observes or interviews into neat little compartments. She writes about them with affection, candour and generosity. As a participant observer, she brings the tools of the anthropologist to chai shops, offices, parties and homes, but is also cognizant of the fact that she can never be purely a fly on the wall.
Instead of claiming objectivity, Dave states quite unapologetically that the people who appear in her book are more than subjects for her study. Her book is what it is because many of them became friends and confidantes. Queer Activism in India is also a celebration of those solidarities, which are crucial for activist movements that take on the challenge of questioning centuries-old structures that prescribe heteronormativity. Dave is a researcher from Canada doing fieldwork in India, primarily with English-speaking people in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore.
To an outsider, it might seem like there is a broad consensus among activists working for a particular ‘cause’ but Dave’s book reveals that the reality is far more complicated. There are camps, there is elitism, and there are rituals of gatekeeping. Organizations, support groups and advocacy networks come to a wider public discourse from their own specific histories, which, in turn, are linked to political ideology, sources of funding, theoretical frameworks and the priorities of individuals with significant influence.
Dave is interested in holding up a mirror, not in making judgements from a lofty self-righteous place. She tries not to take sides while discussing conflicts between groups because her intention is to showcase different shades of opinion rather than paint a good versus evil narrative. She is mindful of how class informs lesbian activism — ideas about what qualifies as political competence, choice of vocabulary, opportunities for mobility, and the ability to secure grants from international donor agencies. She also makes insightful remarks about the uneasy relationship between feminist organizations in India and lesbian activist groups, and the schism between activists who prioritize legal recognition and those who prefer to envision new possibilities outside currently available frameworks.
In a globalized world of activism as a competitive marketplace, abstract development agendas and interpersonal rivalries over funding are the forces of politics — this is a descriptive claim, not a cynical position. The point for an anthropology of activism is to understand how these facts of politics differently constrain and enable the ethical practices that constitute activism — critique, invention, and creative relational practice.
That, in a nutshell, is what the book is about.