In a simplistic political debate about ‘freedom of expression’ it would be difficult not to take objection — on grounds of basic principle — to the denial of ‘permission’ for a Pride march in Mumbai. All the ‘progressive’ LGBTQ+ activists must take a moment to wonder why the Maharashtra government comprising of NCP — and Supriya Sule, everyone’s current favourite poster politician for LGBT ‘rights’ — must take this step. Despite the efforts of progressives to paint a picture that Maharashtra is no longer ‘saffron’ because BJP is not in the ruling coalition (or worse that Shiv Sena can now be redeemed!) it is unreasonable to think that Shiv Sena and NCP have anything but saffron goals. Therefore, it is not a surprise that police permissions were denied for the Pride. And on principle, with no loss to anyone’s ‘cause’, we can all object to this.
But my concern is not about the so-called ‘denied permission’ — to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if this dramatised denial of permissions was orchestrated with the collusion of Pride organisers. My concern is with the Mumbai Pride in its entirety, and that fact that it is still continuing.
Any movement or demonstration must be evaluated against its origins, contexts and its results. Can we say that Mumbai pride has revolutionary or even reformist origins? The Queer Aazadi March (QAM) is the result of a set of second-hand savarna cis gay imitations of the white cis gay appropriation of the Stonewall Riots. This is my understanding of the origin of the so-called Mumbai Pride. I can find no other explanation for an absolutely hollow act of marching, year after year without a well-debated, and well-articulated, community rights manifesto. And the fact that most current recorded histories, memorializing and what-not of pride subsist on the erasure of trans revolutionary spirit is evidenced, for instance, in cis gay patriarch Vikram Doctor’s dreary homage to Stonewall in 2019, and FII’s infographic article on the history of pride parades in India, among many others. Can it not be safely said that if you have to erase the true revolutionary history of a movement to make it palatable to people you claim to represent, then your political intentions are to be doubted?
The QAM will complete 12 years in 2020 and what are the actual material outcomes from this yearly extravaganza? In my understanding there is only one real outcome: an ill-conceived savarna queer pride tied securely with caste pride, culminating in the birth of the Queer Hindu Alliance. Every year, far away beyond even the side lines, I have listen to those invested in some form of ‘progressive’ queer politics huff and puff over having to ‘negotiate’ with QAM. Every year, there is at least one angry post about QAM’s undemocratic and high-handed ways, and every year a small group of people attempt to perform one or other kind of ‘reclamation’ within pride. Every year there is an active and absolute silencing enforced by QAM. And every year the QAM finally absorbs and appropriates the narratives of those whom they attempt to silence, to claim inclusion. This charade on all sides is honestly tiresome. As politically conscious trans and queer people increasingly became alienated from the pride, and as liberal progressive queers completely failed to articulate any real democratic queer politics or mobilise a strong response to the oppression by QAM, the Hindu savarna core of QAM was only strengthened. What other reasonable explanation can be offered for the rise of an abominable entity such as the Queer Hindu Alliance from within the folds of QAM? If we look at the many pride parades across the country, each one has its own trajectory, and perhaps even problematic histories that I am not aware of, but none of them have consciously fertilized and birthed such a vile thing — with the kind of reach and resources — as a queer ‘Hindu alliance’.
Before travelling into the self-defeating vortex of ‘reclaiming pride’ and ‘pride being a protest’, must we not wonder why in all these years, all that has come out of the Mumbai ‘queer’ movement is on the one hand, some of the most avowedly hardline Brahminical entities — Laxmi Narayan Tripathy, Ashok Row Kavi, Harrish Iyer, Ankit Bhuptani to name a few — and on the other hand some liberal soft-Hindu savarna queer ‘feminist’ organisations like LABIA (of unapologetic savarna TERF origins), and their many liberal to apolitical off-shoots. They each exercise power and violence in their own realms — so conveniently partitioned into NGO-CBO-celebrity and Academic-activist — horde leadership positions and resources, and safeguard the violence perpetrated by their Brahminical core.
There really is nothing remotely protest-like about the existing ‘queer movement’ in Mumbai. If the so-called political queers of Mumbai had even an iota of revolutionary spirit in them, by now QAM would have been shut down through means of active protests and consistent lobbying against its undemocratic ways. Instead, some of the liberal refrains we hear are: pride is for everybody, so what if they organize it, we will go and make it political and so on. And did you succeed, in the last ten years — in making it political? And even if you did hold up that all-important poster, for those two hours, did it consistently translate into better lives for the most marginalized trans and queer people amongst us? Did you build new community, or did you just go with your friends and leave with your friends? The last is the most difficult question for us all, because it speaks to the extreme ghettoization and isolation within the queer march (and movement) where for a decade the warrior drums have been played at the head, led by the Brahmin cis queers and random celebrities, while the rest of the queers have come and gone — all of us individually and collectively disposable — in the march, some with only political slogans, others bearing deeply political, wounded bodies. Can we make a march ‘political’ without completely eradicating the power structures that seek to render it, in the final analysis, a celebration of their caste pride?
Can the representatives of Mumbai queer ‘movement’ simply turn around now and deny the part they have played in creating and sustaining the Queer Hindu Alliance? Can any new formations that claim to be apparently challenging the ‘status-quo’ carve a different path without completely boycotting these spaces and all that they have been dishing out in terms of privileges to their own and measly tokens to the margins?
When was the savarna queer ‘aazadi’ ever absent?
When I was in the eleventh grade, I was bullied, stalked and harassed by the school’s lesbian gang headed by a butch lesbian who apparently belonged to a powerful family. The school was aware of her actions and the principal would tell me that younger students had, in the past, left that school. Even though I was unaware of ‘queerness’ or ‘queer politics’ at the time and was yet to fully articulate my own trans identity, my gender queerness was visible and I was acutely aware of the pitfalls of pursuing a complaint against a queer person within an educational institution. The gang leader telling me that she knew where I lived, made the decision ‘to smile and let go’ easier. Soon after this incident I forced myself to grow my hair and become less ‘visible’ and, because she continued in that college, I moved to another one. When I came to Bombay/Mumbai, I found multiple versions of this same bully, stalker, harasser savarna gays and lesbians, taking up space, disrespecting boundaries, isolating people, forcing people to fit into a mould of hypersexuality, perpetrating violence in the garb of ‘queerness’ and ‘the queer movement’. And every time the issue of violence made normal within the community — casteist, sexual, patriarchal violence, violence that renders members of the community distraught, homeless, rudderless — was raised the response from savarna leadership would be one or other form of ‘but 377!’
There has been enough criticism of the queer movement and its obsession with 377 and I don’t need to get into it here. The point I draw from my own experience, that travels from before pride in Mumbai even began until now, is this: the savarna cis queers have always had the freedom to express and dictate the terms of queerness as a certain narrow set of sex acts between a certain narrow set of bodies; their queerness is practiced while holding onto and acting out of deep Brahminical hatred towards self and others for the limits of their own cisgender queerness, a limit that their caste pride will never allow them to transcend; by retaining this contradictory position which I believe is not worthy of being termed as queerness, they consciously stifle all voices that can truly articulate self-determination and trans-queer liberation.
As long as QAM exists in its current form, it will play its role of being the ‘queer’ RSS to the fullest as they continue to enjoy all the material resources required to carry on their propaganda. At the same time, thanks to the liberal savarna queer control propagating its own sort of gatekeeping and alienation, there exists no real purpose to the so-called ‘politicizing’ of pride. How else can I understand the photos of a known ‘woke’ cis gay savarna sexual harasser showing up on my social media feed talking about citizenship issues in Mumbai? The queer movement in Mumbai has its own BJP and Congress, and they have together let loose the Queer Hindu Alliance upon the world and made the experience of queerness a hollow irredeemable pit of self-loathing that it shouldn’t be. I cannot speak of elsewhere, but here in Mumbai, pride was never about protests or self-determination or human rights, it was always about enforcing hypersexual cisgender caste pride and begging for approval and acceptance from Manu — one that according to them, they received on 6 September, 2018.
True histories are histories of trans assertion
But there is still the question: where must the trans people go and why must we, who have no space — public or private — that isn’t held ransom to some enforced obligation, give up on pride which is ours? I have only ever gone to one pride march, back in 2014, and returned disgusted. I was told that I am reclaiming pride. This is not an acceptable argument for me. Yes, as a trans person I am deeply indebted to any act of resistance led by trans people anywhere. But, if I stop at this ever-revolving junction of ‘strategically’ claiming and reclaiming ‘pride’ because of Stonewall, I am effectively saying that there were no trans assertions that took place here, that there were no trans people living, fighting and resisting here ever before, till the Oxford-educated savarna gays and lesbians imported some pride for their fun. If I bend my knees before this notion of a pride I am actively denying our indigenous trans history, I am saying I have nothing to claim that is my own, I am erasing the reality of my true ancestors. And to this present and future I will be saying: beyond nominal inclusion I have no independent demands born out of our very specific history of oppression that has been compounded by the decades of resource monopolization by savarna gays and lesbians. And I don’t wish to say or believe any of this.
The true trans histories, I believe, are present in each city where today savarna cis-queer NGOs have taken charge as gatekeepers. In Bombay/Mumbai, as asserted by Disha Pinky Shaikh, that history is part of the history of Dalit Panthers. And that is the history of trans people who lived in, migrated to, struggled and resisted in the city. And it started in Chaityabhoomi. And I celebrate that every time I overcome physical discomfort and visit Chaityabhoomi, I celebrate that irrespective of having a flag or a day, I celebrate that in silence and in my prayers, and I celebrate that irrespective of whether today’s savarna queer and trans people consider me trans enough or not.
Mumbai pride is not to be reclaimed, it is to be dismantled and destroyed.