Is Queer Bangladesh the next Hindutva Project?

Transfemme participant in Bangladesh’s Hijra Pride 2014, Photography by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/GettyImages

On April 25 2016, two LGBTQ activists in Bangladesh, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, were brutally murdered in the Kalabagan area of Dhaka, Bangladesh. They were slain by a half-dozen men posing as couriers, who had forced their way into Xulhaz’s apartment and had killed them with machetes. Both Xulhaz and Tonoy held leadership positions in Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine. In addition, Xulhaz held a job as a protocol officer at USAID Dhaka and Tonoy was an emerging theatre actor and activist. Xulhaz identified as a cisgender gay man and Tonoy identified as a non-binary and pansexual individual. The killings of the activists were reportedly claimed to have been carried out by a local Bangladeshi Islamist militant group, Ansarullah Bangla team. Till today, the identities of the murderers remain unknown and the police investigations are ongoing.

In addition to the trauma and heightened fear that gripped the entire Bangladeshi LGBTQ community in the aftermath of the murders, Muslim queers from Bangladesh have had to witness Hindu right-wing groups and media outlets manipulate these stories to further Islamophobia and war. Almost immediately, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) used this terrible tragedy as an opportunity to encourage anti-Muslim war and hawkish, imperial paternalism. In the public statement and a vigil, HAF has called upon the US government to send a “strong signal that extremism in Bangladesh will not be tolerated.” In doing so, it cynically uses queer Muslim deaths, in muslim-majority Bangladesh, to justify and uphold American imperialism. HAF is not concerned about homophobia and transphobia as evidenced by its utter silence on the violence and extremist conditions faced by minorities in India, including queer and transgender Dalit and Muslim communities. While European countries and the United States have been quick to denounce the murders of the Bangladeshi LGBT activists, the irony of HAF calling for a crackdown on the “killings in recent months that have targeted religious minorities and secularists” should not be lost on anyone. Throughout its history, HAF has been a shameless advocate for Hindutva extremism in India, especially through its support and glorification of Narendra Modi’s regime.

In 2014, Modi was elected to be the 15th Prime Minister of India, where his campaign posited to bring forth pragmatic, reformist and business-minded values within India’s private and public sectors. It was only a little over a decade ago, Modi was denied entry into the United States due to his role in the infamous 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Ever since Modi has come to power, neoliberalization policies have been manipulatively used to evade addressing the root causes of caste-based and anti-Muslim violence, administered by the Hindutva ideologies ingrained within his governmental cabinet. Dalit people have been at the forefront in elevating the voices against the deep-seated communal and caste-based atrocities that have been sweeping across India for centuries, more recently ranging from Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder to caste-based sexual violence against Dalit women.

While HAF has said nothing against these ongoing injustices out of India, it continues to be at the forefront of sponsoring state-induced casteist and anti-Muslim violence. What Modi might refer to as ‘rule of law’ and ‘caste-based reservations’ in India, are in reality, the gross disenfranchisement and murders of Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim minorities, all of which HAF and the current Indian constitution is fully complicit in and is refusing to take any accountability for. While HAF seems to be so concerned about how the murders of Xulhaz and Tonoy are “emblematic of the deteriorating rule of law fueled largely by Islamists in Bangladesh,” Modi has vowed to disenfranchise millions of Muslim immigrants in Assam this year, in a bid to form its first government there. The majority of the Assamese Muslim people are immigrants from Bangladesh; although they possess Indian citizenship, they are actually being branded as Bangladeshis and are being denied the right to vote. If Modi’s BJP takes over Assam, the Hindu-nationalist movement that backs it, the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS), could also go on to advocate for a similar brand of anti-Muslim politics in West Bengal, a bigger state that also borders Bangladesh.

Alongside HAF’s online statement, there have been a plethora of articles from dominant-caste Indian news outlets that have been reiterating the need to curb the apparent ‘Islamic terrorism’ that is harming Bangladesh’s supposed ‘liberal democratic credentials.’ Mainstream Indian media has continued to push a narrative that the rising Islamic fundamentalism has ultimately caused the Bangladesh LGBT community to go further into the shadows and to go into hiding. This begs the question: Have mainstream Indian media outlets and Hindu American Foundation been so quick to deliver similar statements about the Modi government’s culture of impunity that is fuelling the onslaught of violence against India’s LGBT communities (particularly those from religious minority, transgender and Dalit groups)? Deliberate pinkwashing has gone into crafting the ongoing portrayals of Bangladesh’s intellectual and LGBT communities that are under risk from homegrown Islamist militancy. The term ‘pinkwashing’ is aptly used because unsolicited blame is being assigned towards Sheikh Hasina’s government’s failure to protect secular and LGBT-identifying citizens, while so easily avoiding similar inflammatory statements against the fascist policies that are harming present-day Indian LGBT existence. Such intentional glossing over the oppressive ways Indian, particularly Dalit, queer and trans individuals are being treated creates a general impression to the rest of the world that India might seem like a more ‘tolerant’ nation for queer and transgender people, when the political circumstances in the country have proved otherwise. Ultimately, HAF’s calls for ‘accountability’ and ‘justice’ rings hollow, as India’s denial of justice to Dalit, Muslim and minority groups, and its record of flagrant impunity continues to heighten, unabated.