How Indian Pride Festivals Have Become Political Battlegrounds

Last month, sloganeering by a group of queer people led to sedition charges against 51 of them, while the organisers stood by and watched. Now, young, vulnerable LGBTQ folks are worried about speaking up too.

by Nadia Nooreyezdan
10 March 2020, 5:59am

Scenes at the Mumbai pride 2020 last month included, among other things, slogans against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. 

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

For most queer people, pride is seen as a space to celebrate diversity and resist oppression. It’s a space where they feel safe and seen. But this year’s pride in Mumbai has changed that for the LGBTQ+ community in India, perhaps forever.

Last month, the 2020 pride march in Mumbai, scheduled for February 1, was cancelled due to police concerns about the ongoing protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Despite that, Queer Azaadi Mumbai (QAM)—a collective of Mumbai’s LGBTQAI+ organisations and individuals that had organised the march—turned the celebrations into a solidarity gathering. At the core of the gathering was the strong sentiment in the community that the pride has always been a space for dissent, and that the CAA, National Register of Citizens, National Population Register, and other legislatures passed by the current administration including the Trans Bill, are issues that affect marginalised people—including the LGBTQ+ folks. Tanisha Rao, a 25-year-old mental health researcher, was one of the attendees at Mumbai pride. However, when she tried to clarify on social media whether people could still protest those issues, she was answered by trolls, and by silence from the organisers who later disabled comments for that post.

Tanisha Rao

“To me, that sense of security that I had naively assumed I would have if I were to attend a queer event in Mumbai was taken away the second they refused to take a political stand on their social media profiles,” said Rao. "Their inaction and silence were loud enough. If you don't care about minorities in your own community like trans people, Muslim and Dalit queers, how can I be sure that you'll care for anyone at all?”

QAM has been officially organising Mumbai pride since 2008, which is usually a five-odd kilometre march that draws public attention to the parade on the city streets. Although QAM has been doing the groundwork of organising permissions for pride for years, they have also been accused of stifling the voices of people who want a more inclusive and political pride. The city’s queer community has always had ideological differences, but this year was a tipping point.

It is no longer a question of differing politics, but of one side actively endangering the other.

This is how the events unfolded. During the pride on February 1, people arrived with posters and signs with slogans such as “CAA Sashay Away” and “Hum Dekhengay (We will see).” Some had “Pride is a protest” written on their bodies. But Rao’s concerns about the safety of those people were well-founded. A video of the event—which showed a group of people sloganeering in support of anti-CAA activists—found its way to Kirit Somaiya, a senior BJP leader, who then lodged a complaint against the “anti-national” slogans. Meanwhile, Pallav Patankar, a queer activist, named fellow activist Kris Chudawala in a public Facebook post, accusing them of sloganeering and “overtaking community proceedings.” This post not only outed Kris, a 21-year-old student studying at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, but also unleashed the state machinery, the police, the media, and the court system on a young, vulnerable trans person, who had not even come out to their family.

In an official statement, QAM distanced itself from Chudawala and the 50 other people the police charged with sedition. “I was shocked,” said Ray R, a 24-year-old trans law student who helps organise Delhi pride. These are gay men who have had to deal with coming out, who have faced homophobia, so at least that should make them think twice before putting a trans person through all that, Ray told VICE.

Compared to Chudawala, the organisers have networks and support systems that make them far less vulnerable. Instead, individuals within the community encouraged QAM to report pride-goers to the police and spewed transphobic vitriol online. Right-wing queer people argue that these kinds of political slogans put other people at risk, says Ray. “But aren’t they also politicising pride by only silencing and reporting a certain kind of politics?” she asks.

For Anushree S, this was her first pride, but the 27-year-old feels deceived by the organisers. These were the people who she followed on social media and looked up to for their activism. “I was very heartbroken because pride was a space I considered safe, where I could be myself,” she said. Anushree had seen QAM members interacting with Kris at other queer events, so the organiser’s claim that they did not know the people sloganeering in the video, was especially troubling to her.

Anushree, who doesn’t know many people in the queer community, is now worried that if she speaks out about her political opinions, she might be called an outsider and thrown under the bus as well.

It’s a concern that Ray shares, too, as a young trans person who is vocal about politics. “That risk was always there, but now it is even more so because people I thought were from my own community are no longer from my community. Their loyalty or sense of belonging or common struggles are no longer with me.”

Pride has historically been a protest. It started when trans people threw a brick at the police, it started with the Stonewall Riots 50 years ago in New York. At previous prides in India, people often and openly raised slogans against several issues, including the country’s outdated sedition laws. “If we are fighting a colonial law like Section 377 (which criminalised homosexual sex in India until it was read down in September 2018), we should also fight a colonial-era law like sedition,” said Ray.

The issue with QAM’s version of pride, they add, is that “we can’t be anything else, display any other parts of our identity except this very celebratory, capitalist queer person.”

The battle for an inclusive LGBTQ+ movement in India has been ongoing for years. Prominent queer activists like Ashok Row Kavi and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi have outrightly declared their loyalty to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the dream of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation), despite being condemned for ignoring how this will affect minorities. Shruti Chakra (39), a member of LABIA, the Mumbai-based queer feminist LBT collective, argues that there has been a very deliberate attempt to incubate a right-wing agenda in the queer movement since its emergence in the 90s. Even the way QAM framed the issue with police permission this year seems to serve their purpose, Chakra believes.

“They really made it seem like the pride was ruined by these ‘leftist, communist queers.’ That they snatched pride away from us and didn’t allow us to celebrate,” Chakra told VICE. But this isn’t an isolated incident; rather, this has been building up for two decades now. But given the current political moment, this year’s pride marks a rupture in the community, a violation of trust that, young queer people feel, might never be earned back. Tension can be seen in other pride marches around the country, including Guwahati and Pune where organisers are worried about the repercussions of political messaging for pride-goers.

Pride has also displayed an unequal space, where one side wields a larger amount of privilege than the other. “Upper-caste cis gay men have always taken centre stage in our community,” said Rao. “But I also don’t think it’s fair for other members of this community to feel like they must create their own safe spaces. All that does is separate the privileged from the persecuted queers, and leaves the latter group even more vulnerable than before.” Perhaps it’s worth asking what pride has achieved in this country, and whether it has ever really amplified the voices of minorities, or simply served as an annual party for only a certain kind of queer.

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