Saturday, January 23, 2016

‘Self-reflection abhi baki hai’

Vartanama, Jan '16
By Pawan Dhall

Media headlines on Rohith Vemula's suicide
Research scholar Rohith Vemula’s death on January 17, 2016 in the wake of the Hyderabad Central University’s unjustified expulsion of Dalit students last year has saddened, shocked and angered people across the globe. It has left many as stymied bystanders who for that fraction of a moment couldn't help marvel at the human capacity to hurt, insult, demean and kill a fellow human. Beyond this reverie though, it must give reason for those engaged in or even remotely interested in socio-political reforms to pause and reflect on their beliefs and strategies. No doubt tremendous efforts and sacrifices have gone into bringing about greater social equity in India not just since independence but even before it. And yet Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the events leading up to it and since then indicate that “Dilli abhi door hai”. Sounds clichéd, but painfully true.

As a society, as men, women, transgender or anything in between and beyond, as children or the aged, we’re still grappling with large-scale daily loss of self-esteem, livelihood, health, belongings or life on grounds of caste, class, race, religion, language, disability, gender, sexuality, age . . . It is perhaps justified to put the blame on the set social order of patriarchy or on its close friend, the State. But it’s also easy and lazy to do so. Who are the vectors that carry and sustain patriarchy and the State? Or the political organizations that put on the cloak of the State only to serve out jumlas, con games and red herrings? I suspect it’s you and I. There is a little bit of patriarchy in all of us, even if we are not ‘straight, white or male’ or for that matter ‘straight, white-type brown and male’. So who should we be fighting? Isn’t it one part of us, the part that we conveniently take out of ourselves and then distance ourselves from? Isn’t it then all about self-reflection on a day-to-day and a very intimate basis?

There is a growing dialogue on intersectionality of social issues – as the way forward to mobilize people and fight for diverse causes around social equity. But will it work if there is only superficial dialogue and no self-reflection individually and collectively on our biases and the privileges by birth that we take for granted? The fact is that queer people too can be misogynists or caste and class conscious, Dalits can be homophobic or transphobic, women living in cities unsympathetic about women in slums, villages and red light areas, or persons with disabilities biased in terms of gender (see Shampa Sengupta’s Stop Passing the Buck! in this issue of Varta). There can be hundreds of such social fractures, including the possibility that even all ‘straight, white or white-type brown males’ are not equal in each other’s eyes and therefore labour under a silent and unhealthy burden of imperfection.

See Salt, Pepper and Sex - on the Table!
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
Where do we go from here? Is it time for the ‘next generation’ of social mobilizations, affirmative actions, legal battles and policy advocacy? Are the current efforts producing diminishing returns at challenging the status quo and social biases getting further entrenched? If the dialogue on intersectionality is the right way forward, why isn’t it happening faster and deeper? Are our energies getting dissipated because we are holding on to old grouses against each other about what happened or didn’t happen in the past, and the notions of ‘our issues’ and ‘their issues’? Are we unwilling to confront and deal with the complexities involved in the dialogue process?

Fortunately, there is some reason to be optimistic. While the women’s movement has long inspired and supported the queer movements in India, there were and are points of differences as well. The emergence of queer feminism and trans feminism may help address these differences, at least to the extent of ‘agreeing to disagree’. The lead story in this issue of Varta, Dhrubo Jyoti’s Queer, Dalit and Questioning talks about a nascent dialogue that has developed over the last year between the queer and Dalit movements. Even the broadening of the support base for the campaign against Section 377, Indian Penal Code since the Supreme Court judgment in December 2013 is likely a sign of greater give and take.

More recently, Kolkata has seen efforts by an educational institution, its affiliates and NGOs to promote legal education among trans persons. Even at an early stage, it is clear that all parties involved will have to learn and unlearn many notions about each other and deal with unexpected hurdles through patience and flexibility to make the programme a success. Moreover, the educational institutions interested in becoming trans inclusive will do better than to see this process as a one-way flow of charity. They should see this as an opportunity to enrich their own knowledge bank through the life experiences of trans persons.

A participant at the '5th Miss Trans Queen
Contest North-East India' held at Imphal
Photo courtesy: AMaNA
Earlier this month the Karnataka state government promised the Karnataka High Court that it would remove the word ‘eunuch’ within the next six months from Section 36A of the Karnataka Police Act, 1963 (the section itself was added only in 2011). In almost a throwback to the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, this section provides arbitrary powers to the police to track and control the movements of Hijras and other trans women based on presumptions that their activities are bound to be criminal. While the state government’s decision was a heartening legal development for trans women, the petitioners seeking the legal reform (Karnataka Sexual Minorities Forum) wanted the entire section to be deleted because even after the removal of the term ‘eunuch’ and its replacement by ‘any person’ it would remain just as unconstitutional and retain the potential to harass not just trans women but other queer people and marginalized groups as well. Broader perspectives such as these are bound to serve the cause of intersectionality much better.

Similarly, if we turn our gaze to the North-East, the ‘5th Miss Trans Queen Contest North-East India’ held on December 28, 2015 in Imphal, Manipur continued its tradition of combining protest with a celebration of femininities (see photograph above). In a similar vein, this issue’s article Salt, Pepper and Sex – on the Table! focuses on a calendar that ‘sexualizes’ the contemporary discourse on sexuality and celebrates the diversity of sexual acts possible (consent presumed). Yes, even sexual acts can have a social hierarchy in terms of ‘decency’ and in comparison with the ‘nobility of love’ and this too can be grounds for stigma and discrimination, which should be questioned, perhaps through an intersection between photography, activism and self-reflection on one’s hypocrisies.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Pawan,
    A wonderful write as usual from an erudite scholar and an activist. As we face the fact today of what actually is staring us in the face is, that the oppressed in our country, to whichever group they belong, continue to remain oppressed, no matter what the surface may show. Thus, in the case of Dalits, it is a shame that they still continue to be directly or indirectly oppressed, no matter how much we show the world that we as a nation what to do all we can to allow them space to grow. What the Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan said, which is reported in today's Indian Express (, Dr Ambedkar encouraged rethinking on quotas, but as a nation we go on like mindless machines who never want to rethink on any aspect of our society. This applies to all areas - LGBTQ too. For everything, we have to fight, because, those who hold the power have no sensibility beyond their own needs and can't look beyond their nose. Love :)