States of Desire: Niharika Banerjea & Debanuj Dasgupta on homonationalism and LGBT activism in India

June 6, 2013

Queer politics envisions a broader alliance based radical politics.

Debanuj Dasgupta [DDG] is a doctoral student in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University [Columbus, Ohio, USA] and a long time LGBT/HIV & AIDS activist. Niharika Banerjea (NB): Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of Southern Indiana and a member of Sappho for Equality.

NB: LGBT bodies and accompanying discussions relating to homosexuality, civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, pride parades, queer social events, and same-sex domesticities are quite common in the Indian media today. Some of this is a result of LGBT collectives’ attempts at recognition, and I am curious about the scene of this recognition, the norms that allow for such recognition to take place and for others to be rendered unintelligible. How is the newly emergent LGBT body relating to the state? And what are the relationships between the sexual rights movement, the Indian state, and homonationalism at this moment?

DDG: Homonationalism is the folding of queer subjects into the bio-political management of life. By bio-politics I mean, certain homosexual bodies are selected and positively sanctioned for state benevolence and others excluded. In India it is important to ask whose queer body is being recognised by which forms of the Indian state, and if strategies for enhancing life are our primary political goal, then we need to ask : whose life? What constitutes good life? And, whose life is rendered as bad/unlivable? In her book, Jasbir Puar documents a shift in how queer subjects are relating to nation-states, “from being figures of death (i.e., the AIDS epidemic) to becoming tied to ideas of life and productivity” (2005, xii). Puar juxtaposes the recognition being granted to US LGBT citizens through gay marriage, repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the US army with the continuous exclusion of the racial other (US non-citizens, undocumented folks of color historically marked as “the China-man,” “wetbacks,” “communists,” and “Islamic terrorists.”). The US LGBT rights politics has been appealing to the exceptional narrative of the US nation-state. For instance, the US can proclaim themselves as the international arbiter for human rights since it is working to recognize middle-class, tax-paying, consumer LGBT bodies.

NB: We cannot forget “whiteness” in the context of the US. Whiteness refers to certain structures of privilege, relating to gender, religion, skin color, bodily ability, private property, wealth, educational status, and occupational prestige. All of these socio-economic factors determine citizenship status. I use citizenship not only in a juridical sense, but also to indicate access to social and cultural mobility. In the Indian context “whiteness” hails images of middle to upper class male and female able Hindu bodies with significant social and cultural capital related to caste position, strong command of English, and professional and higher educational degrees.

DDG: During my trips to Kolkata, I have been observing a plethora of billboards with white models sporting Euro/American labels, and a marked increase in shopping plazas. We both know this is more of an aspiration. Interestingly the aspiration reflects the altering of the white middle class with the face of upwardly mobile global Indian citizen-subject. Whiteness works as a normative aspiration within the Indian public and private sphere.

NB: The new Indian national is also a homosexual body, engaged in a play of autonomy, visibility, and identity. This is not an internally coherent group and we need to think about the various layers and moving boundaries of this formation. But having said that, we can safely contend that this group embodies several advantages of liberalization, evident in heightened public assertions for national inclusiveness, transnational networking, and recurring media coverage. This body’s emergent national and global appearances are framed by norms of privacy, individual freedom, and individual pride. Where are the aspirations being played out? When going through some key sites of national and global appearance, such as newspaper images and interviews, television coverage, Facebook pages, and online magazines, we see how the homosexual body enacts fantasies of benign national-global belonging and social acceptance in the same breath. Liberation equates emergence in the national and global sphere exhibited through public story telling about one’s body and desires, especially stories about sexual and social repression. Is this the imagined future of homonationalism?

DDG: Homonationalism is predicated upon a “repressive hypothesis.” The idea that we have to publicly recall the different ways we are being repressed as LGBT people sets into motion a repressive hypothesis. The state is identified as the benevolent arbitrator of justice in cases of extreme repression. I am interested in a queer politics, which interrogate these stories of repression of the self. The idea that we are individuals with a foreclosed self sets up a liberal politics of state recognition. I am more interested in a politics of redistribution or community level engagement wherein we are not setting up a LGBT vs. Straight, Repression vs. Freedom dynamics. What do we mean by freedom? Whose freedom and from what? And what set of new regulations/ ethics will be operative post-freedom?

NB: I wonder about the kind of sexual citizen-subject that is emergent in the politics of recognition, visibility, and identity. As LGBT bodies stake claim to life and thus desire to be included in urban and semi-urban India, does this parallel a simultaneous disenfranchisement of landless, religio-ethnic minorities, and other economically marginalized queer bodies? To raise this question is not to devalue the emotional and intellectual labor of community based organizations to carve out spaces of life and living in urban and semi-urban centers. Rather it is to acknowledge that queer is not innately radical; its claim to transgression could be a claim to an exceptional state, by virtue of which it then demarcates who is a recognizable subject and who is not. Queer is not necessarily unique, and could be quite complicit with neoliberal nationalist projects through desires for moral citizenship. Therefore, in addition to celebrations, I would like for us to constantly interrogate the projects of visibility and identity.

DDG: The politics of minoritization is an important domain. While the different urban-based LGBT formations have self-declared themselves as sexual minorities, the Indian state has never applied the term sexual minorities. The 2009 Naz judgement is based upon personal liberty, concerns of public health, and inclusion of diversity. Minority is the politics of categories, and enters into politics of reservation, therefore redistribution of social and economic opportunities. Whereas personal liberty leaves the question of achieving and maintaining one’s liberty squarely back into the hands of the individual citizen. The Indian state utters rights while not having to actually redistribute anything. In a discourse of personal liberty, the individual citizen then takes on the functions of the state. Individuals are expected to remain economically profitable and take care of their own health and other responsibilities. In the media coverage of the Naz judgement, one sees the LGBT rights activist presenting themselves as sexual minority facing discrimination and roadblocks to economic opportunities. Whereas the judiciary and other bodies of the Indian state speak about LGBT rights in the public health discourse. Here is a classic chiasmus. It is like a difference between the face and the portrait. The face “narratives of LGBT Indian citizens” is the face of civil rights, anti-discrimination policies. The portrait is that of an at risk population. Finally, whose personal liberty? Poor people, many political factions, minorities such as those from Muslim/Christian communities are always over scrutinized and really never have access to personal liberty. What we see is the refolding of the largely Hindu middle class into the mainstream of the Indian nation-state. But, then I do not want folks to abandon queer politics? I want us to push our analysis and struggles to the farthest points of protest and emancipatory possibilities. I want us to dream big.

NB: Is there a relation between Hindutva as a political project and homonationalism both in the public and private sphere?

DDG: I want us to bring the sexual into our conversations about homonationalism. Let me revisit cruising experiences in public parks of Kolkata around early-mid nineteen nineties, which is the first phase of economic and cultural liberalization in India. I had a regular sex partner, a UP Brahmin, who was very proud of his Hindu heritage and light skin. His light skin was important in my erotic imaginations about him. He often mentioned how Hindu men were becoming “na-mard” and Muslim men were overpowering Hindu men. He believed that if I drank his pure Hindu semen, I would become a complete Hindu man. Our intimacy was marked by a traffic between Hindu effeminacy (lack) and Hindu masculinity (the complete). He never took into account how his pure Hinduness was perhaps transgressing its own borders through the act of cock sucking. Let me equate here Hinduness with Hindutva. What I mean is Hindutva as a political project is formed by the performance of Hinduness. Returning to the question of pleasure, I see the fusion of my feminine tongue and his virile Hindu penis as the zone of queer pleasures. The self and the other are engaged in a playful mode with one another. In my story both of us are upper caste, middle income and our bodies circulated within similar networks of gay and MSM in Kolkata. Cruising spaces are marked by Hindu/Muslim spaces, class positions and ultimately work to efface the Other. Homonationalism for me is the desire for states of recognition predicated upon the exclusion of the Other (non-Hindu communities, street children, landless laborers, and migrant workers).

I also see Hindu masculinity soft coded within circuits of transnationally mobile Indian gay male activists. For instance, there was a recent conflict between two Lesbian/Bi/Trans formations in Kolkata about the celebration of Karva Chauth. One prominent male activist cautioned about the “feminismo nassi” streak within Lesbian politics in Kolkata. I followed the responses to his comments. At this critical juncture I would like us to examine the languages of masculinity, attacks on feminist rethinking patriarchy, and gendered role models. Coded in such criticisms are attributes of the modern Indian gay male and his relationships with those marked as his gendered other (Lesbian, Bisexual, Hijra and Transgender people). As we write out our dialog, many of us in the diaspora and in India are enraged over the Delhi gang-rape incident. The male, gay activist I mentioned related to anti-feminist backlash has been on the forefront of decrying and organizing public protest against rape. What this signifies is the inability of many gay male Indian activists to connect everyday instances of male privilege and sexism (his using of feminismo-nassi) with violent incidences such as that in Delhi. In both instances normative notions of masculinity are implicit. Homonationalism is at play here in the language of public dialogue. How is the right to celebrate religious rituals a site of Hindu-nationalist discourse? How is it the site of nation formation and performance of appropriate masculinity and femininity?

NB: I do not want us to adopt an uncritical queer secular positionality. To be suspect of the connection between Hindutva and homonationalism, is not to disavow the possibility of agentic subjects within different religious formations. If I do not acknowledge that queer bodies have agency within normative religious formations, I speak from a liberal arrogance. Such arrogance also promotes a state of queer exceptionalism embedded in an universalizing human rights discourse. Therefore delineating a religious formation per se as a necessary site of queer oppression may serve to legitimise those political discourses that obliterates its own imperial histories as they claim to intervene on behalf of oppressed religious and sexual minorities. This brings us back to the frames of recognition, and how forms of queer secular belonging can serve to police appropriate and inappropriate forms of kinship and social life.

DDG: What about networks of urban unorganized workers? Many of them are in same-sex households often mediated by sharing of resources and affective networks of dada and didis. Where is the conversation around forging coalitions with such non-traditional kinship networks? Why the presentation of the middle and upper class nuclear family model? Identity politics is not a roadblock for broader alliance politics, rather continuous interrogation of one’s identity can allow for realizing the limits of self, individual autonomy. Queer politics envisions a broader alliance based radical politics.

NB: I see a consumption-based nuclear family is privileged within some Indian LGBT activist domains. The consuming, private, free, and proud family is imagined as the micro enterprise unit of the Indian neoliberal state, allowing for a sense of national belonging within it. Since you mentioned alliance politics, let me be clear; complicity and radicalism is not incommensurable. There exists differential modes of organizing and coalition building that cannot be strictly coded as oppositional or assimilatory. Nested within apparently incompatible, even tricky acts, the political can include a wide range of concurrent activities such as attending ‘pink parties’ hosted by the US consulate, compering academic-activist conferences, and mobilising in suburban trains and economically marginalized rural sites. The apparent incompatibility of some of these acts can also be interpreted as subjects negotiating life through multiple allegiances and survival strategies, rather than claiming to embody a queer exceptionality as always already liberatory. I also think pride parades in the metropolitan centers while on the one hand complicit in producing certain visible modes of acceptable and non-acceptable queerness is also far-reaching in its efforts to forge conversations about queerness and LGBT bodies in some middle-class familial contexts. I am not looking for an authentic queer critique. Queer for me is not just a transgressive body; it is a kind of doing, work, and a method.

DDG: Queer for me is the tricky interspace between complicity and radicalism. Allow me to digress into some popular culture. The film “Anthony Firingi” (A 1967 Bengali film directed by Sunil Banerjee) depicts the life of Hensman Anthony, a poet of Portuguese origin settled in Kolkata. Firingee denotes Hensman Anthony’s non-Indian, Western and Christian origins. Firingee participated in several “Kobir Larai” (poetic competitions). In the scene where Firingee fights famous Hindu-Bengali poet Bhola Moira, Anthony has to prove his claim to performing in Bengali. Anthony Firingee for me is a queer character. His claim to being Bengali is rendered impure owing to his Jata (caste, sub-caste). He fights for recognition. In his face-off with Bhola Moira he presents himself in an universal claim to all souls being the same. He renders difference as external/corporeal, whereas the insides (soul) as the site of intimacy, commonality, and hence universality. Queers in India are Anthony Firingees, needing to prove their terms of appearance within the modern Indian nation-state. The terms of the debate remain Hindu purity/impurity, love and sacrifice, while the spirit remains Indian/cosmopolitan. If I return to the scene of appearance for Anthony Firingee, towards the end of the face-off Anthony acknowledges defeat to Bhola Moira, since he was influenced by Moira’s style. Bhola Moria is overwhelmed by Anthony’s deference. They hug each other, wiping away each other’s tears. Queering masculinity and nation-state for me is Anthony like tricky strategizing, which secretly inverts terms of appearance through intimacy. This kind of trickster politics calls for reimagining of the self. There is no authentic self. There is no truly good LGBT citizen subject. Instead, there is a queer amalgam constituting and constitutive of a non-unitary collective. We playfully interject, interrupt networks of power such as nation-states and logics of global capital. For example, what happens when organizations working around child protection use cultural tools to organize non-urban communities around preventing sexual abuse, or gender non-conforming boys? This is queer politics produced by a non-queer identified formation. I am aware of transgender organizing for access to safe shelter and housing in Kolkata. Similarly, in the US, queer homeless folks and undocumented poor queers have been organizing for their rights to safe housing and shelters. Their works encompass both protest and meetings with state and elite LGBT formations. The space generated here is Queer and perhaps the kind of vast, expansive politics that I dream about. I want us to center pleasure, community, and sharing rather than individual rights in our everyday activisms. I want us to return to states of excess.

NB: As we go deeper into the process of the ‘normalization’ of LGBT bodies and inclusion within the larger Indian context, we need to be aware of how the norms of recognition are centered upon the middle and upper class urbane Hindu subject, how a certain aesthetization of LGBT bodies and desires for belonging are feeding into norms of middle and upper class respectability in urban India. Yet we cannot abandon our political longings and need to expand the realm of queer politics beyond its (homo)normalizing frames of reference. Earlier you talked about dreaming big. Let me end with my dream. I do not want us to only undertake journeys for individual human rights and privacy; I want us to differentially engage in deep friendships, create kinships with and through our entangled moments, and work the possibilities of estranged selves to forge unfamiliar horizontal relationalities. Maybe only then can we work around acceptable iterations of queer intimacies and queer political desires.

Note: This interview was originally published by Sappho.