Ever heard of the Mumbai rainbow pride walk being taken to Kolhapur, the Delhi one to Bareilly or the Bangalore one to Mysore? But many queer folks from mainland India still suggest that the Guwahati pride walk organizers should take it to other parts of North-East India. How do you actually ‘take’ a pride walk from one place to another – as if it were a play, film or a rock band on tour?
Leave aside that question. The larger issue I want to bring up is the politics of representation and access to resources in the Indian queer movements. While this article is in the context of north-eastern India, it could hold good for other parts of India as well.
When the second pride walk happened in Guwahati in 2015, some Delhi queer activists questioned why it had been named ‘Northeast Pride Walk’. Their point was that Guwahati couldn’t be representative of the entire north-eastern region with its diverse geographical and identity dynamics. They said that if the pride had to be called ‘Northeast Pride Walk’, it should be organized in other parts of the region as well. Fair enough, and the name was changed from the third pride onwards. But there was a reason behind the name ‘Northeast Pride Walk’, which the woke set of mainland activists needed to appreciate.
Back in 2015, the queer movements in larger North-East India were still in formative stages. Manipur and Meghalaya had started off queer movements much before Assam, but even in these states organizing pride walks had been a challenge. Imphal had a pride walk in 2014 and Shillong much later in 2018 (after the Supreme Court’s final verdict on Section 377, Indian Penal Code). Both have been one-time affairs so far. The pattern is similar for Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, while Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura are yet to see a pride walk take place for a variety of reasons.
Guwahati is still the only city in the region that has managed to organize a pride walk for seven consecutive years now (the walk this year was attended by more than 1,000 people). This isn’t a boast, but a comment on the situation in North-East India, and the name ‘Northeast Pride Walk’ was decided through a consultation between queer activists from Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. It wasn’t an instance of appropriation, which brings me to the hypocrisies of queer activists both in mainland India and in the north-eastern region itself.
Let’s look at the politics involved in invitations to activist and academic spaces like conferences, seminars and consultations, which are mostly organized in mainland India. The organizers seem to invite people from North-East India rather selectively, based on their liking for specific individuals or to simply further their own agenda. One or at the most two people are likely to be invited for a supposed ‘national’ meeting, and they’ll be made spokespersons for the entire north-eastern region.
The ones who participate also seem to uncritically accept the invitations. How often do they consult their peers in the region for inputs before participating or share their experience and learning after attending the events?
So often, queer activists within North-East India end up taking the place meant for others. I read an article on pride walks in smaller cities and towns, which had a quote from an activist who was speaking on pride organizing despite never having organized one himself. Couldn’t he have connected the journalist to a colleague active in the pride scene? There are also people from the north-eastern region, now settled in big cities in other parts of India, who used to reach out every year during the pride walk to be included in the organizing committee. But they weren’t included because it would’ve just served their narrative of being part of something historic that they could talk about in panels across the world despite having little stake in the development.
North-East India with eight diverse states and multiple ethnicities is anything but homogenous. Yet, so many queer groups who come to work here fail to appreciate this fact. A Delhi-based group organized a consultation in Imphal on designing programmes to strengthen sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and youth. An argument broke out between the organizers, co-organizers and participants because the entire consultation was conducted in Hindi, and the terms used were alienating for a lot of us as Hindi is not our mother tongue and even the use of English is limited beyond the cities. The participants pointed out that translators could have been engaged for the consultation.
Some of our suggestions for the programmes were deemed unimportant and the organizers tried to justify this by saying that the concerned government bodies wouldn’t appreciate the suggestions! But the issues we raised were an everyday experience for a lot of us and the programmes would fail if the issues were not addressed. We didn’t want to merely agree with what the organizers were proposing and so the consultation ended in a stalemate of sorts.
I’ve also had the experience of a workshop that turned out to be just a ‘filler’ for the organizers; it would’ve fulfilled their project agenda to get more funds by showing ‘work done’ in the North-East. It’s also foolish of us queer activists in the region to even collaborate with ‘national’ groups for events because these can easily be organized through our own fundraising efforts. The ‘national’ groups develop no programmes with north-eastern queer communities in mind; they seem to have no interest in engaging or collaborating with us on any quality projects that would actually help the communities in the region.
It doesn’t help that most donors don’t look beyond ‘spokespersons’ who are easily accessible in Delhi or Mumbai – they just don’t invest in reaching out to people living in the region and making sure that their resources are spent towards the desired end. Agreed that queer activists born in North-East India but living elsewhere in India because of career or studies can speak about the region, but what stops them from connecting with people working on the ground? Shouldn’t they be mindful of how they represent the concerns of the communities they claim to represent?
This is where the issue of tagging queer activists also comes in – an activist in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata immediately becomes a ‘national’ activist while the ones from the North-East can at best be ‘regional’ ones. How often do we see resource persons from the North-East in ‘national’ summits, unless they are not already living in mainland India?
It also strikes me how the narratives are dominated by activists living in mainland India. How many ‘national’ consultations were organized on the issue of trans exclusion from the National Register of Citizens in Assam? Conversations on this issue beyond Assam seem to have started only after the Bharatiya Janata Party became vocal about a similar exercise across the country. Then again media articles on India’s queer movements often completely miss out on talking about what’s been happening in North-East India.
When the first anniversary of the Section 377 verdict was celebrated last year, many of the ‘national’ activists questioned the purpose of the celebrations. They had a point since there was so much still to fight for. But they probably forgot, or never knew, that both the reinstatement of Section 377 in December 2013 and the final verdict in September 2018 had special significance for the queer movements in the north-eastern region.
On December 15, 2013, Guwahati saw the first ever public protest by queer communities – this was a part of the ‘Global Day of Rage’ in response to the reinstatement of Section 377. This protest then paved the way for the first Guwahati pride walk on February 9, 2014. And the final verdict on Section 377 in 2018 motivated Shillong’s first pride walk. Between these two landmark dates, several new queer support groups came up in states across the region.
My point is I have many identities. My mother tongue is Nepali, I was born and raised in Assam, but my voter identity card is from Meghalaya. My father was born and raised in Mizoram and my mother in Shillong and Nepal. I’m called Gorkhali in Assam, Nepali in Nepal and very recently, after I became vocal in favour of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, Assamese in Assam. I’m also told I don’t look like a north-easterner or Nepali or Gorkhali.
None of these tags are necessarily of my choice; these have been given to me by others based on their perception of me. This would be true of so many queer people like me living in North-East India. We’re not given access to spaces where we can freely speak about who we think we are. Our experience of growing up queer in the North-East, our activisms, our health concerns – how far can anyone else represent these authentically?
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic should give us much food for thought. We need new queer community leaderships across India that cannot be a product of predatory politics or manipulative ‘social development’ work.
About the main photo: A scene from the ‘Global Day of Rage’ protest in Guwahati on December 15, 2013 against the Supreme Court’s verdict that reinstated Section 377. Photo courtesy Satrang – The Gay India