When hasn’t the world been upside down? A year ago, when we turned six (on August 1), there was enough socio-political turmoil in India and worldwide. Even in 2013, the year Varta made a start, the apex court of India had turned the battle for queer decriminalization on its head. In childhood, many of us may have bent down and peered from between our legs for a rather different perspective of the world.

True, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have also tossed and turned our world around. But that hasn’t taken away our capacity to be human. Often, ‘being human’ could stand for being awful; yet, many other times it could be all about being awesome. And this article is a quick thank you to a few individuals, who, among many others for sure, have shown what awesomeness can be all about.

A seven-member team of citizen journalists associated with the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme has been quietly working away since May this year.  They’ve been assessing the situation of queer and other vulnerable communities in eastern and north-eastern India during the lockdown and after the Amphan cyclone, reporting on it for Varta, disseminating the published reports, and then advocating with the media, government bodies and the general public for relief and other support for the affected people. They’ve been doing all this without much financial incentive and despite personal health, family, professional and financial challenges.

This daytime photograph shows five trans women, all Launda dancers, posing for a selfie photograph on their way back to West Bengal from Bihar. They are standing on the side of a road. The individual who shot the photograph can be seen up close – their masked face peering into the camera and part of the body making up the left side of the photograph. Behind them are four other individuals, only two of them masked properly. They all seem to be in their late teens or early 20s. They seem to be exhausted with their journey. Behind them can be seen the front side of a bus, probably the one in which they were travelling. The front window pane of the bus makes up most of the background. To the right side of the photograph is the road – a two wheeler can be seen whizzing past. Tall palm trees and other vegetation can be seen on the far side of the road. Photo courtesy Joyita Mondal

A selfie photograph sent in by some of the Launda dancers on their way back to West Bengal. Photo courtesy Joyita Mondal

A heartfelt thank you to the team of Bana, Chandan Kumar Nayak, Joyita Mondal, Pradosh Dash, Shivalal Gautam, Sukanta Banerjee and Sudipa Chakraborty! Some of their stories have gone on to generate invaluable resources for relief work. One such story was on the plight of Launda dancers from West Bengal stuck in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh because of the lockdown (Missing in the Migrant Story, Silenced in the ‘Atmanirbharta’ Clamour by Joyita Mondal and Pawan Dhall, May ’20 issue of Varta). This story was amplified through a report in The Indian Express, which in turn caught the attention of Poushali Mitra, a probashi Bengali settled in Canada. She and a group of other Indians in Canada pooled together funds that have facilitated the return of 49 Launda dancers to Dakshin Dinajpur, Uttar Dinajpur and other districts of West Bengal till date. Listen to this podcast which includes an interview with Joyita, who coordinated the return process through Dinajpur Natun Aalo Society, an NGO that she heads. Joyita also managed to get support from the district administrations of Dakshin and Uttar Dinajpur in ensuring home quarantine for the returnees.

Some of the funds received from Canada were also used to run a community kitchen for trans women in Gangarampur, Dakshin Dinajpur, and help at least one HIV positive trans woman travel safely from Gangarampur to Malda for accessing treatment.

Another such story, Amphan Adds to Social Trauma Caused by Coronavirus for Trans Women by Sukanta Banerjee (May ’20 issue of Varta), led to funds being raised for dry ration support and repair of houses damaged by the cyclone. Three individuals working in the corporate and social development spheres in Bangalore and Kolkata – Arif Vazirally, Naheed Vazirally and Arup Sengupta – pooled together personal funds and donations from their friends and colleagues and donated them to queer support group Amitie’ Trust, Belur. A lawyer from Delhi also sent in a separate donation.

This daytime photograph shows a packet of dry ration (flaked rice, biscuits and some vegetables) and a tarpaulin being handed over to an individual somewhere in the Hooghly district. The camera focus is on the provisions. The faces of the giver and the recipient are only partially visible in the photograph. A third person can be seen standing nearby in the background. Behind the recipient is the wall of a house, the lower half made of bricks and the upper half covered with a bamboo framework. The framework allows a glimpse into the house, which is dimly lit. A few household items can be seen placed near the framework and further away. Photo credit: Anonymous

Provision of dry ration to queer community members at a village in Hooghly district, West Bengal. Photo credit: Anonymous

Amitie’ Trust coordinated with another support group Kolkata Anandam and trans activist Sudeb Sadhu, and they have so far reached out to 75 trans women, trans men, Hijras and other queer persons living in the Hooghly, Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Purba Bardhaman and South 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal. A word of appreciation is due to all members and volunteers of Amitie’ Trust, Kolkata Anandam and Prantik Bongaon who risked personal health and did the leg work for relief distribution. Sukanta, the author of the story, was also involved in relief provision.

Some interesting collaborations were worked out for accessing and distributing the ration provisions. Amitie’ Trust worked out an arrangement with Big Bazaar and Spencer’s Retail, and Sudeb received the support of Samabhabona trans collective, Democratic Youth Federation of India, Students Federation of India and All India Trinamool Congress for the relief work.

More such citizen journalism stories have been published since May from Assam, Odisha and West Bengal, and you can access them all here. They have touched many hearts, and there are more such stories to come.

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Even as this Vartanama article was being planned, along came the story of Sanjit Mondal, a gay man of 23. Sanjit is a Master’s student of political science and lives in Rajarhat-Gopalpur municipality, adjacent to Kolkata. On July 20, 2020, he was returning home through the Chinar Park area of Rajarhat around 9 pm, when he was accosted by half a dozen policemen in civil dress. His only fault was that he appeared feminine. What transpired next was no less than a horror story of insults, intimidation and even physical assault by the policemen. This happened as they forcibly took Sanjit to the Narayanpur Police Station, and then the abuse of power continued at the police station as well. Read more here in a story by Pune-based queer activist Jeet, who first wrote about the incident in Medium on July 24.

Sanjit’s nightmare continued through the night as the police detained him and released him only around midday on July 21 when his family members reached the police station. The police didn’t allow them to come to the police station on the night of the incident itself because of the lockdown. Sanjit was released on payment of ‘bail’, but the police didn’t seem to record any charges against him. When queer activists and media persons later asked the police about the charges, they said they arrested Sanjit because he was indulging in gandaa kaam (immoral activities). Quite ironically, they’re reported to have said that if more information was needed, a complaint should be filed.

Quote: What’s new though is the courage and resolve shown by Sanjit! He persisted with the complaint process, even if delayed, something which few people do when it comes to dealing with police matters. In the end, he told the Deputy Commissioner of Police Kamanasish Sen that more than punishment for the erring policemen, he wanted them to be sensitized and realize the gravity of their wrongdoing.Little did they expect that Sanjit would file a complaint! As the story broke on social media, support and encouragement poured in from all quarters for Sanjit along with intense criticism of the functioning of the police. NGO Prantakatha guided Sanjit to mail a complaint to the Commissioner of Police, Bidhannagar on July 25. This ultimately led to a meeting of Sanjit and his lawyer Suman Ganguly with Kamanasish Sen, Deputy Commissioner of Police, New Town, on July 27. The police official apologized for the ordeal that Sanjit had to go through. He also issued a circular to all the police stations under his jurisdiction to stop the harassment of queer persons on grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and promised that a sensitization exercise for all the police stations would be undertaken after the lockdown ended.

Everything about this incident will give many queer persons a strong sense of déjà vu. It has all the trappings of a typical case of police harassment and extortion. What used to happen in the 1990s, when the first legal challenge was mounted against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, still continues. Read here a story on the misuse of the law in Pravartak, a queer journal published by Counsel Club, Kolkata in the 1990s (Omitting Acts of Commission by Debjyoti). What’s painful is that these incidents continue to happen even after the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377 in 2018 and decriminalized queer people. The fact that a circular has to be issued to the police to stop the harassment of queer persons speaks volumes about the ground level impact of the apex court’s verdict.

What’s new though is the courage and resolve shown by Sanjit! He persisted with the complaint process, even if delayed, something which few people do when it comes to dealing with police matters. In the end, Sanjit told the Deputy Commissioner of Police Kamanasish Sen that more than punishment for the erring policemen, he wanted them to be sensitized and realize the gravity of their wrongdoing. Watch Sanjit here speak about his harrowing experience and the resolution he’s looking for. We hope to bring an interview with him in the August issue of Varta.

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A parting thought on worlds being turned upside down. The world around us – with all its messages of ‘positivity’, ‘bouncing back’ and ‘ebullience’ – insists that we recover from every sickness or heartbreak, and do so in style. ‘Feeling better than ever before’, ‘raring to go’, ‘ready to conquer’ seem to be de rigueur as post-recovery sentiments. But for some people the truth’s in the realization that it can’t be better than ever before, let alone be the same as before. Even if you find your feet after every tumble, each time it takes you two notches down. You know it deep down that what has to sink will sink, and there’s no retrieving it. And that should really be alright. There’s no indignity in it. To make peace with the sinking feeling and all the troubles raging inside is to realize that there will eventually be a final resting place.

A short film on Varta webzine completing seven years is in the works. We look forwarding to announcing it when it’s ready – Editor.

About the main photo: A scene from the Hooghly River as it flows by Kolkata. A setting sun can be a symbol of renewal as much as a rising one. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall