“What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you score good marks even in economics, a subject for girls!” This exasperated statement from my late father dates back to my college days in the very late 1980s. I was then in a love-hate relationship with micro and macro-economic theories. There were mathematics and statistics hovering around to add to my worries.

Of course, deep down my father knew he was wrong in what he’d said. Economics, or any other subject, needn’t have a link with the gender of the students. Even if there’s a link (because many people in our homes, schools, colleges and governments think so), the gender of the students doesn’t determine how easy or difficult the subject is to deal with. Neither do subjects have genders, do they?

Quote: Given the well-entrenched interests of the privileged sections of society, pushing for economic inclusion is far from easy whoever attempts it, irrespective of their gender and gender identity. If you think about it though, ‘inclusion’ itself could be any gender or even pangender, but ‘exclusion’ is in all likelihood a man pushing aside everyone as he moves forward to get what he wants!I wonder what my father would say about the economic inclusion of the socially disadvantaged groups. This now is one of the main areas of my research as well as Varta Trust’s advocacy work. Given the well-entrenched interests of the privileged sections of society, pushing for economic inclusion is far from easy whoever attempts it, irrespective of their gender and gender identity. If you think about it though, ‘inclusion’ itself could be any gender or even pangender, but ‘exclusion’ is likely a man pushing aside everyone as he moves forward to get what he wants!

Working on economic inclusion is also a good method of getting a reality check, if there ever was one. Studying development economics in college seemed tedious, primarily because of the way it was taught. But at least it had a story or many stories involved, often submerged in dreary data – stories of struggle, migration, gender-class-caste-religious tensions, politics, political callousness, and more. Advocating for economic inclusion is like having those stories played out before one’s eyes. And advocating for economic inclusion of queer people is like rewriting the economics text books and telling stories that were silenced all along.

Here are two such stories from a more contemporary context, shared by citizen journalists associated with the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme.

Shivalal Gautam from Guwahati wrote in about Namrata Sarmah of Sasoni Amguri village in Assam. According to queer community groups, social media posts and news reports in leading dailies, Namrata was assigned female at birth but had a masculine gender expression, in particular short hair. This had made them the butt of jokes and insults among both senior students and teachers.

On August 29, 2017, Namrata died by suicide by jumping from the Gobharu bridge into the Burhi Dihing River, about 10 km from their school in Naharkatiya town and three km from their home in Sasoni Amguri.

A seventh standard student of St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School, Namrata left behind a suicide note in which they said the Principal had abused, slapped and insulted them in front of their classmates. Their eyes were also injured because of the assault. Another teacher further humiliated them after the Principal’s act. Apparently, Namrata had written a ‘love letter’ to one of the female teachers. Instead of a friendly teacher-student talk, they were beaten up in front of the other students in class and showered with gender-based insults. Something must have snapped irretrievably inside Namrata.

The Principal was detained by the police but it isn’t known for certain if she or any of the other perpetrators of abuse were punished or not.

Quote: So what could be unusual about this photograph that shows a commonplace reality? If I say that it’s queer that these ‘commonplace’ scenes play out on our city streets even after seven decades of independence, would it make sense? I think it’s also queer that practically none of the development economics books back in college were illustrated with similar photographs. The second story is (in) the main photograph sent in by Sudipa Chakraborty. Two young children, a boy and a girl, are studying on a Kolkata pavement (where they also seem to live), near the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine (STM). Sudipa was on her way home from the STM after a gruelling day of training with health care providers when she noticed the children. As a transgender person, there was something about their endeavour that she could relate to.

Sudipa sought permission from the children’s mother to take a photograph, but she refused because she didn’t want her daughter’s photograph to be circulated anywhere. What if Sudipa was part of a trafficking network? When Sudipa explained that she was a social worker, the children’s mother agreed, provided the children’s faces remained hidden.

So what could be unusual about this photograph that shows a commonplace reality? If I say that it’s queer that these ‘commonplace’ scenes play out on our city streets even after seven decades of independence, would it make sense? I think it’s also queer that practically none of the development economics books back in college were illustrated with similar photographs.

I sincerely wish current and future students that they can breathe easy, study the subjects they like, pass in them with flying colours or flunk in style, without having to live up to the unnecessary pressures of the gender (or any other label) assigned to them at birth. More fundamentally, no one, in the first place, should be denied educational opportunities on grounds of their gender, sexuality or any other aspect of their life.

* * *

Readers may remember the story of Maya and Shyamu (names changed), an HIV-positive seroconcordant married couple, published in Varta in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown brought India to a halt. This young couple from Sonarpur, south of Kolkata, was badly impacted by the lockdown. They practically lost their livelihood, faced hurdles in accessing healthcare and paying the house rent, and found it near impossible to adequately feed their two young daughters.

Fortunately, throughout the year gone by, a number of civic-minded individuals, NGOs, and Varta Trust members stepped forward to help Maya and Shyamu. This helped the couple meet most of their immediate needs, including continuing their older daughter, a five-year-old toddler’s schooling (over a no-frills smart phone). Shyamu was able to get a long-neglected eczema in one of his legs treated. The young parents were relieved also to find out that their younger child, just around a year old, is HIV negative (as is her older sister).

For various reasons, what wasn’t working out for the couple was a regular source of income. They were only too aware that they couldn’t have depended on donations for too long. Both Maya and Shyamu were keen to take up any kind of work that would have added to the income from vending vegetables, popcorn, muri, and peanuts. After many employment leads that didn’t work out, Maya has recently landed a couple of work-from-home job options. At least one of them is expected to click!

Here’s wishing Maya and Shyamu the very best for a new beginning and a salute to their emotional strength! Varta Trust also thanks all individuals and agencies that lent a helping hand to the couple. Above all, the experience in helping the couple has been a new learning in how the vast majority still negotiate blatant inequity in a trillion-dollar wannabe economy.

About the main photo: A scene from a pavement near the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine. Photo credit: Sudipa Chakraborty