CACIM Forum Fellowship 2008-09
All are Different, All are Equal? : The Politics and Poetics of Sexual Diversity at the Social Forums in India
Oishik Sircar, (oishiksircar[at]gmail.com), Kolkata
Subject, Scope and Significance
During the 2004 World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, a coalition of diverse progressive groups working on the rights of the sexually marginalized (homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, transgenders and others who are oppressed due to their sexual orientation and/or gender expression), sex-workers and PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS) in India, came together under a common banner called ‘Rainbow Planet’ (RP). The idea behind RP was to use the WSF as a platform to build bridges across the different communities and identities of sexually marginalized persons to protest against the societal and state legitimized violence faced by them in India.
A shared coalition for the sexually marginalized was mooted during the 2003 Asia Social Forum (ASF) in Hyderabad where a panel discussion on sexual rights on the inaugural day of the forum questioned how and why the WSF has traditionally excluded deliberations around sexuality, prioritizing instead the more recognized activisms of workers, women, farmers, indigenous people or Dalits. The panel thus focused on the marginalization of sexual rights movements by mainstream human rights groups. What also made this panel important is the attempt made by sexual rights groups to understand disadvantage and discrimination from an intersectional perspective – talking about sexual rights by making clear connections with issues of class, caste, gender privileges.
Between 2003 and 2006, when the India Social Forum (ISF) was held in New Delhi, RP had come together as a large and strong network of organizations across India, campaigning against discriminatory laws (notably Sec. 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act) and demanding a life free of violence and stigma for the sexually marginalized.
In the context of the formation of RP and its journey since 2003, this paper will attempt to document its progress asking what was it about the idea and process of the ASF, and the Mumbai WSF that prompted RP’s formation, and what lessons does that offer for coalition building for other movements within the WSF space? How has visibility at the Forums in India impacted on RP’s campaign agendas? Along with charting RP’s journey within the Forum spaces in India, the paper would also raise questions regarding the potentials and perils of coalition-building in the context of sexuality rights: while RP emphatically declares: “All Are Different, All Are Equal”, how does this actually translate into practice? Are there sexual hierarchies within RP’s own operation?
At the 2006 ISF, RP ensured that there was a large diversity of sexually marginalized persons from across India who gets to attend the Forum; and one of the major engagements of the RP at ISF 2006 was to build solidarity with other movements on shared grounds of concern. A central enquiry of this paper will be to explore this facet of the Forums in India that has allowed coalition-building across diverse rights claiming groups: has the process been as seamless as it appears? What could be the perils of coalition-building in the context of an ‘open’ forum like the WSF? What does the deployment of a category like ‘sexuality’ mean for a trade unionist, or a Dalit rights activist? What have been the strategies of RP to affect the building of solidarity-bridges within the Forum spaces? Increasingly we have seen the articulation and visibility of sexual rights concerns within the WSF and outside being identified through the term ‘Queer’. What kind of political potential does this term offer within the Forum spaces for other rights claiming groups; and more importantly, what does it mean to the several ‘indigenous’ forms of sexualities (Kothis, Panthis, Hijras, Jogappas and the likes)? Unlike many representations of disadvantage at the Forums in India, RP has very strategically foregrounded pleasure and celebration: how does one draw linkages between the co-existence of violence and pleasure without pitting one against the other?
While this paper will document the emergence and progress of RP, and understand how the ASF/ WSF/ ISF spaces worked as a catalyst for its formation, at the same time the paper will not romanticize the ‘rainbow’, in effect overlooking the discursive politics that have marked many of the RP deliberations at the Forums. For instance, during a discussion on sex work at the ASF every participant made strong and positive statements regarding why sex work should be looked at as work, and how it is a matter of women’s agency etc., till someone asked: “Sex work is a form of labour under capitalism. And aren’t all forms of labour under capitalism exploitative and morally problematic?” Similarly, the poetic value of categories like ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, ‘diversity’ and ‘privacy’ can effectively overshadow the complicated politics of their realization. The Forum spaces become useful locations for study exactly for these reasons. While outside Forum spaces the expression of rights claims can take poetic forms, within it self-reflexivity and critique are unavoidable processes of progress and meaning-making. For instance, what are the points of convergence and divergence between the processes of representation of sexuality within the WSF, and outside during the pride marches in different Indian cities?
The paper will map this tension between the poetics and politics of claims around sexual diversity at the Forums in India to understand both the potential and perils of locating the emergence of coalitions within the WSF process. What kind of principles from the WSF did RP take on during their formation? How have those principles played out in the functioning of RP over these years? How has the idea of WSF impacted on the strategic politics of RP’s work? In the main, the paper will attempt to do two things: 1) Map the process of a particular coalition (in this case RP) coming into operation during the WSF and the reasons for why it happened then; 2) To critique the romanticized idea of ‘diversity’ as espoused by RP and the WSF to ask whether in the name of ‘inclusivity’, the Forum (and coalitions like RP) actually effect ‘assimilation’? How colorful is the ‘rainbow’ actually? How prominent is RP’s color in the WSF rainbow?
I would like to mention that this paper purposefully makes central ‘sexuality’ as the ground for understanding the politics and poetics of diversity at the WSF – yet at the same time I’m cautious of not valorizing it as the most acute form of disadvantage, recognizing its intersections with class, caste, religion and location. The choice of sexuality as my category of inquiry can be best summed up in the words of a fellow activist who made this remark during the ASF: “First comes class, then comes caste, then comes gender, ecology and so on. If there is any space left on this ark of suffering, then sexuality is included as a humble cabin boy. There is no hope of the last being the first in this inheritance of the meek”. My attempt will be to examine the kind of spaces the three Forums in India have made for the sexually marginalized to inherit.
The paper will use a theoretical superstructure within which it will locate the research questions. I will use the idea of ‘political society’ as developed by political theorist Partha Chatterjee to explore whether the coming together of RP within the spaces of the WSF can be called a ‘civil society’ initiative or a ‘political society’ initiative. Simply put, by ‘political society’ Chatterjee refers to those groups of people who cannot take their citizenship for granted, and come together not on the basis of ‘respectable’ ideas of free association, but because their survival is at stake. What would RP’s formation within the WSF qualify as? In conceptualizing RP’s formation and operation within the WSF, I will also refer to the works of Boaventura De Sousa Santos, especially his insights into understanding the connections between the ideologies of the Global Left and the WSF. Can RP be looked at as a coalition with a left ideology? If that is so, how would we understand the liberal demands for ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ and ‘privacy’ that are central on RP’s agenda? Also, how prominently has class featured within the RP’s own understandings of sexuality?
This enquiry will make me move on to my next theoretical exploration using anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s idea of sexual hierarchies. I will attempt to find out whether both within the WSF, and within the RP there are in-built sexual hierarchies (for instance between Gays and Kothis; and between Lesbians and Sex Workers, or between Brahmin homosexuals and Dalit homosexuals), and whether the principles of the Forum buttresses or challenges these hierarchies.
Having established my theoretical superstructure I will conduct an ethnographical enquiry into the ideas behind RP’s formation, its relationship with the WSF and the strategies it has used in the later Forums outside India. For this I will interview key persons from the founding organizations of RP. I will also interview few other organizations who have been part of the WSF process in India (like those working on issues of poverty, caste and gender) to find out whether sexuality is a priority in their work, or do they understand it to be a concern only for the bourgeoisie and privileged individual who do not have group/ communitarian concerns.
- A theoretically grounded research paper, with extensive interviews and testimonies. Along with providing a novel theoretical framework for understanding the working of the WSF and coalition-building within it, the paper will also be a meticulously documented ‘history of the present’ of RP, and its connections with the WSF process.
- All interviews will be audio recorded for future archival use.
- A collection of all the campaign material (pamphlets, petitions, posters, short films etc.) that were generated by RP during the ASF, WSF and ISF.
Annex 1 – Literature (indicative list of secondary material)
Chatterjee. P. 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, New York: Columbia University Press.
Narrain, A. & Bhan, G. 2005. Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. New Delhi: Yoda Press
Misra, G. & Chandiramani, R. 2005. Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi: Sage
Menon, N (ed.). 2007. Sexualities. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.
Gayle S. Rubin. 1999. Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in Parker & Aggleton (eds.) Culture, Society and Sexuality: A Reader, UCL Press: UK, p. 143
Boaventura De Sousa Santos. 2008. The World Social Forum and the Global Left, Politics & Society, Vol. 36, No. 2, 247-270 Boaventura De Sousa Santos. 2006. The Rise of the Global Left; The World Social Forum and Beyond, London: Zed Books
People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka?. September 2003. Human Rights Violations against the Transgender Community: A Study of Kothi and Hijra Sex Workers in Bangalore. Bangalore: PUCL-K
People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka?. February 2001. Human Rights Violations against Sexual Minorities in India. Bangalore: PUCL-K
Voices against 377. 2004. Rights for All: Ending Discrimination against Queer Desire under Section 377. New Delhi.
Annex 2 – List of contacts (indicative list)
- Arvind Narrain, Alternative Law Forum (Bangalore)
- Bharati Dey, DMSC (Calcutta)
- Manohar Elavarthi, Sangama (Bangalore)
- Meena Seshu, Sangram and VAMP (Sangli)
- Radhika Chandiramani, TARSHI (New Delhi)
- Anindya Hajra, Pratyay Gender Trust (Calcutta)
- Gautam Bhan, PRISM (New Delhi)
- Ashok Row Kavi, Humsafar Trust (Mumbai)
- Meena Gopal, LABIA (Mumbai)
- Humjinsi (Mumbai)
- Nivedita Menon, University of Delhi (New Delhi)