Pride and Privilege | The Pride Movement in India: History and Obstacles | Part I

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Pride and Privilege is a column on intersectionality and queerness. The column focuses on addressing queer issues and themes with an intersectional lens, as this is what activism and outreach should aim for with all of its work. It also looks at issues that are often invisible and unspoken in our community, such as biphobia, dalit feminisms, and ableism, in order to address the issue of privilege that comes with our pride.

This is a two part article looking at the pride movement in India. I would like to give a huge thanks to Harish Iyer, Koninika Roy, Pawan Dhall and Milin Dutta for taking the time to speak to me about their personal experiences with pride in India. I would also like to thank every brave soul who has ever organised, protested or marched in a parade to help shape what pride in India has become today, and to those who were not able to participate, but supported from afar.

The pride movement in India has a long and storied past, more so than the average person, particularly in the West, may think. The first type of recorded gay rights activism to take place in India was on August 11th, 1992, when AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA), an organisation that tackles issues of discrimination against those affected by HIV/AIDS, blocked the entrance of the Delhi police headquarters to protest continuous harassment against gay men. ABVA also filed a public interest litigation in Delhi High Court, challenging the validity of Section 377, being the first to do so that inspired a chain of events that have led us to the decriminalisation of Section 377.

2019 was not only the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which took place 50 years ago, but it was also the 20th anniversary of the first ever pride parade held in India…

‘The Friendship Walk’ and Subsequent Parades

A group of 15 gay men, wearing yellow t-shirts with the phrases “LGBT-India” and “Walk on the Rainbow”, set off in Kolkata on 2nd July 1999. The groups split off into two teams and visited NGOs such as the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, to talk about their objectives and concerns of LGBTQ+ rights. Pawan Dhall, one of the 15 men involved in the Walk, stated how ‘some organisations had no idea about LGBT issues, so it was useful for us to go there and make them aware. Overall that was how the idea of the walk came to be ‘non-confrontational in that matter’. Kolkata pride re-emerged in 2003, and has since grown into a much larger affair since its inception in 1999.

In 2008, other cities followed suit with Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai joining in, and more have followed since. The first Mumbai pride parade, titled Queer Azaadi Mumbai (QAM) was held in the month of August, 2008, a day after Independence Day. ‘In 2008, we had 500 odd people, but this past year, we had around 15,000 people attend.’ highlighted Harish Iyer, equal rights activist, who expressed how QAM has grown in the last 10 years. ‘We wanted people to watch us as we wanted this to be a potent tool for advocacy. We wanted to inspire people’.

Guwahati had their first pride parade on 9th February, 2014, it being the first parade organised in North East India. It was organised within 2 and a half weeks, and 150 people attended. What made Guwahati Pride so special was that it was organised by four women (Minakshi Bujarbaruah, Ankita Gupta, Bitopi Dutta and Milin Dutta, who identified as a woman at the time). Queer Pride Guwahati has been organised every year since, and this past year the parade had around 4,000 people, showing how tremendously the movement has grown in all parts of India.

How These Prides Came To Be

For Milin Dutta, organising Queer Pride Guwahati came about after Section 377, the British colonial law criminalising homosexuality, was reinstated after previously having been decriminalised by the Delhi High Court. ‘I was very upset because I was working in 2012 for Equal Rights and Gay marriage in Minneapolis’, stated Milin, who currently moves between Minneapolis and Assam. ‘It really troubled me that if I lived in Assam I could be criminalised, so that made me take a sabbatical in January, and I went to India for 3 months’. He went to different cities across India including Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai and met various people there, who all encouraged him to organise a pride for North East India. ‘When Section 377 was reinstated in December 2013, the Global Day of Rage took place one week after that… so I connected with the organisers of the events, and I reached out. I said “I am here, I want to organise a gay pride, so work with me”.’

The Friendship Walk in Kolkata was able to follow its completely own vision, being the first of its kind in India. ‘When we were deciding on doing the walk, the first thing we wanted to see was how many people there were going to be. When it was clear there wasn’t going to be more than 20 participants, we felt that it wouldn’t make sense to do it as a march on the streets as such, so we thought of doing a symbolic walk.’ expressed Pawan. ‘We said we would rather do this as a bridge building exercise, which is why we called it a Friendship Walk’.

Obstacles and Police Involvement

Although the first Guwahati Pride went quite smoothly, there were threatening incidents in the lead up to it. ‘We received threatening calls, and people came to know.’ Milin voiced. ‘We had posters for the parade, and some people removed them and burned them in front of Minakshi’s house’. A group of Hindu fundamentalists did protest on the day, but Milin expressed how ‘the police had given us support.’, and they were quickly removed before the parade even started.

Pride parades can be logistically complex in India, because every locality has a police station. ‘Whichever police station’s jurisdictions that route falls in, you need to obtain that police station’s permission’ stated Harish, speaking about QAM. ‘We’ve had moments where we’ve announced the date of the parade and we’ve gotten actual permissions on the day, while we were on the way to the march. So we’ve had some nail-biting moments’.

The Friendship Walk was planned in a way where police permissions wouldn’t need to have been obtained. ‘Of course, there was a fear of how the police would react if we had gone for permissions, so that was playing on our minds.’ stated Pawan. Police involvement in pride is something that is extremely controversial to this day, a contentious topic for many as to whether they as an institution should be involved or not. Pawan shared how many trans women he knows have become disillusioned with the pride movement over the years. ‘Trans women are in some ways the most visible publicly, and they face the brunt of state repression, violence by state actors like the police, guards etc. Their whole point is that one day of pride but 365 days of violence doesn’t make sense.’.

Pride has a lot of symbolic value, but does it do enough to address these concerns of violence? The activist and founding trustee of Varta Trust also shared how ‘there have been occasions where we’ve had very successful pride walks with the Kolkata police with making arrangements that the traffic is not disrupted etc, but then the same evening there have been instances of the police harassing the same participants. How do you reconcile this?’. Police presence and collaboration has allowed several pride parades in India to go ahead, and have given a platform for many LGBTQ+ people to be themselves freely and publicly for at least one day of the year. But if the police as an institution is helping to protect pride parades, but then continue to cause harm and violence to the very same people marching for their rights, what does pride even mean for trans women and other marginalised groups within the LGBTQ+ community who face institutional violence? How can we expect them to feel included and safe?

Be sure to check out part 2, which will focus on the intersectionality and inclusiveness of the pride movement in India, and hopes and visions for what pride in India will look like in the future.

Harshil Shah is a Research Assistant with the Queer Resource Centre at One Future Collective.

Featured image source: Scroll.in

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