This is a guest post by Pronoy Rai
There is something awfully nostalgic about May 16. The election results brought with them a sense of melancholy-laden déjà vu. For the queers and allies on the political Left, the sinking feeling that May 16 brought with it, was reminiscent of yet another day, December 11, 2013; the day the Indian Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Delhi High Court decriminalizing homosexuality in India. It was once again criminal to be gay in India; once again the legal State apparatus had rendered queer bodies vulnerable to violence, from the State and from the political Right. There was a sense of desperation and disheartening injustice; what avenues remained to be sought when the country’s highest courts had us disappointed?
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had vehemently welcomed the Supreme Court judgment then, but our incoming Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, remained silent. It was perhaps too trivial an issue for him to address; when were rights anyway a matter of importance for him? If the indigenous people and forest dwellers of Gujarat could make the Indian mass media listen to them, they would tell us the story of Gujarat’s abysmal performance in settling land claims and distributing title deeds. Rights, especially of the fragments, are a roadblock for the Modi-style Development machine.
May 16 brought with it a sense of desperation. Progressive activists and scholars had spent hours in campaigning against the conservative, violent politics of the BJP but the corporate media blitzkrieg of Modi as the singular alternative to an Indian National Congress in hubris had the upper hand. This time, the disappointment came from democratic, parliamentary elections. Who do we turn to, when the poor, the dalits, and women turn their backs on us? What must it be like to be a Zakia Jafri or a close friend or family of Ishrat Jahan or Sohrabuddin Sheikh, watching television or listening to the radio news broadcast on May 16? How does vulnerability feel?
In a Modi-fied India, we are operating as subjects within a frame of Development, where the recognition of the personhood of a Jafri, Jahan, Sheikh, or the indigenous peoples of Gujarat, is bitterly contested by the hegemon. Narendra bhai’s camp asks those that don’t support Modi’s politics to go away to Pakistan (not Sri Lanka or Myanmar, but Pakistan, in particular.) The discourse of othering has been central to the BJP’s politics; the gay body is the weak, Westernized, liberal other of the political, traditional (conservative), 56-inch chest-thumping, masculinity of Narendra bhai, who is willing to sacrifice the ‘pleasures’ of life at the altar of an imagination of a nation.
This nation is imagined by Hindu nationalists, as one that is not fragile, meaning, one that does not give in to the cries of inclusive development and secularism. This imagination is brought to the service of corporate capital that must flow ceaselessly and must create surplus, and all of this requires the ascendance of a political leader whose credentials are assembled via the construction of his masculinity; his physique, his ‘sacrifice’ of his marriage à la Lord Rama in the service of the nation–women are anyway sacrificial objects for the Right, and his ability and willingness to cause violence. All other forms of sexuality are queer and there is no space for queers in the BJP’s imagination of India. Much is being written in the mainstream media about the humility of Modi – his tearful address to the newly elected members of parliament of the BJP, his affection for his mother, his selection of the first woman Chief Minister of Gujarat, and so on. Yet, Modi refuses to apologize for the riots in Gujarat, and the Muslim women, children, and men that died in the state in 2002 remain a statistic, contesting hard to even find their place in the national memory that has been rinsed clean with the magic potion of the promise of Modi-style Development.
If the first week since the election results is an indication of the days to come under Narendra raj, we have enough reasons to be alarmed. The government, under Narendra bhai, will be slim and ‘efficient’; fewer ministers, fewer ministries, greater governance, and greater push towards neoliberalism. Modi has made it unambiguously clear in his electoral agenda that he is in favor of a clear separation of the State and corporate capital and that governments have no role in the markets. If the consequences of this policy were not as a tragically catastrophic, as recent and not so recent history in the West has shown us, it would be almost humorous that those advising Modi see this policy as pragmatic. There are also talks of Modi directly overseeing internal security matters in the country and a greater role for his right-hand man, Amit Shah. Add this buzz to the aforementioned agenda of small government, and you see a potent recipe for the activation of the panoptical; just as the saffron-colored masculinity is performatively produced and normalized as the ideal loyal subject, the surveillance state will be produced and normalized.
In these dark times, how do we create possibilities and alternative desires? To begin with, it would be necessary to accept what has changed in the country; we need to be able to mouth the words that one of the most unapologetically, radically Right-wing leaders has taken over the command of one of the world’s most diverse countries. His ascent to this position needs to be analyzed in terms of the materiality of everyday lives of the rural poor in India; Modi has come to power on the wave of a promise and on the background of an economy that was not creating jobs for the rural poor. What began as a project of introducing a bouquet of rights-based development policies in India in 2004 ended on a very different note in 2014; UPA-II did all that it could to undo the gains by UPA-I. Any future political agenda from the Left needs to privilege, in multiple ways, labor over capital and welfare/redistribution over accumulation.
Can progressive activists, scholars, and political parties battling the Right learn from the LGBT movement in the country? Yes. The LGBT movements have always faced stiff opposition from those in power and yet, the movements have tirelessly waged their battles of recognition, failing and getting up to fight again and using every occasion possible to celebrate minor and major victories and to educate potential allies. My usage of the term ‘movement’ for the many struggles that queer activists, NGOs, and academics have fought in India, is intentional and political in the wake of claims that there was never a LGBT movement in India.
The incoming Lok Sabha barely stands as a beacon of hope with a leader like Narendra bhai, the lowest ever representation of religious minorities, and one of the highest representations of multi-millionaires and criminals. The struggles during the next five years with such a conservative parliament are going to be tiring, but if the queers have so unflinchingly fought against gender injustice throughout their lives, in intimate and public spaces, so can the progressive Left. These are desperate times and we need to be more confident in our abilities to create change than ever. Sexuality needs to be interrogated from the margins, and the nation needs to be captured from the fragments. In these times, we have indeed nothing to lose but our proverbial chains. .
Pronoy Rai is a Social Science Research Council (SSRC) fellow and a PhD student in labor geography at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He may be reached on email@example.com.