The Kerala police has once more revealed how utterly unreconstructed it is since colonial times, in their brutal attack on transgender people in the city of Kochi. Stuck in 19th century Victorian morality on the one hand, and in the unabashed sense of power that only colonial authority can bequeath, these policemen thought it perfectly alright to use violence to correct what they perceive as a ‘moral problem’, sex work and that too, by transgendered persons.
Whether the transgendered persons were actually soliciting or not is really beside the point. The crux of the issue lies in the fact that policemen and sections of the mainstream media think that they are perfectly within their rights in attacking and demonising sex work and sex workers, physically assaulting and humiliating transgender individuals, despite the fact that the letter of the law does not really grant them such a free hand. There can also be no doubt that this grotesque manifestation of colonial-Victorian hubris – I use the word ‘hubris’ deliberately, to denote dangerous, foolish over-confidence which thinks that there will be no resistance or protest – comes at the cost of whatever meager advances this society has managed to make towards gender democracy. Thanks to sections of the mainstream media which has been drumming up moral hysteria over Kochi developing a ‘Kamathipura culture’ and so on, whatever gains might have been made among Kerala’s conservative and ageing public through the state government’s declaration of a welfare policy for transgender people may have been diminished. However, the incident has indeed sparked protest, and indeed, I do hope that all the supporters of the current LDF government who raised their voices in the Kiss of Love protests find the courage to protest to their ministers, law-makers, and police authorities openly, and not just on Facebook.
At this moment of deep frustration, however, one cannot help miss, sadly enough, the sheer irony of it all. Private conversations about the incident are so full of misconceptions – and indeed, it is precisely those that provide a basis for the justification of the police’s acts of molestation, and are in turn strengthened in and through the justifications – about ‘Indian culture’ and how it may be protected. Malayali society’s own cultural traditions permitted a wide range of configurations of sexuality and an equally diverse set of kinship and marital arrangements; there have even been instances of same sex practices being institutionalized in marriage in Malayali society of the past. But even if one argues that it is precisely such arrangements that were attacked by Victorian-neo-brahminical reformism, what it brought here, the high-Hindu culture, was not actually fully sexually-sanitised. Of course, in the high-Hindu order, gender-bending, gender-as-play, and every other form of fluidity were reserved for divine, celestial beings alone – human beings were condemned to suffer binary gender – and caste hierarchy adds to the complication. But in itself, gender fluidity was neither unknown nor frowned upon in many Hindu traditions. Also, needless to say, hijras and other groups enjoyed considerable social recognition in premodern Indian society – Malayali society may have been an exception, but that is no excuse.
The irony, also, is that it is the zeal of the police and some elements of the mainstream media who are for sure, colonial. But then the police alone cannot be blamed. The long history of Victorian morality persisting in state policy has been much rehearsed – suffice to say that it has taken a turn for the worse given its return to international gender policy circles in the 1990s. The attack on sex work, which is now an indivisible part of what critics refer to as the ‘carceral feminism’ unleashed in the south through the machinations of strange alliance between the Christian right-wing lobby and Northern radical feminists, is now very much part of the gender policies of governments in India, manifest in sexual protectionism. Indeed, if we are against US as hegemon in its push to build a unipolar world, then we ought to be opposing this attack on sex work that it sponsors to the very last letter. That does not mean that actually-existing forms of sex work are above critique, but critical effort must necessarily jettison Victorian moral fears and stop rehashing colonial categories.
But more fundamentally, we ought to consider why we, mainstream Malayalis are so incapable of dealing with the visibility of people we (and our ancestors) had abjected for centuries. Both transgender people and sex workers belong to those groups. So also, why are we so iffy about ‘foreigners’ –migrant workers – without who this society would come to a complete standstill? Why is that alleged and real crimes by them are played up to almost hysterical levels in public discourse? Oh, honestly – I would love it if this damned craze for construction in Kerala, which is destroying the place, would die down, and I’d wager that the workers would love it if they could all be given enough resources and support back home to engage in whatever fruitful trades or jobs they chose. The rueful point is not just that this scene does not seem a possibility in the near future. It is also that this society seems to be completely incapable of welcoming change and newness – and one is pained to say that such a society can only decay, rot, stink, and be hated for sickening all around.