Queer Politics of Representation: Ram Mandir and Kinnar Akhada Controversy

Ina Goel examines the tilt towards saffronisation amongst India's LGBTQ+ community. She argues that the burden of being politically correct, which rests heavily on those who come from marginal spaces, raises concerns about the future of queer politics in the country. 

On 4 November 2018, controversy swirled around the support extended by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, self-identifying hijra and Acharya Mahamandaleshwar of the Kinnar Akhada, towards the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya (Verma 2018). Serving as a religious convent, the Kinnar Akhada is an inclusive faith-based space for Kinnars (hijras) practising Hinduism as a religion in India (Goel 2019). Soon after Laxmi’s endorsement of Ram Mandir came out in public, the Indian trans, intersex and gender-nonconforming (T/IS/GNC) individuals and groups released a statement condemning Laxmi’s support towards building Ram Mandir (Round Table 2018). 

The T/IS/GNC statement condemned the Kinnar Akhada’s position on their choice of political ideology and solidarity, in this case, Hindutva and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, respectively, found it “appalling” and “dangerous” that Laxmi’s position could fuel communal tensions. Furthermore, they were critical of Laxmi’s position as a “dominant caste Brahmin trans woman” who was “aspiring for a political position” within the BJP government (Round Table 2018). The statement raised concern over the potential alienation and marginalisation that religious and gender minorities could face as a consequence of the Kinnar Akhada’s position on Ram Mandir. To this extent, they urged international organisations who were supporting Laxmi to “strongly” condemn the support extended by the Kinnar Akhada towards Ram Mandir. Not only that, the T/IS/GNC “emphatically” contested Laxmi’s appointment to LGBT+ related consultation committees, appointed by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as they did not deem it representative of the trans and gender diversity in India (Round Table 2018).

Given the above circumstances, the resistance of the T/IS/GNC against the saffronisation of trans and intersex spaces is understandable. It must, however, be remembered that calling out certain types of hijra political aspirations, even if they are bending towards political saffronisation, is not exclusive of the tilt seen within the larger non-hijra population of India. Moreover, this comes at the expense of viewing the political agency of all hijras belonging to the Kinnar Akhada only in terms of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism. It must not be forgotten that it was from within the hijra members of the same Kinnar Akhada that Mahamandaleshwar Bhawani Nath Singh Valmiki, a pious Hindu priest, was fielded from Prayagraj as a candidate for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) during the Lok Sabha elections. This was after Valmiki had been denied a ticket from the BJP and the Congress party (Dixit 2019). Therefore, it would be misleading to ignore the differing political standpoints within the hijra members belonging to the Kinnar Akhada, as the choice of religion does not necessarily translate into the choice of politics.

Indeed, propagating Hindutva as Hinduism is lethal, and any politics based on communal hatred should be condemned. However, the burden of being politically correct resting so heavily on those coming from marginal spaces of representation raises concerns. This is especially when the means to achieve a populist space otherwise may not be possible, since both identity formation and the othering of that identity arises from institutionalised structural degradation. 

Moreover, using religious platforms to profess political affiliations is not new. Such practices have become established as learnt ways of gaining mass political mobilisation in India. Similarly, inviting religious leaders to political debates is also not new (De Roover 2002). These practices of combining religion and politics have become learnt ways of establishing mass audiences. In an idealistic imagined world, the state may be separated from religion, but is it possible to separate the two when electoral politics in India is itself based on religious vote banks (Engineer 1995 and Wolf 2016)? 

Having said that, being a minority community, the hijras have liminal spaces to claim their choices of religious beliefs and political affiliations in public (Graham and Sundarraman 2018).  As a minority community, it was for the first time in January 2019 that the Kinnar Akhada had fully participated in the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela by taking the “royal holy dip,” conventionally reserved for male Hindu priests, marking its “historic inclusion” as a “transgender spiritual order” at the world's largest pilgrimage site (Salian and Ferdous 2019). Understanding the Kinnar Akhada through the gaze of social exclusion, then, would mean understanding the marginalisation that hijras face through everyday activities like the lack of resources, such as access to inclusive worship spaces. By condemning Acharya Mahamandaleshwar Laxmi’s professional appointments and work, because of her personal religious choices (and her tilt towards political saffronisation), implicitly pressures minority identities by holding them responsible for their minority status. In a way, it is an act of reinforcing the privilege of those who are responsible for contributing towards their marginalisation. Therefore, the burden of replicating the process of social reproduction, however unequal it may be, cannot be put onto minority communities alone.

 It must also be noted that there is no monolithic understanding of Hinduism as a religion (Sugirtharajah 2004). There are, within the Kinnar Akhada, members who have also successfully completed their pilgrimage to Haj (Dainik Bhaskar 2019). Therefore, the controversy of Ram Mandir and Kinnar Akhada is also an eye-opener to how fragmented the representational space of the LGBT+ population in India is. The released statement, itself, also highlights that certain members of its signatories list (including traditional trans feminine persons and groups) received threats for initiating and endorsing the statement condemning the Kinnar Akhada’s support to Ram Mandir. Further information about what kind of threats and from whom is not in public knowledge. However, such declaration of threats, inciting fear and risk to personal safety, should be a deep concern for a democracy where silencing dissident voices is chosen over engaging with them. 

Therefore, there is a polarisation within the trans and gender-diverse populations causing a high variance in political views, which itself is indicative of the ruptures in achieving a universal representational space for queer minorities in India—mirroring the gaps in identity politics across the country. Nonetheless, by calling out the bend towards the saffronisation of alternative progressive spaces, this endorsement may be a turning point in the trajectory of queer politics in India.

The author is thankful to the anonymous reviewer for their comments and feedback. The author would also like to thank the organisers and audience of the Third Ireland India Institute Conference on South Asia, where she presented a part of this article, for their feedback and comments.

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