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Wrapped in a Cocoon

There is a vast gap between being a minority and becoming a minority. It is minoritisation and marginalisation that the sexual minority groups in West Bengal protest against. There has to be an effort on the part of all participants of the movement to relentlessly uphold the democratic credentials of the movement and not to compromise on the issue of linking democracy with the end of marginalisation.

Wrapped in a Cocoon

Sexual Minorities in West Bengal

There is a vast gap between being a minority and becoming a minority. It is minoritisation and marginalisation that the sexual minority groups in West Bengal protest against. There has to be an effort on the part of all participants of the movement to relentlessly uphold the democratic credentials of the movement and not to compromise on the issue of linking democracy with the end of marginalisation.


“Margins” in a democracy are

always a value-loaded cate

gory. They are not only located at the margins of a democracy, but this peripheral existence indicates a bitter and long-drawn process of forced decentring, automatic reduction to an inferior position and a compulsion to live under pity at best or condescension at worst. Being at the margins, one finds, is synonymous with getting marginalised. Marginalisation is necessarily threatening and painful, the latter because it also implicitly refers to a time period when the nowmarginalised group was not at the margins. In this process of marginalisation lies the connection with democracy. All democratic states have engaged in selective privileging of parts of the population which has resulted in marginalisation of some other sections. The problem arises because by definition a democracy is not supposed to do so; it is not supposed to be selectively preferential on arbitrary grounds. A democratic state, trapped in its own logic, is inclined to deny that it is an agency of marginalisation thereby accentuating the sufferings of the marginalised – they are not only de-centred, but it is also denied that they are de-centred.

I Minoritisation

The case of the sexual minorities in almost all societies in general and particularly in the conservative social milieu of West Bengal is, one might say, a notable case of marginalisation by the social and political mainstream. The nonheterosexuals (be they gays, lesbians, transgender, bisexuals or hermaphrodites) are always cast out of the mainstream by the majority therein, treated as inferior, incomplete people having unnatural sexual inclinations who are invariably suffering for some sin that they committed earlier, in this life or previous births. The fact of marginalisation is even more intense for them because the mainstream, more often than not, boldly denies their marginality and refuses to admit that their plight is a result of discrimination, consciously or otherwise, by the constituents of the mainstream. Moreover, while most of the other disadvantaged sections of the population have waged movements and have successfully come to claim privileges through a series of legal provisions and political protections in order to mitigate their marginalised status, the sexual minorities, in contrast, continue to suffer from nonrecognition of their existence, not to speak of their rights, under the pervasive hold of the idea of sexuality itself being a taboo in society.

The sexually marginalised population is forced to live a life of manifold deprivations and human rights violations, carried out by the state machinery as well as civil society, sometimes in wilful collaboration, sometimes unwittingly, often by acts of omission, at other times, by faults of commission. The proclamatory regime of human rights, which has otherwise been so notable a step forward in human history, seems to be absent or at best equivocal when it comes to human rights violations of the sexual minorities. It is this persistent neglect and violation of their rights by fellow-members of civil society, the encroachment on some of the most basic fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution, the inability or unwillingness of the state to bring justice to them that make this minority feel marginalised. Hence, as the sexual minorities argue, there is a vast gap between being a minority and becoming

Economic and Political Weekly March 17, 2007

a minority or rather being forced to become a minority. It is this minoritisation and marginalisation that they protest against.

Predominance of Heterosexuals

In order to counter the overwhelming predominance of the heterosexuals in every facet of the society and the polity, the minorities, first and foremost, have sought to give vent to their suppressed existence by bringing to the surface a growing body of writings as well as unearthing some long-forgotten ones – both literary and serious literature, analytical, factual – exclusively concerning their problems, mirroring their aspirations, highlighting their predicaments, loneliness and isolation in the hope of making themselves heard1 and making the mainstream recognise that the marginalised exist, for, very often, the latter becomes to the former a non-existent entity, a fictitious product of some distorted and perverted imagination of a minuscule number. One might say that this is a sound attempt on their part to communicate with the state and the larger civil society, with people who are not sexual minorities themselves, to make them concede that non-heterosexuals exist and that they can speak for themselves. It is a subtle show of strength, an unmistakable message that they cannot be wished away or their voices gagged. It is certainly a right step forward in encouraging the mainstream to enter into a dialogue with them, to help the mainstream know and understand them, their demands and grievances.

Secondly, the groups have tried to put forth theoretically an alternative model of living life and building inter-personal relations including sexual interactions. In this respect, they had to encounter right from the beginning at least one steep challenge. It was constantly pointed out that the heterosexuals never need to declare themselves to be so; indeed, no heterosexual person goes around proclaiming her/his “normal” sexual orientation. It is a private affair, not meant to be publicly discussed and certainly not supposed to form the substance of a social movement or a public organisation. It was also said to be an outright sign of the “abnormality” of the non-heterosexual person that she/ he announces her/his non-heterosexuality to the world, forms a group of similar such persons, each equally shameless about declaring his/her “private perversion” publicly and launches a movement on its basis. The sexual minorities counter this argument of the mainstream mainly on the following ground: the politics of the public sphere is not value-neutral. But it is premised on well-entrenched and carefully nurtured norms of various sorts which form the bedrock of politics and reinforce over time the direction and nature of politics, such as male domination and superiority, the natural primacy in the modern Westphalian nation state of the reproductive heterosexual couple and the family that grows around them, the prevalence of power relations in every sphere and so on. Hence, it is necessary to question this hegemonic order in the public arena. It is insisted upon by the sexual minorities that there is a need to destabilise the seemingly secure norms in general and ahistorical “natural” heterosexuality in particular.2 Politics needs to mature to a point where any deviance will not be treated as unnatural and therefore fit for marginalisation. There is a process of compulsory heterosexualisation at work in all societies aided and abetted by the political system which should give way to a genuine acceptance of diversity and plurality for all. Such a reordering of politics on these truly democratic lines will ipso facto remove the urge to politicise private personal matters.

II Impact of ‘Bula Di’

While discussing sexual minorities, we find it necessary to ponder on the (changing) role of sexuality in Indian society in general and society in West Bengal in particular, for the said issue had never been a subject of serious public discussion or even public reference for the last few centuries in India. Traditionally regarded as something not only private, but in fact secret even within the private domain, as something inevitable but closely guarded, as something common to all yet pretended to be a non-existent facet of life, sexuality became, specially since the coming of “civilised modernity” and the Victorian age a suppressed part of one’s existence.3 One notices that whatever be the other doubtful successes of the sexual minorities in advancing their cause, they have certainly been able to blow the lid off the issue of sexuality in civil society and this has also been one of their chief agenda. The culture of silence has been somewhat reversed and a counter-practice of being aware of and struggling to gain one’s sexuality rights is launched. Hence in order to understand the views of these sexual minority groups and the response of the state and civil society to them it becomes important for us to delve into the larger question of sexuality. This particular question has been highlighted the most in relation to the global crisis of AIDS, to a discussion of which we now turn.

The phenomenon of AIDS in West Bengal and the measures adopted by the state to control it are worth looking into, for these provide signposts that are relevant in understanding the position of the sexual minorities in the state. In West Bengal the campaign against AIDS has acquired some concerted form through the entire series of advertisements, popularised by the figure of ‘Bula di’, a woman-next-door who is easily approachable, friendly yet persuasive and promptly advises what is to be done if one thinks one is HIV infected and also how to avoid catching the disease. Bula di-centred advertisements (both hoardings, billboards, insertions in the newspapers being a compulsory accompaniment to the weekly matrimonial columns, aired on the radio and, the most lively and provocative of them all, the animations on the television) have almost become a part of the Bengali popular culture now and with the provision of a (toll-free) helpline on which one can actually talk to her freely and anonymously, ask questions and clarify doubts about sex-related illnesses, the government has made information about AIDS readily available and free of cost, to a large extent, removing the psychological barrier that used to exist between the “civilised society” and the sexual domain. Bula di is now a household name and also a shorthand symbolic term for covertly referring to any act of sexual mischief in informal circles. It is indeed a good step by the government to have introduced







Economic and Political Weekly March 17, 2007 Bula di to the sexually ignorant people and to have communicated such an urgent message so very smoothly to a huge number of illiterate poor people. But Bula di has not been an unalloyed blessing. If we deconstruct the advertisements we come across a number of unsettling analyses.

The government’s response to the problem of AIDS through Bula di has raised the following issues. Firstly, it has legitimised free sex and inaugurated a regime of sexual licence. One might argue in this respect that AIDS is a natural outcome of uncontrolled free sex and the necessity of having to tackle one obviously implies the prevalence of the other. Further, the question of legitimisation does not arise here because such sexual licence has become an inevitable feature of present societies all over the world and these changing norms do not require the stamp of legitimacy from anywhere. Legitimate or illicit, such sexual (mis)behaviour is going to persist, giving rise to its inevitable consequences. The state, therefore says, it is more pragmatic and helpful to try and control one of its most feared and widespread consequences, namely, AIDS. This logic is problematic for a number of reasons from several standpoints, including the perspective of the sexual minorities. Homosexuality and bisexuality are regarded by a large number of people not excluding the educated professional middle class as the pitfalls of westernisation, as unfortunate ills that have entered the pristine and pure Indian land as a result of the admission of decadent, ghastly western values supplanting the traditional value system in India. The logic comes under strain when one finds that the other “western ills” are begrudgingly accepted by the common people and non-chalantly dismissed as unavoidable social maladies by the government itself, yet being a sexual minority is tantamount to a crime, both socially and legally.

Secondly, the usual logic of the state that sexuality is a private (secret) matter and fall outside the ordinary jurisdiction of the state and social norms dictate the kind of laws that should be framed also becomes open to question. Has not the state played a leading role of the initiator in the campaign against AIDS? Has it shied away from tackling the question because society is shy to talk about it? Has it not, by presenting Bula di as an assuring trustworthy figure, actually urged the people to be free and frank about the problems of free sex? Does not Bula di herself represent an image of the concerned state, trying to make people come out of the closet, talk unhesitantly and address crucial problems? So it is not always the case that the state sits back and lets the society decide on and handle social issues. Then why is homosexuality not legally normalised, ignoring the social opprobrium?

Thirdly, the governmental efforts to prevent and control AIDS have effectively decoupled marriage and sex in society. Sexual relationships can now be legitimately formed before marriages, parallel relationships can be entered into after marriages, there may be several sexual partners irrespective of the marital status and so on, going by the various types of cautions that are voiced by Bula di in the different advertisements. It obviously follows that the procreative need is no longer the rationale for a sexual interaction. Hence what is wrong, the sexual minorities can ask, in non-heterosexual relationships? It may be pointed out here that their inability to reproduce and


perpetuate the human race is held as a grave limitation of such sexual orientations and an indication of their “unnaturalness” by the heterosexual majority. Thus, if recreative sex is admitted in other respects, then where is the difficulty of accepting that as an aspect of non-heterosexuality?

Politics of Sexuality

Now let us proceed to study some of the other questionable aspects of this AIDS control programme and the position of the sexual minorities therein. It is by now a well-established fact that the government of West Bengal has included the sexual minorities in this programme. The chain of seven gay organisations in this state, namely, Swikriti, Amitie, Praajak, People Like Us (PLUS), Komol Gaandhaar, Praantik and Pratyay, which have together formed the Manas-Bangla receive ample governmental support – financial, logistical and moral. The slowly-rising levels of mass consciousness about the disaster named


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Economic and Political Weekly March 17, 2007

AIDS are praiseworthy, but in our opinion these have had a negative or at least a questionable impact on the position of the sexual minorities and the possibility of a concerted movement of the marginalised and their status vis-a-vis the state. We find that for many of these organisations – particularly, the gay organisations dealing with MSM (men having sex with men) – the rights-based discourse which is essential to the articulation of the marginalised status has come to be displaced by a concern for being enabled by the state to have safe sex. The entitlement claims, which are intrinsic to a movement aimed at ending the marginalised existence, have unfortunately become secondary before the government’s promise to include the sexual minorities (covertly, though; the Bula di series nowhere mentions or even hints at same-sex interactions, no doubt to refrain from offending the mainstream) in its sexual health programmes. It now appears that being away from the mainstream is somewhat acceptable, if the government ensures prevention of AIDS.

It is also in this context that we need to delve into the politics of hierarchy at work within the marginalised sexual minorities themselves and discover how power equations dominate the inter-relation of these minority groups. Sappho, the only support group for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women in the whole of eastern India finds itself discriminated against by the rest of the minority groups (incidentally, all of them are gay groups) and argues that the prevalent patriarchal patterns of the mainstream are no less existent within the marginalised section. The gay groups, in fact, serve to perpetuate the patriarchy. Sappho complains of concerted and wellplanned actions to deprive it of government recognition, support and financial help, to leave it outside the ambit of the Manas-Bangla AIDS control drive, in short, to consign the non-heterosexual women to their own fate of continued deprivation, injustice, lack of self-esteem and, most distressingly, the risk of HIV infection. Malobika, one of the founder-members of Sappho, is categorical on this point.4 She reveals her discomfort in several aspects at the nature of the “movement” being waged by the gay organisations. It is intrinsically a “community-only” movement which aims at reiterating and cementing the alreadyexisting mainstream-marginalised divide; in her opinion, it harps on the self-sufficiency and empowerment of the male nonheterosexuals in a very narrow restrictive sense as a result of which true integration does not come about ever and the marginalised continue to live a cocooned, separate existence away from the mainstream. The mainstream must be included in the efforts of the marginalised to end the discrimination of the latter. It is only by initiating a comprehensive dialogue with the mainstream, which Sappho claims to have done successfully although only at the preliminary stage till now, that the marginalisation can end. Integration cannot come about by a repeated emphasis on differences; instead, it is an imperative to urge the mainstream to dissolve the line of artificial distinctions on the basis of sexual orientations.

Privileging Manas-Bangla

The politics of selective care becomes all the more evident if we look into the condition of the other kinds of sexual minorities, most commonly, the eunuchs of different types and the transgender people, quite a few of whom are forced to join the eunuchs.5 It is extremely significant to note that they marvel at the fact that the houses where of each these Manas-Bangla centres are located are rented by the government of West Bengal, the provision of all basic facilities is financed and managed by it and the gay groups are virtually under the government’s protective wings. The eunuchs do not conceal their opinion about the privileging of the gay groups by the state and that the government cares for some minorities and leaves some others orphans. The note of helpless complaint in their voices is evident when they say, “no government ever meets us, let alone fulfil our demands.”6 It was amply clear that there is a sense of discrimination among the sexual minorities themselves. In other words, for some of them no measure is taken by the state to reverse the marginalisation that they face. It seems that because the government thinks (rightly or wrongly) that they are not likely to get HIV-infected, therefore, it is unnecessary to include them in the ongoing sexual health drive and bring about some improvement in their condition. This is, we feel, a crucial

insight into the politics of sexuality in the state.

So one feels that the sexual minority groups should spare some more thought to a reframing of the content of the movement in order to enhance its critical component (which exists in organisations like Amitie and Pratyay) and make it a worthy social movement capable of providing a viable and meaningful alternative to the form of organising life and society. The movement should be politicised but not to be political; in other words, it has to be a civil society venture and not a political programme. Moreover, there has to be an earnest effort on the part of all participants of the movement to relentlessly pursue the democratic credentials of the movement and not to compromise on the issue of linking democracy with the end of marginalisation. This message needs to be firmly put across to the state that “mainstreaming” a section of the nowmarginalised and ignoring the plight of similar others is dangerous and distressing, both for the mainstream as well as for the marginalised. Barring a strong and comprehensive movement, social attitudes and political measures cannot be radically altered and marginalisation cannot be reversed.




[The author is aware of the concerted action against IPC 377 undertaken in various states in India and the legal activism surrounding it. There is deliberately no discussion on this aspect in this short paper.]

1 A representative sample of such works is Giti Thadani, Sakhiyani – Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India, Cassell, London, 1996; Sudheer Kakar, The Indian Psyche, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996; Garnets D Linda and Kimmel C Douglas (eds), Psychological Perspective on Lesbian and Gay Male Experience, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993; Sherry Joseph, Social Work Practice and Men Who Have Sex with Men, Sage Publishers, New Delhi, 2005; Patricia Juliana Smith (ed), The Queer Sixties, Routledge, New York, 1999; Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt (eds), Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in England from 1748 to 1914, Vintage, Britain, 1998.

2 Panel discussion on heterosexuality and feminism organised by the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University on February 15, 2004 and reported in their newsletter, Volume 15, March 2004.

3 Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (eds), Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, St Martin’s Press, London, 2000.

4 Personal interview with author on April 7, 2005.

5 A vivid description of these macabre incidents is narrated in a pioneering research work by Ajoy Majumdar and Niloy Basu, Bhaarot-er Hijrre Somaaj (in Bengali), Deep Publications, 1997.

6 The author was personally present and heard this in person.

Economic and Political Weekly March 17, 2007

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