Samadrita Kuiti

A great milestone in the movement for LGBTQ rights in India was achieved with the landmark Supreme Court verdict of April 15, 2014, which created the category of a “third gender” for transgender-identified individuals in India. This judgment was significant not only because it sought to bestow dignity on the lives of individuals living on the margins of Indian society for a long time but also because with the passing of this judgment India became one of the few countries in the world to even have a legal definition for the term “third gender.” One of the reasons this was brought to fruition is because noted transgender/hijra activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, helped bring this case before the Supreme Court of India as one of the petitioners.

Yet, the relationship between transgender activism and the cause of Hindutva nationalism has only intensified in India. This can be re-affirmed if we look at Tripathi’s rise to prominence as a hijra activist after the aforementioned Supreme Court judgment. In early January of 2019, for instance, Tripathi led her Kinnar Akhada (a group of religious Hindu hijras) to becoming the first transgender group to have taken a holy dip at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna during the Kumbh Mela festival which is of immense religious significance to Hindu devotees across the world. It is, perhaps, apposite to note that the right to this holy ritual of bathing especially on the first day of the festival is reserved only for male Hindu priests. An article published on this event reports: ""After centuries down the line, it was when the community finally got its due," Tripathi told Reuters, seated on a pedestal next to her Michael Kors bag, juggling calls on an iPhone."

Activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (center) performs at a fashion show for jewellery designer Akaash K. Aggarwal. April 2016, India.

The image created by the mentions of Tripathi’s “Michael Kors bag” and her “iPhone” serves as a metaphor for the ways in which queer and transgender activism is being co-opted into the fold of global capitalism and neoliberal institutions of power which are steadily becoming the dominant forces in the sociopolitical landscape of India. This is not to mention Tripathi’s turn as an ardent supporter of Hindu right-wing nationalist ideology. Thus, what we see here is a new and evolving connection between the legitimation of the bodies and rights of queer subjects in India at the expense of validating the idea of a new and modern, “digitally progressive” Indian nation-state that will proclaim its authenticity by becoming a hub for global capital alongside embracing Hindu majoritarian identity politics.

Indeed, it is the immediate and prospective fallout of this growing connection that Rohit Dasgupta and Debanuj DasGupta explore most deftly in their edited collection Queering Digital India: Activisms, Identities, Subjectivities. By bringing together nine diverse and rigorous essays by nine scholars investigating the interconnections between queer digital activisms and the growing marginalization of some queer bodies and desires over others, the editors have offered a way of fulfilling the gaps in scholarship on digital activisms in India and the new and thriving movement for greater rights for India’s significantly-sized queer populations. It is important to note that this collection was published in 2018 prior to the historic Supreme Court ruling which struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and heralded the advent of a new era for India’s nearly 108 million LGBTKHQ[1]-identified population. Thus, it attempts to provide a cohesive view of LGBTKHQ digital activisms and activism-related discourses prior to this Supreme Court ruling which is sure to usher in some substantial changes.

The book is split into three sections titled Digital Performance and Politics, Digital Activism(s) and Advocacy, and Digital Intimacies, each of which feature three essays focusing on the following topics: first, queer identity formation that is mediated on and through digital media;  second, the dissemination of information (crucial to AIDS-related and other rights-based activisms) through social media; and lastly, new forms of queer intimacies that are being rearticulated in the digital realm in India. Aside from this, there is also an exhaustive introductory chapter that conveniently maps out the common theoretical and methodological underpinnings of the scholarly work featured in the rest of the book. The editors particularly note the influences of French poststructuralist thought (Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, et al.), postcolonial theory (Achille Mbembe, Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Nivedita Menon, et al.) and queer of color critique (José Esteban Muñoz and Jasbir Puar) as the theoretical basis in the book. Specifically, the influence of Puar’s theory on homonationalism or the legitimation of some queer bodies and lives at the expense of deeming other queer subjects and desires transgressive and criminal in the service of the heteronormative nation-state seems to be a pervasive thematic element of the book. Another scholarly focus of the book hinges around the idea of counteracting queer theory’s American and Western-centric focus and figuring out the ways in which it "travels transnationally."

The first chapter draws on the format of a roundtable discussion between a group of scholars and activists comprising Niharika Banerjea, Aniruddha Dutta, Radhika Gajjala, Amit S. Rai and Jack Harrison-Quintana with the editors acting as moderators. Together, they attempt to trace the contours of the concept of “queering” and also define what digital subcultures mean in the context of LGBTQ rights and visibility in India. The primary arguments that emerge from this discussion also serve as the conceptual and theoretical backbone for the rest of the book. They emphasize that queer intimacies and activism in India have been facilitated through social media platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp groups aside from gay dating applications like PlanetRomeo and Grindr. Additionaly, digital literacy in India is still the prerogative of people with the privilege of an English education even though India is one of the largest cellphone markets in the world currently. As a result, underprivileged queer populations residing in rural areas in India that do not have access to resources like a good, stable internet connection or proficiency in the English language do not benefit from queer digital activist solidarities as much as others. The panelists also agree on the use of the term “queering” as an “optics” for critiquing all hegemonic formations (like that of religion, class, caste etc.)  rather than the deploying term “queer” to denote only issues of gender and sexuality.

The methodologies used in the essays vary considerably. Chapter 3 on “digital closets” by Rahul K. Gairola offers an incisive analysis of the use of digital equipment (such as smartphones and camera) in two Bollywood films - Aligarh and Kapoor & Sons - to theorize the idea of a “digital closet” which renders legible the sexual identities of the queer characters in either film. The very next chapter by Kareem Khubchandani exploring Bangalore’s gay nightlife makes use of Muñoz’s theoretical concept of “cruising” which unpacks the role played by “ephemera” or “ those immaterial moments and inconsequential objects that are too incriminating to circulate or archive - as vital pieces of queer subculture that have long-lasting effects." In a unique move, Khubchandani uses this technique to perform a critical dissection of gay party fliers circulated through Whatsapp groups and other private social media messaging apps that renders tangible the ways in which Indian gay men perform class identity and privilege in public spaces. However, the last half of the chapter focuses on other aspects of such gatherings such as the DJ’s interactions with the guests, the choice of music, the casual conversations which demonstrate the ways in which the rifts in class and caste-based identities are negotiated alongside the gaps between Western and South Asian sensibilities.

A chapter by Ila Nagar takes up the topic of janana (the underprivileged, feminine-identified men who have sex with men while maintaining their heterosexual identity in public) invisibility on digital media platforms and the ways in which they often have little to no agency in determining their visibility on social media sites like Facebook and PlanetRomeo. Nagar’s chapter also focuses more on articulating janana invisibility in all queer activism-based discourses and not just the ones circulating via digital platforms in India. The very next chapter by Rohit Dasgupta is very clearly rooted in the digital terrain. It explores the significant roles played by social media platforms in extending AIDS-outreach programs such as the Kolkata-based “HIV capacity-building charity” SAATHI (Solidarity and Action Against HIV Infection in India). Dasgupta draws our attention to SAATHI’s innovative use of social media to disseminate information about AIDS-prevention and advocacy to vulnerable groups such as MSM (men who have sex with men) who often remain invisible to outreach programs.

In the next essay, Pawan Singh focuses on the Hyderabad-based channel, TV9’s sting operation conducted against the gay dating app PlanetRomeo in February of 2011 which resulted in breach of privacy for many of its users. Singh’s argument reanimates the connection between the fundamental right to privacy enshrined in the Indian constitution and the cause of queer activism since the Delhi High Court’s judgment of 2009 (which overturned the colonial era law under Section 377) was based on an individual’s inviolable right to privacy. Sneha Krishnan’s ethnographic research-based chapter titled “Bitch, don’t be a lesbian” is the sole essay in the collection which focuses on the lives of young middle-class women attending a university in Chennai. Although it does not zero in on the issue of lesbian sexuality per se, it emphasizes the ways in which a make-believe enactment of lesbian desire is mediated through the culture of taking provocative “lesbian” selfies and circulating them through an intimate network of friends and lovers.

Debanuj Dasgupta critiques the disciplining of the bodies of runaway working-class men in India who are being deemed a growing threat to the urban “rights-bearing female subject” especially in the light of the brutal gangrape of Jyoti Singh in 2012. He offers insights into the ways in which such runaway men and volunteers affiliated with an organization named PDS based in Kolkata, India are forging virtual “intimacies” through the circulation of memes on Facebook which also help redefine their subject-position as men whose masculinity seems to be in apparent need of reformation. Dasgupta also engages the concepts of queer temporality and spatiality toward the end of this chapter implying the possibility of queer affiliations and kinship between men who might identify as heterosexual in social contexts.

The last chapter of this collection by Inshah Malik serves as a particularly timely reading as news filters in about the political uncertainty in Kashmir in light of the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 which has historically ascribed special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir after independence from British colonial rule. Specifically, Malik sheds light on the Kashmiri movement for Azadi and reformulates this desire for an Azad Kashmir as a queer one particularly because it is at odds with the Indian postcolonial state’s reproduction of an “upper-caste, Hindu, heterosexual” subject. She also discusses the unnatural death of a Kashmiri student Mudasir Kamran at the University of Hyderabad and the contradictory discourses it generated on social media. She argues that Kamran’s identity as a homosexual was conflated with his desire for a free Kashmir and thereby any kind of activism relating to Kashmir’s freedom can be deemed as a form of queer nationalism that is violently disrupted by the Indian Army’s occupation of the region.

As we enter the fifth week of the near-total communication blockade (particularly the shutdown of internet services) that has been prevailing in Kashmir ever since the revocation of Article 370, the importance of digital media in magnifying the voices of those who challenge and critique state-sponsored discourses of territorial nationalism has never been more urgently felt. It is pertinent to stress the necessity of generating more scholarly research on digital activisms focused on Indian and South Asian geopolitical issues. This edited collection, which is a valuable addition to the emerging field of a queer digital humanities in the South Asian context will undoubtedly serve as the basis for future academic endeavors in the areas of South Asian digital and queer activisms.

Samadrita Kuiti is a PhD candidate in the department of English at the University of Connecticut specializing in postcolonial literature, feminist theory and gender studies.

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[1]  The letters H and K in the acronym LGBTKHQ indicate the terms hijra and kothi as categories of gender & sexuality in the South Asian context. The terms kothi and janana/janani can almost be used interchangeably and they are used to indicate feminine-identified men who have sex with men while hijra refers to the transsexual and transgender community in India