Guruswamy and Katju, Your rainbow doesn't hide your casteism.
The Story of a Movement: the Law, the Leaders, the Lies
There are a lot of structural reasons why Guruswamy and Katju get to present themselves as leaders of this movement, and in doing so, tap into exactly the structural violence through which Section 377 has come to be represented.
Words by Akhil Kang and
Vqueeram Aditya Sahai
September 24, 2020
Illustration by Priyanka Paul
Vqueeram Aditya Sahai: i am so grateful to have Akhil Kang suggest and organise this conversation. Akhil and i thought to discuss the legal journey of the case around Section 377 and its particular colonization by some legal teams. Both by the kind that began this conversation around Section 377 decades ago, and now in its homonormative avatar with the lawyers Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju. Without further ado, i leave this space to Akhil to say a few things.
Akhil Kang: Thank you Vqueeram, what really compelled me to ping you and have a conversation around this was after I saw your IG story where a law student had written to you you about your post on law, Section 377 and the hetero-normative “gay” politics around it. I found the law student’s reply a bit triggering because I was also a law student once. For a law student to be so transphobic toward you was just. . . what the fuck. People keep trolling you, and you keep generously engaging with them, it’s just beyond me. The conversation both of us are about to have right now is not new. I also feel so guilty about taking up spaces in these times. . . you know. . . the world is burning, our friends are wrongly incarcerated, I have so much trauma because whatever we say – and by we I mean dalit queers – gets labeled as ad homeinam anyway. Besides our lives, besides our testimonies, besides our evidence, people don’t take us seriously. And this is not to say that one needs to be giving testimonies to be taken seriously. But, I am constantly holding myself back. There are enough upper caste people who are bringing each other down and everybody wants the stardom and everybody wants to be the poster person for this battle (the battle for Section 377 decriminalization, that is). I’ve not said anything about it so far because I don’t feel that I am strong enough, but then again, I don’t want to stand in my own way.
Vq: i am still learning boundaries. i feel like i have an upper caste martyrdom syndrome, which takes over. A lot of dalit folx keep pointing this out, about how savarna folx take on the policing function. I’m still learning how to disengage. i learn this most in my friendship with you – i have seen you pull back and say ‘not my conversation’, or be careful about when to raise what, and not constantly provide the evidence of our lives. i think you’re the safest person to have this conversation with, both of us will keep each other in check.
AK: Thank you for saying that. I think queers know this more than anyone else: we decide our own allies. The same goes for me as a person who comes from an untouchable caste, I decide who my allies are. You were crucial in my own journey of understanding boundaries, and it’s an everyday process. In a lot of dalit-queer mobilising and organising we saw many red flags because savarnas showed us what we shouldn’t be doing in terms of building solidarites with each other. We knew what not to do because savarnas were doing it so terribly, and one of the main red flags for me was gatekeeping around queerness and queer-experiences.
One of my motivations to talk about the Section 377 case is that it is possibly one of the most well-documented cases in Indian legal history. When there have been so many stakeholders, it’s quite preposterous that a few individuals can make it all about themselves. This is also a savarna upper caste tendency – to centre narratives around themselves and glorify themselves. When I talk about caste and queerness, I am very particular that I don’t represent all dalit queers. In fact, a lot of our mobilisation failed because each of us has such a specific peculiarity of geographic and linguistic location. Caste is informed by many particularities and specificities. Our queerness was not able to hold where we were coming from, even though we wanted to work on caste and queerness together. There are a lot of younger dalit queers who are doing fantastic things now, which is extremely inspiring, and I’m so blown away and emotional when I come across their work. But the point that I’m making is: how can people who are well-established lawyers, who have been around for a long time and know that there have been long histories to this petition, have the audacity to be so grossly self-centered and ego driven?
Vq: There are two very different kinds of being blown away, right. The first, being blown away by the sheer courage and vulnerability of dalit queer people who are putting themselves out there and expressing their vulnerability. And the second, of being blown away by the remarkable impunity of Guruswamy and Katju. When concerns over their appropriation of a whole discourse are raised, they don’t even put out a statement or respond. They don’t feel accountable to any of us. Strangely, it is easier to call out the state, but more difficult to address one of our own, because in some sense the state – through the most violent of apparatuses – allows for at least the question of accountability, even when it refuses it. Those that are seemingly progressive and democratic, and are fighting for “our” rights, have no procedures in place, no institutions to feel responsible to any of us. i was wondering if you wanted to speak about this – about the relation between procedures of human rights lawyering and the norms or ideals of democracy, or its lack thereof?
AK: There are a lot of structural reasons why Guruswamy and Katju get to present themselves as leaders of this movement, and in doing so, tap into exactly the structural violence through which Section 377 has come to be represented. Scholars like Satish Deshpande point out how “casteless-ness” functions as a means to establish brahmin supremacy in this country. That is, with the collaboration of the State and State actors, upper castes function in anonymity. On the other hand, the magnified focus on scheduled castes and scheduled tribes makes it look like caste is only marked by and through dalits and adivasis. Queer individuals, like Guruswamy and Katju, also function in this casteless paradigm and lay a claim to representing the broad queer claim of this country. When, in fact, it has mostly been working class, lower class and caste hijra, kothi, trans, dalit folx who have been challenging what collective LGBTQIA+ identity means for subjective, individual struggles. Additionally, many people, including dalit folx, are still formulating what “queer” means for their jati identies. So, this uncritical, ahistorical representation of queerness is extremely damaging. And sadly, is exactly how caste supremacy has functioned and continues to function even today.
In such a paradigm, being queer also translates to being casteless. A privilege that is only afforded to upper castes. As I pointed out before, centuries long histories of oppression and disenfranchisement have been understood to mark and unmark only certain bodies. Guruswamy and Katju escape that marking precisely because of their caste locations. Even narrow acknowledgment of their caste identity seems extremely performative and patronising, and does not seek to decentre their caste and class clique networking at all. They do not speak for the non-normative movements in India. They certainly do not speak for me. Even when posters, talks and news channels around the world seek to talk about this monumental moment in Indian history by using their pictures, and solely focusing on them – they have made no effort to distance themselves from it. Guruswamy’s arguments were powerful. There is no denying that. But that is not all there is to the case.
Having said this, I also want to say that what we’re talking about might seem hyper-specific to these two individuals but it’s not. The reason we both are talking about these two individuals is because the entirety of Section 377 history seems to be mediated through them. Particularly, in the mainstream coverage of this case. This is quite fantastic – since the Section 377 history is anything but a monolith. I am also not interested in legal timelines, I am more interested in the legal strategies that decide who gets heard and what gets heard.
Just to quickly point towards some resources: Alternative Law Forum (ALF), based out of Bangalore, has an incredible list of affidavits, testimonies and research that went into this case, and lawyers from ALF were closely involved in the case; there is Orinam, in Chennai, who have every affidavit, and have collated several opinion pieces over the years; and Partners for Law for Development (PLD), who have an archive called Feminist Law Archive – I was part of creating it but my labor is still unacknowledged. However, I do want to flag that PLD was a terrible place to work at. Their casteism, classism and tokenism were one of the many reasons I left my job. And I strongly advise young law students who are looking to work at feminist law offices to avoid working there. In fact, in the process of collecting documents for this archive, I had personally reached out to several dalit feminists (because at that time I was a bit naive) and all of them refused to give any documents because they did not want to be associated with upper caste led-NGOs like PLD who have done negligent work on caste and gender while masquerading to be experts in it. They warned me that PLD would take credit for these documents. A pattern which I realized later – when I saw their application for an international funding agency where they had used my dalit-queer identity to prove their “diversity” and sensitivity to caste issues. I was never asked. I randomly stumbled across this document in their database while working on an unrelated piece of legal research. It continues to be one of the most invasive and humiliating experiences of my life. PLD was also part of the group Voices Against 377 – who are one of the initial petitioners of the Section 377 case. So, through PLD I also witnessed other forms of caste-class associations within queer and feminist organising.
But I digress. I want to point to a few instances in this archive. They have important documentation, like for instance when the movie Fire (1996) came out, and the kind of censorship laws it faced. They have materials around women eloping and how the surveillance around lesbian friendships, romance and desire has been so crucial to understand where we are today.
I was still in law school when the Supreme Court 2013 judgement happened. A very basic thing which all law students learn to do is when a judgement comes out, you don’t just read the judgement, but understand everything around it. That’s the kind of law I learned. We don’t just look at the advocate on record, because as law students we are more aware than anybody that there are so many interns and researchers who don’t make the list, and so many affidavits and testimonies which the court never admits into the official legal record. Because the court deems them to be irrelevant. It’s so important to look at different modalities, to look at everything around a case. While I was working for PLD for Feminist Law Archives, I came across an email that one activist had written against another in the context of the 2001 Bharosa incident in Lucknow. The local police had jailed few people for distributing HIV/AIDS related material, saying that they were promoting homosexuality. This activist had written the most petty email accusing the other activist of only participating in this case for the stardom and money. I was a young scholar who had just graduated – and I guess you could say I was starry-eyed – but when I saw the email, I realised I don’t care for savarna politics. I don’t operate in savarna logic.
I also don’t operate in savarna citations. This is how my desire to talk about other kinds of modalities of the law became all the more important. We don’t care for legacy – and by we, I mean my dalit queerness – we don’t come from families that own anything, we don’t come from families that have this celebrated sense of caste group. Our sense of privacy is not privilege. Savarna histories are actually histories of erasures – because we are erased out of them. Savarna abjection builds on the lives of marginalised “others”. I come from a particularity of chamar and queerness and I don’t pretend to represent adivasi particularities, or queerness within it. So all of these different conversations are completely neglected when the mainstream hyper focuses on two individuals.
Vq: i think Guruswamy and Katju are actually a pivot to have a larger conversation about precisely how democratic rights work happens in courtrooms, and how courtrooms are particular kinds of spaces in which particular forms of subjectivity are allowed, or disallowed. Often, those of us who engage with the law, or with judgements, we blame only the judges. The judge becomes the person who represents the worst arguments about x or y. When you think about the 2013 Judgement, you blame the bench that gave the judgment but don’t take a step back to ask what did our lawyers present? You don’t step back and think about the work that went into the petitions and the people that made those petitions. You don’t take a step back and wonder about the relationship between the intern who drafted the petition and the lawyer who presented it. In our imagination it is only the authority of the judge that rules upon these matters.
My emphasis with Guruswamy and Katju, and others like them, is that i have been dissatisfied with the case from the beginning. i have been angry at its process, with its lack of accountability, its lack of transparency. The reason why i pivot Guruswamy and Katju is because they are the symptom of a structural problem that manifests in courtrooms, especially when galvanised by savarna lawyers. This is not something that i have seen dalit lawyers do, for many reasons, including the ones you mentioned about not trying to build legacies, and trying to uplift communities instead. We see Kiruba Munusamy do that work constantly. Guruswamy and Katju were only able to manifest around this case precisely because the ground for this was readied long ago.
In 2009 we had the Naz judgement, in 2013 the Suresh Koushal judgement, and Guruswamy and Katju only showed up in the post-2013 activism. In the post-2013 moment, judges in the court had asked ‘where are queer people?’ and there were of course many queer people present both in and outside the courtroom. There are many forms that queerness takes in a courtroom, and it’s not necessarily only about the “witness” in the witness box. There were queer lawyers and petitions that were part of the case. In Guruswamy and Katju’s Oxford Union Address, Katju says, ‘There were never LGBT people in court, speaking in their own voices about what it meant to live life under a sodomy law.’ When she says this, she erases all of the queer people who are, and have always been, present, including themselves! Their defence could be that there were no petitioners and these were affidavits, which would be the narrowest reading of a legal document possible.
The sediment of the case is in the public life of sex, not in the private life of sexuality – a move was made only in 2009 with Naz. The reason why people went to court with a case against 377 is because queer and trans people were being publicly harassed: whether it was the Lucknow raid, or the nameless sex worker on the street. The grief was state violence, of social blackmail and exploitation. What akshay khanna would call the ‘social life of the law.’ We went to court to fight against state violence and injustice. By making the conversation in 2009 about privacy, and thereafter about where queer people are to be found, the conversation about the violation of trans, kothi and working class communities was disappeared and made about recognition instead.
This is precisely why the 2018 judgement pays such little regard to state violence. They gave us this judgement about recognition precisely because it is made to be about love and family and couples and respectability – rather than about clients and streets and police and state violence. A certain form of savarna politics cannot share space, it must remove others from it. Guruswamy and Katju were able to turn the conversation because of the way it had been steered since 2009, when privacy became the pivot by which protection from state violence was to be ensured. We see this again in the conversation around data protection, where there is far more emphasis on the privacy of our data rather than about the fact that our data manifests in the public realm.
However, it is not as if kothis and trans folx disappear from the petitions, they continue to remain in petitions as evidence of the social violence of the law. But they are not represented in the courtrooms. The petition becomes the place where you have the social life of the law, which seems regressive and backward, and those who represent it and the petitioners become the harbingers of futurity. Stigma, social violence and state atrocity get pushed to the back of the room, become a matter of history, become a matter of the past; while conversations about respect and “equal love” become matters of the future. The word ‘shame’ appears about five times in the five hundred pages of the judgement, and is replaced by the word ‘prejudice’, which appears about seventy times or more in comparison. This turn from shame to prejudice is important to point out – prejudice is that which you can overcome, while shame is that which continues to debilitate you, continues to affect the future. You cannot overcome shame in the same way – especially not through the law. This is why the trans, kothi and sex workers who inhabit shame and stigma as marks on their body are not brought in to the courtroom. People who can hold the future, who can become the future, are brought to the courtroom instead. These are the most respectable of us, those who look most like the judges themselves.
Similarly, Guruswamy and Katju disappear trans marriage to bring up gay marriage. The trans marriage is seen as the heteronormative “man/woman” marriage, and so the progressive marriage, in comparison, is the gay marriage between same sex people.
i think these are the various dynamics that are endemic to human rights work in courtrooms.
AK: What you say is so important because you can point out the shifts between what’s happening in the Supreme Court in 2013, versus 2018, and there is a difference between the two. It is important to point out here that much of this difference is also because of community engagement, and the amount of labour that has gone into the case over so many years. This is the work done in collaboration with bureaucrats, state agencies, by urban, semi-urban and rural-situated mobilisations. I want to point out here how social justice legal practice works politically, in terms of ethnographically talking about courtrooms and legal procedures. I am particularly interested in the kind of petitions that were represented by Guruswamy and Katju, and the kind of people that they represented. In a country that is so deeply structured by hierarchy, I can’t believe that something titled the ‘celebrity petition’ was put forward? And celebrated!
I do want to add a caveat here: law courts are hard to navigate for women, especially for gender nonconforming folx. So it is incredible to have someone who is out of the closet and litigating in the Supreme Court, but I want to have this conversation while also holding savarnas accountable for what they are representing. I am so tired of repeating this: the queer in India, or the LGBTQIA+ in India, gets represented as a caste-less community, and this is a savarna tendency. Lauren Berlant writes about this, how only the privileged can achieve universality. And that universality is a mark of privilege. It’s precisely what upper caste people do, they universalise themselves and their experiences. We should also have this conversation along with the horrendous interview that Karuna Nandy gave about her upper caste location. In a conversation with Blush magazine, Nandy says, ‘more privilege is attributed to me than exists.’. Now, this reveals several things about savarna women lawyers, if you ask me: first, it shows how they are making sense of their own caste locations only in response to dalits and adivasis calling them out. Had people not pointed out how their caste and class status facilitates their career, and mediates their gendered negotiations within courtrooms – that reflexivity would have been completely absent. So, I am saying that their association with their caste status becomes visible to us only when its status quo is threatened, and any articulation of their relationship with their caste group and communities is only in clarifications, and second, even when there is an acknowledgment of privilege, there is a simultaneous disavowal of it. This is what I was talking about before. The performativity of savarna caste acknowledgement and how patronising it is, and how it further solidifies their aversion to talking about caste-class networking. I am not saying that there is no difference between Karuna Nandy or Maneka Guruswamy or Arundhati Katju. But pointing to the systematic ways in which savarnas constantly evade questions of accountability and meaningful discussions of their caste groups. And these are the connections with Section 377 I am politically invested in.
Getting back to the nature of the petitions that Guruswamy was representing: the ‘celebrity petition’ gets instant media attention, and these celebrities are the people who are considered to be respectable – they are upper caste and upper class. These are professionals whose careers are hindered because of Section 377. It would be interesting to talk about temporality in this celebrity petition. So, the petitioners in this particular celebrity petition prove to us that their past lives have been unfulfilled because of their sexuality. It is automatically assumed that regardless of their class and caste status – they were living unfulfilled lives. Their sexuality negates the fact that their access might have been effectively generated through their past or present privileges. Guruswamy chooses petitioners who proactively fit the casteless narrative. Which she herself thrives in. The narrative around these petitions is also that the court needs to hear from all walks of life. That people from all professions and classes and castes are part of it. But that is a pretense. The class of people who get to be heard over others is a classic question of legal representation.
The second petition is the IIT petition (by current students and alumni of IIT’s in India). It’s very ironic, because the jury’s still out on whether Guruswamy supports reservations or not. But even if you do support reservation, how do you argue meritocracy when you are “for reservation”? Guruswamy argues that IIT-ians are the most meritorious persons in this country, that they don’t want to go abroad, they want to be in India – but they can’t because of Section 377. There is such a long casteist and colonial history to the notion of meritocracy, and especially to IIT – please read Ajantha Subramanian’s The Caste of Merit (2019) where she ethnographically surveys IIT Madras. There are so many parallels here because Guruswamy roots herself in Nehruvian politics, and it was Nehru who, in his convocation address in IIT Kharagpur, drew connections between IIT engineering and meritocracy. Subramaniam, in her book, refers to this address while talking about the post-colonial Indian state’s investment in these institutions and linking exclusivity and selectivity with excellence. She writes, ‘. . . in other words, democratizing access to training would be antithetical to excellence. Nehru concurred, “I am all for democracy,” he opined, “but democracy normally means mediocrity too. It is a well-known thing, you put up with it in a democracy because, well, it is better to have democracy than having something worse. But the fact is that numbers lead to mediocrity”’. There are also colonial histories of how lower caste, working class people who were artisans, technicians, and over generations had occupational training vis-a-vis engineering. But the only way colonial administration and upper castes could make engineering respectable was to actively associate the profession with brahmins.
How do you sit on the Dr. Ambedkar Chair (at Columbia University) and argue for meritocracy in the Supreme Court? Can we have Gowthaman Ranganathan on that fucking chair, can we have Kiruba Munusamy on that chair? There are so many dalit queer and feminist lawyers who are doing incredible work, but their crisis intervention and management gets completely missed out. What about lawyers who go to the police station to get trans people and sex workers out because of begging laws? What about kidnapping – what about the million other kinds of extortion laws because of which people are put inside jails?
I refuse to be put in opposition to basic conceptualisations by savarna queers, because I am so tired of people freezing me into a “dissenting voice”. We are constantly put in opposition as if our entire lives, our brilliance, our multitude is only responding to savarnas. Our lives are not just that! We don’t matter after the mainstream. I see that with you Vqueeram, people are constantly putting you in a position where what you are saying is seen as “against human dignity” or “against equality” or whatever, which is so bizarre. Sara Ahmed also talks about this. In her book Cultural Politics of Emotions (2004), she looks at how often the most violent “hate” groups are operating in the language of “love”, and not hate. So, if you are saying anything against them – you are not standing against indignity and violations but against love itself! This is also how I see our voices operating in this particular situation. Because Guruswamy stands for the dignity of all queer people – when we critique her, we must be against that dignity itself.
I also find it so unimaginable that a lawyer who was arguing for the state in the Hadiya case also gets to be the lawyer in the 377 case, arguing for dignity. It’s just crazy. This is how savarna cliques work, right. None of them will lose their cultural and economic capital. They constantly switch between the Congress and the BJP, who the fuck cares, all of them are at the same tea parties, they live on the same roads, or are connected through extended family. This is also what Guruswamy and Katju get to tap into: Katju is a family member of a retired Supreme Court judge.
Vq: We see that with even someone like Indu Malhotra, who is on the Supreme Court bench for 377, and the kinds of maneuvers she does with Sabrimala. Standing up only for certain kinds of inviolability of questioning Hindu faith by non-believers, thereby completely erasing the critique of Hinduism by dalit and adivasi folx who are constantly subsumed in its fold through oppressive and violent means, even as the Sabrimala judgement strangely, by people like Chandrachud, relies on Articles 15 and 17 of the Constitution. It’s quite remarkable!
If Chandrachud was so moved by the discourse around untouchability, why does that not emerge in the 377 conversation? They would rather metaphorise dalit folx. They would rather have them as literal, textual sources than present in the courtrooms. It’s easier to talk about Article 17 as a kind of metaphor that you can apply to various kinds of bodies, especially savarna women’s bodies, but not think about its relationship to the dilution of prevention of atrocity laws, or to the lack of reservations in the judiciary, or representation on that bench. These questions are never asked. Some are best left as metaphors, some are best as literal testimonies, some better not present themselves in flesh and blood.
This is a practice of untouchability. Dalit people exist as textual resources that savarnas rather not come in touch or contact with. Aniket Jaaware’s beautiful book Practicing Caste: On Touching and Not Touching (2018) unravels this, and i’m relying on Jaaware’s work here. You can make them metaphors but you can’t actually deal with them in life, death or flesh. That’s exactly what the lawyers are doing. Even the most progressive of people would rather do a consultation with the kothis than actually represent them in courtrooms. These are the kinds of practices – legal practices – that we might want to think about more critically. There is something endemic to how the law is practiced that excludes, and that, in a Kafkaesque way, builds a prison around us.
AK: Before you go on – and you are giving a lot – I just want to flag two things in what you just said. Of course people textually and legally analyse the judgements. There is so much literature review on it, and I don’t even want to go into that. But I do want to say this: the very same day that the Section 377 proceedings were happening, in the very same courtroom number 1, right after the hearing – the Supreme Court went on to reject bail in the Romila Thapar case, of five activists who were involved in the Bhima Koregaon case. This is right after the Section 377 proceeding, where three out of the five judges from the Section 377 case were also sitting on the bail application case.
It’s important to remember that there’s so much other stuff happening at the same time. Even while attending the hearings, we knew that Section 377 was going to get struck down. Of course, it was a very melancholic moment – and there was so much emotional, affective response to it. It’s amazing that people who were around during the 2013 proceedings could physically, viscerally, feel the difference. The lawyers were arguing about decriminalisation, and the judges were saying let’s talk about marriage. But they are already beyond that.
There was also so much international attention around the case, such a build up to the judgment. A lot of lawyers wanted to be on the case, because they care for their legacies. Then there were, of course, a lot of lawyers that were not represented from the previous petitions because they were interns or researchers or not litigating yet, so they categorically wanted to be on record for this case, which I respect. But it is important to look at what’s happening around the case: there were also impeachment proceedings happening against retired Justice Mishra. He was about to retire after the Sec 377 case and this was his “aha!” moment. I’m just pointing out that there are so many other modalities that happen around a case, which never make it to the news. Now all we see are those two people, which is very frustrating.
Vq: Yes, absolutely. i hear you. Even i forgot that the bail hearings were on the same day, and now all of it is just really close to the surface. Do you want to maybe say something about the future projects of Guruswamy and Katju – about this marriage business?
AK: I have so much to say, and yet I feel like there are no words to say how exhausted I am to keep talking about this. I do want to talk about marriage, especially how it’s framed in Guruswamy and Katju’s Oxford Union Address because it reveals to us so much more. (Marriage is something that’s irking a lot of intersectional feminist and “social justice warriors” right now, i.e. savarnas please stop dming me.) There are so many moments in that video where you literally have to pause. . . like, what? How do you talk of marriage. . . how do you talk of marriage “equality” – and Guruswamy proudly speaks about endogamy and how India is a kinship network state – without talking about how deeply marriages in South Asia are imbricated within realities of class and caste? To proudly declare that the Indian State is a kinship state in a very matter-of-fact, nonchalant(y) way is quite cringe. I want to pause at this. This truly marks the two savarna women who are giving this speech. Let me make a crucial connection here. A lot of post-colonial studies on caste in South Asia around the 1950s were arguing that scholars are obsessed with looking at only “caste” but not “kinship”. So, you had savarna scholars who tried to downplay caste in family structures and only focus on kinship. Over the past few decades, kinship studies have gone through significant changes – all thanks to queer and feminist scholars – who have argued that kinship needs to located within the broader structures of political economy. Kinship is not something completely divorced from caste and vice versa. In making this connection, what I am saying here is that the speech uses kinship and “marriage” to sidestep the “c word”. But this is also cleverly done. Because the word caste and “dalit” is indeed featured. But before I get into that, let me point out another connection. So, the speakers talk of kinship and conveniently forget to mention “endogamy”? Once again, how could she ever be appointed as Ambedkar chair for whom it was impossible to have discussions on caste and gender without talking about Hindu endogamy!
Savarna wealth thrives on endogamy. Marriages are deeply violent for inter-caste couples. There are so many nuances that get missed out in this battle for marriage equality, especially when talking about couples across regions or castes trying to marry each other. Guruswamy says that she has spoken to people across castes, across classes – it’s bizarre to me that she gets to say that, and gets to become the star of that movement. Guruswamy jokes, in her speech, ‘I hope [Katju] will leave her larger home to me’, and she’s directly talking about property and ownership. And the fact that this was supposed to be a “light” moment – a moment of humor – at the expense of her endogamy networks! What the fuck.
At this point, let me add that while I am making this edit to our IG talk – there is a petition seeking to legalise same-sex marriages in India. A lot of hate that this petition is receiving has less to do with the petition, but more concerned with the right-wing petitioners and lawyers who have filed this case. This petition says, ‘the order of nature that Sec 377 speaks of is not just about non-procreative sex but is about forms of intimacy which the social order finds “disturbing”. This includes various forms of transgression such as inter-caste and inter-community relationships which are sought to be curbed by society. What links LGBT individuals to couples who love across caste and community lines is the fact that both are exercising their right to love at enormous personal risk and in the process of disrupting existing lines of social authority. Thus, a re-imagination of the order of nature as being not only about the prohibition of non-procreative sex but instead about the limit imposed by structures such as gender, caste, class, religion and community makes the right to love not just a separate battle for LGBT individuals, but a battle for all’.
I see no difference between the right-wing led petition and Guruswamy and Katju who are relying on the rhetoric of inter-caste marriage to advocate their notion of marriage. The fact that the petition equates inter-caste coupledom to LGBT folx, and the fact that Guruswamy declares that all castes of queer people want marraige, is highly reductive, violent and misplaced. Without really going much into how inter-caste queer couples are still making sense of “marriage”, I just want to point out here how the fight for marriage is actually a recoginition of caste endogamy – and the savarna interest in maintaining their caste properties and land.
Then there is the sheer reliance on the word ‘dalit’ in Guruswamy’s speech. This is something I want to flag. I’ve written about it, too: while we were talking about caste and queerness there were so many people – including very celebrated, upper caste activists – who literally gave us the middle finger. These same people who are now saying that they were always intersectional, and that they were always cognisant of these multiplicities, and the million different ways in which people live their lives. Not only did they erase us, not only were they the gatekeepers in not letting us have the space to speak our truth – but now they get to present themselves as allies to dalit and adivasis. People who can speak for us, work with us. Guruswamy also uses the word ‘dalit’ so much because it has long been a buzzword within the development industry and funding game. This is extremely casteist; so violent. How do they continue to enjoy this act of erasure – that same act of erasure that their caste groups have survived on, and thrived on, for centuries. They have lived on our erasures and continue to do it with a savvy language, with a savvy development language – in a savvy Oxford language – and not care about accountability.
Vq: The other day Dhrubo Jyoti raised this, that they were feeling quite exasperated by how quickly “dalit queer” has been taken up by savarna academics and savarna queer academics. We see this in the many Instagram posts you put up about the DMs you get from savarna people asking things like ‘can you guide me to a dalit queer resource’ or ‘can you give me an interview?’ What you’re saying is how easily people appropriate that which is fought for, struggled with, and the same institutions that resisted it now want to co-opt its discourse. The savarna queer subject gets to take over, mobilise the phrase “dalit queer” and fill up their dissertations, fill up their projects, fill up their marksheets with these words, almost without ever actually doing anything for dalit queer people nor being held accountable to dalit queer people. Guruswamy and Katju do precisely what we see unfolding around us constantly.
i am always perturbed by the forms of queer attachment to institutions. This attachment will never make the non-savarna demand for reservations, it will never side with trans persons – but it will make the savarna demand for “inclusion”. It will make the savarna demand for “recognition”. The court should accept us – this is the savarna demand they can make. But would the LGBQ movement in the country ever say ‘we want reservations’? It never dares to say that, it never dares to bring itself down to the level of actual democracy and equality to say that, ‘oh, no we can’t fight it through our merit’, that actually we are debilitated by society and its institutions. That is what one means by queerness as a savarna construct. Even when it articulates queer “victimhood”, it relies on savarna privilege to be included and to be accepted. Whereas the other struggles that are doing exactly the same thing – but doing it through reservations – are delegitimised as not doing enough, are delegitimised as “privileged” or lazy, as asking for too much.
i try to understand the attachment to institutions that have violated us, and sometimes i even get it. i understand the investment in getting into institutions that have excluded us, and i respect it. But i’m quite surprised – or actually not so much surprised as disheartened – that the savarna queer movement takes “acceptance” and “equal love” as its premise, but if anyone brings up reservations – including trans people, on whose backs they build bridges on – they never step up or show up. We saw this with the queer pride parade in New Delhi. The Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 was passed two days before the pride parade. There were eight thousand people, minimum, at the pride parade, while there were just seventy of us at the trans protest. That’s not an accident. It is the effect of the distance that these courtrooms – and the people inside them – have made between queer and trans people, between savarna and dalit people. The question isn’t ‘were there queer people inside the courtroom’, but: ‘which queer people were inside the courtroom?’ Who were these queer people? Where did they come from? Were they from, what Dhrubo Jyoti calls, the same “pin-codes” as the Diwans? What difference would it make if they were queer people that live in Hauz Khas? What sense of liberation can come from that?
The marriage equality movement never centres, say, the necessity of marriage for inter-caste couples, and how different that is from gay marriage. This conflation happened in the 2009 judgement with Justice AP Shah. i feel like there is, again, a metaphor-making of dalit struggles, when you say queer people’s exclusion from love is the same as inter-caste couples fighting for love. Because it’s not the same. Absolutely not. When we speak about marriage – and i’m okay with marriage as long as there is a right to divorce – whose marriage are we fighting for? And whose marriage can hold the promise of an equal democracy? These words of Ambedkar that people throw around, around caste endogamy and so on, who is Ambedkar really talking about? And has that conversation concluded?
When the judges in the Supreme Court asked, in the 2018 judgement, if this was about gender and sexuality, Mukul Rohatgi stood up and said ‘no, it’s only about sexuality.’ Again, you’re delimiting who this justice is for–- those minoritised by sexuality and not by gender. In 2014, after the NALSA judgement came out – declaring transgender people as a ‘third gender’ – everyone thought that trans people have “rights” now, and that they are all having a party. People assume that the trans rights conversation is now a conversation of the past. That the honour killing conversation is a conversation of the past. Which is why gay marriage, and gay equality, becomes the conversation about the future – and through it colonises the present. When you metaphorise the continuing struggles of trans lives and those of inter caste couples, you erase them from the courtroom, you disappear their long histories in the air of the courtroom, and you say that these people are now “okay”; that these people can now be made analogies and metaphors to fight our fight.
AK: The number of times “constitutional morality” gets thrown around by savarna lawyers – I’m just like, we get it, you have read Ambedkar’s reference in the Naz judgment! I had a running joke with my brahmin ex, and my upper caste lovers, that, you know, let’s only have a conversation about marriage if you’re also willing to talk about reparations as well, if you’re willing to give your property to me. Let’s talk about that. I don’t mind marrying you as long as I get your property. I think that’s the kind of labour that dalit queers are doing: with our desires, with the people we love. None of these savarna lawyers can even dare to contain the multitude; the depths that we come from. They cannot even imagine it.
Vq: That, for me, is the mark on which i would like to end this: the future of the conversation around queerness will be led by dalit and adivasi queer folx. It is in their multitude, their depth, their multidimensionality and their polyvocality; in their actual faith in the Constitution but also their ability to critique it – and the courage with which they critique it, the respect with which they critique it – that is really the future. Not the edifice, not the freezing of the Constitution as a document enshrined by Dr. Ambedkar, but its constant revival by people and communities who believe in the spirit of what he believed in. They will not shy away from critiquing even Ambedkar, who has been made into some kind of holy ghost by savarna people so they could build their careers on his back. Of course, many conversations are happening around dalit queerness which savarna people have no access to and thank the goddess for it.
AK: Thank you. I just want Kiruba Munusamy and Gowthaman Ranganathan to be on the Ambedkar chair at Columbia Law school, that’s what I want out of this conversation.
Vq: i think that one of the savarna people reading this can start that petition and get that ball rolling. This is the work that savarna people – with their capital, with their networks – can do to galvanise momentum.
This is an edited and expanded version of an Instagram Live conversation between Akhil Kang and Vqueeram Aditya Sahai, which took place on 1 August 2020. Link.
The small ‘i’ seeks to make apparent by difference the function of the Big ‘I’ in the overrepresentation of Man, the authorial function in the autobiographical subject and the mathematics of liberal humanism. For more on this writing see Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa ed. This Bridge Called My Back: Radical Writings by Women of Colour. Kitchen Table, 1983.
I use 'dalit' instead of 'Dalit' to talk about different queer ways of being dalit. I also use 'dalit' to write against hetero-normative and savarna understanding of dalit to be a monolith. I use 'brahmin' instead of 'Brahmin' to de-mystify brahmins as a community.
Satish Deshpande, Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category’, 48(15) Economic & Political Weekly (13 April, 2013)
Lauren Berlant, The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics, in, Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Law, by Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns (eds.), pp.49-84 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999)
There have been several instances where dalit and dalit-queer feminists have called her out on Twitter for her casteist views on reservation. These accusations range from pointing out her father’s anti-reservation stance (savarnas actively disengage on this as if their family members don’t constitute their privilege networks) to written documentation where she has written about how candidates from reserved category are not as meritorious.
In the short story, ‘Before the Law,’ Kafka alludes to everything that remains outside the door of the court as one imprisoned to its logic – both the guard and the person seeking justice are immobilised in place, unable to leave. The seeker dies-in-place, waiting to be called into its dark tunnel (I will set aside its relation to women’s sexuality aside for now). This is to say that the emergence of law as the site of justice turns everything into a prison. Everything succumbs to its logic, its wait, its ways.
Vq’s housemates and AK’s friends, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are currently incarcerated under UAPA for their participation in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act earlier this year.
On pg 42 of the writ petition Abhijit Iyer Mitra v. Union of India
VQUEERAM ADITYA SAHAI is an Associate with the Centre for Law and Policy Research. They live and love in Delhi. Instagram.