Ways of becoming


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THE past, the present and the future are all contested terrains in the field of Indian sexualities. The past is often plumbed to create traditions, to give us a sense of belonging. Yet there is a perilous price to pay in the creation of traditions. Most often, they are more imagined than real and involve distortions of history, groups (as Indian women will testify) can feel burdened by them and many of us have argued for the right to be who we are and who we want to be, whether or not it is sanctioned by traditions.

Who creates traditions anyway? Distortion, wishful thinking or fantasy, traditions still give us a sense of solace, comfort that we are not alone in desiring or desiring the wrong body. More useful has been a considerable body of quite marvellous work done by Indian feminists which traces sexuality as barely perceptibly but almost immanently embedded in a series of discourses and practices around social control, state and community formation, and social reform.1 Most of this centres around violence, female sexuality in need of violent control. It is through violence that women in India have known (and continue to know) sexuality most intimately.

So much has changed for Indian women over the latter half of the last century and yet it appears like too little. Sexuality in the present is still marked by violence against women. More women are raped and more brazenly. Gujarat 2002 witnessed a systematic genocide against the Muslim women of Gujarat. Feminists in India still can’t say the S word without faltering, and the familiar hiss of resentment still sussurates at that first syllable, asking for silence, reprimanding them for breaking taboos.

Yet men can wreak the most systematically obscene violence against women on a routine basis. Television screens, film posters, page 3 photographs, glossy magazines and the net (by no means an exhaustive list) have a surfeit of crudely sexualized women being avidly consumed by Indians, more than ever before. This is just the most obvious of a series of contradictions that mark the present. But no new generation of feminists are doing the sort of work on the present that the last generation did on the past.

What are we to make of these disjunctions? Women’s sexuality is not explored, but we have an emergent masculinity studies, not really informed by and emerging out of the women’s movement (as it did in Britain, for example) and all set to mark men as involved in ‘supportive practices’ (whatever these are) when we have not yet come to terms with men’s violence on women and each other. Women continue to be robbed of justice after being raped, but certain feminists want a gender-neutral law on rape modelled on Scandinavian countries and work done in elite western law schools. Same-sex communities don’t have an identity in our laws but this new law will cover violence between same-sex couples according to these feminists who feel no need to consult or consider the opinion of independent feminist groups and same-sex rights groups working across the country.



Violence at the hands of the state and community or family on women’s sexuality and same-sex sexualities continues apace. Being heterosexual in India is as beleaguered as being anything else. Heterosexual couples across India are hacked to death for transgressing caste barriers, lynched by panchayats and public alike; couples are hounded out of public spaces and arrested, released only if they are engaged to be married; single mothers have no legal rights whatsoever, yet some feminists think the law may be useless and unnecessary to women. Globalisation in the field of same-sex politics actually produces cultural categories and gendered identities dictated by the logics of global funding from the North more than any need on the ground. US-funded NGOs dictate how we should live and who we are, in a language so absurd that it would be funny were its effects not so deleterious.



These are some of the mind-boggling elements that constitute the present. If, earlier, the Manichean division was between the discourses of sexuality-as-violence and sexuality-as-pleasure, both now coexist in parallel but different domains. However, neither stream is seriously engaging with what sexuality might really mean to us as subjects nor do the two inform each other, even as surely pleasure and violence both inform sexuality. Both discourses are discrete and operate in mutually exclusive terrains. Pressured by the violence of contemporary practices, feminist work on sexual violence tends to void the subject of any sexual agency. Desire, the hegemonic language through which we understand sexual agency, surely does not belong here is the argument. It is simply violence against women.

However, this may be our biggest mistake. This is apparent in same-sex politics where we are so impelled by the need to respond to state or family violence that we forget the desiring subject enveloped in this violence and protest. This is not a purely desiring subject waiting to be disinterred from the mess of politics, but a subject whose desire is formed within, caught in and also resisting the field of politics in which it finds itself. We might have to redefine our conception of desire, take it out of some simple understanding of pleasure and situate it in the various conflicting and coalescing fields that inform and constitute it.

Meanwhile, the other language of limitless, consumerist desire unfolds itself repeatedly and in patterns of repetition: Miss Universes, naked bodies in music videos, glossy women’s magazines with articles on how to seduce your man, naked bodies in movies, in the newspapers every morning: all apparently a language of sexuality as desire but fixed in class, caste, age grids and revolving pretty much in the bubble, large as it is, of that world. The violence that goes into these images is effaced, lost in the paint. The desiring female agent is a bad ass materialist, but there is little else to her subjectivity; she is curiously disembodied or nothing more than a concatenation of body parts, the staple of pornographic fantasy. A more insidious form of this desire has now crept into one variant of feminist discourse in dealing with the sex worker, an area I will delineate later on in this piece.



So who is the Indian sexual subject? The truth is, in India, there are very few self-identified sexual subjects, if any. Indiatimes.com has a set of chat rooms ‘Man to Man’ and ‘Woman to Woman’ and the former room is almost always populated by dozens of men on the lookout for sex with other men in the city, the neighbourhood. But almost none of them are ‘gay’, most are married and a great percentage of them homophobic. Yet this is not Shivananda Khan’s classically ridiculous behaviour/identity dichotomy. Sex with men is not only a behaviour with the men in these rooms, it is more complicated and intersubjective than that. It is just not intersubjective in salubrious ways and not merely because this is not the way that take us, evolutionally, to the fully formed gay subject.

Women marry each other in what seems like the most radical attack on patriarchy. They appropriate the institution of Hindu marriage, in the temple. Yet these are invariably women with one of them dressed as a man, playing the man’s role while the other is the ‘woman’ and takes off her lover’s shoes every evening. This is no self-defined, well-adjusted ‘lesbian’ subject. Nor is this only role-play or radical chic. The female sex worker may still retain a sense of the private and the pleasurable in the spaces between the shards of her disembodied existence, but this sense can’t be made to replace that disembodiment, substitute it or paper it over. There are serious contradictions that disable linear narratives of desire and doom, identity and self-fashioning.



As if the fashioning of the self and the other were not messy enough, practices operate in impossibly heterogeneous sites in India. Sodomy as a phenomenon, for example, is part of the logic of Article 377, a brutal reality of prison life but with no recognition and acceptance of it, part of the daily life (prostitution in which many of them are involved) and harassment (by the police) of hijras, a violence in the form of paedophilia (a routine part of the lives of economically poor, labouring children), part of class, caste and national forms of humiliation, a weapon of state oppression and a part of adult consensual desire (whether between two men or heterosexual couples) all at the same time. How does one tackle it? How many NGOs have mobilized around such sites or worked with such groups, taking up the issue of sodomy?

Sexuality research demands a combined grasp of the historical and material contexts of its production and circulation; also a plumbing of the psyche and subconscious to trace the creation of sexuality’s languages for different subjects. Our psychoanalytic work only involves ahistorical mumbo jumbo by the likes of Sudhir Kakar and Ashis Nandy; the material contexts we know only appear to be that of bored urban housewives interviewed about their sexual fantasies by tired and deluded sociologists. This combination of difficult subjects and multiple contexts demands a new sociological vocabulary which can encapsulate it. The available machinery does not appear adequate at all.

Hegemonic understandings of sexuality and sexuality-based identity, particularly that of the globalising homosexual/heterosexual binary have monolithicized communities and limited the possibilities of democratic sexual politics. We need ways of restoring the diversity of communities and making their complexities inform and restructure the ways in which we conceptualise sexual identity, self, community and sexual politics.



How, then, to build that future? What future do we see emerging from this mess of contradictions? At the best of times, it is difficult to theorise sexuality. Where is it? At the heart of it all, as western feminisms believed for a while? One of many discourses? Embedded in every discourse? Overrated and unimportant? In a sociological matrix as mind-boggling as India’s, the question becomes even more inscrutable. As Juliet Mitchell once famously asked: What are we in the process of becoming?2

The easy way out is to speak of what future one would want to see and create a self-satisfying scenario based on fantasy. What is more difficult to imagine is where sexuality is actually located. What is definite is that the most important phenomenon that frames sexuality is globalisation: it affects every area of sexuality – from sex practices to social work on sex and sexuality, from sexual identities to sexual health (thanks to the global Aids phenomenon), from sexual rights to academic research on sexuality.



Now, globalisation appears to be a difference-producing machine. Witness the multiplication of same-sex identities in India over recent years. LGBTHKQ? (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Hijra, Kothi, Questioning(!)) Surely this is a healthy diversity? Quite the opposite, actually. There is a way in which globalisation produces a language of plurality even as it erases that very plurality at the moment of its avowal. The alphabet soup of categories quoted above are created by urban NGOs, comprising evolved and internationalized same-sex subjects who work within the rights-based identities framework, seek international funds and recognition, seek to put international pressure on national regimes and speak the international language of sexual politics. The difference in these multiplying categories, then, is merely notional, at best exotica and quixotica. Many groups in the soup are barely touched (hijras, for example) and the resistance of subjects to such categorization (by the so-called kothis, for example) ignored. What’s important is to keep the global sexuality funding machine going.

Same-sex communities have piggybacked their way into the Indian scene on Aids, yet the worst effects of Aids are not on same-sex communities here (unlike Western Europe and North America) but on heterosexualised women sex workers. Nevertheless, certain feminists are talking of the sex worker’s desire (if you please!) instead of her fatal virus or her enforced status.

Aids itself is not really a governmental priority, though Aids funds certainly are. Condom ads are banned in certain states and the central government does not bat an eyelid. Perhaps it thinks Hindus are above Aids, that it is the disease of the infidels. But the global logics of Aids research and funds eat into the so-called alternative sector in India, the NGO world. Our new theorizers on sexuality are the NGOs and, whether they’d like to believe it or not, they are working to pre-set agendas even as they are allowed to make pretty pictures of ‘difference’.



The fact is that NGOs have taken over the field of sexuality in India. The women’s movement increasingly appears to have sold out to the NGO world. We hardly have any independent, non-funded women’s groups emerging from communities in the society. All we have are a multitude of foreign-funded women’s NGOs speaking the international lingo of aid-based ‘gender’ discourse and yoking the contexts they are based in to fit these apparently flexible, but actually rigid, frames.

None of these groups have a mass base, none of them work with groups in serious need of help or if they do work with them, it is in completely counterproductive ways, like the ‘sex worker and desire’ nonsense mentioned earlier. NGOs have edged out all possible independent initiative by groups and communities. Soon we will not have any social movements left, we’ll have ‘community-based’ groups and ‘outreach’ groups and whatever other groups are created by the preposterous jargon of the NGO world.

The fact is that NGOs have no accountability. They claim to fight for the rights of the underprivileged and for equality, yet they are the worst exploiters of labour. They underpay, overwork and exploit labour and there are no NGO labour unions even though the agendas of many may be fighting for the creation of unions among other labouring groups. NGOs function along increasingly corporate lines, they speak corporate lingo and aspire to corporate organisation. Their understanding of issues does not come from any grassroots based reality but rather the manuals of groups and identities abroad. They do not attempt to understand the contexts they claim to work in but superimpose ludicrous grids onto groups here, causing much damage. One of the most painful ironies of my experience was of a feminist NGO being among the worst abusers of women.



Academic work is scarcely different. All the worst clichés about Indian academics sitting in plush offices in North America and pontificating on pain, alas, are true. This is not to suggest that if you are sitting and writing about pain from a plush or not so plush office/home in Patparganj, you are necessarily doing any better, though you may want to feel more sanctimonious about it. What is effected is that we are all being roped in by a professionalised US academic discourse which we use and about which we are not at all reflexive. We end up producing interpretations that have more to do with churning out theoretically fashionable (US academia) and rhetorically chiming (with global NGO discourse) papers and books and less to do with the realities of our subjects, ourselves.

This infection by US discourse has entered journalism, the media and ‘creative writing’ as well. So child sexual abuse and incest, two of the most well-kept secrets and horrendous realities of Indian society are left untouched by NGOs (apart from a few eminently disgraceful exceptions, like the ones framing the gender-neutral rape law) and academics and taken up by manicured and deeply voyeuristic journos who write books viciously exploitative of their subjects and posh fag playwrights who don’t know their angst from their adipose, yet write appalling plays and make more-than-appalling films on the subject.



Finally, it is not as though mass-based movements and ‘indigenous’ organizations are without their problems. Consider, for example, the fact that for two years running now, the two Left party women’s organizations have not allowed lesbians to march in the International Women’s Day rally on March 8. Their arguments are unreconstructed and embarrassing, proving that like Left men, Left women are also pre-sexual, have no libido and blush at the S word. The Left in India, as a whole, then, is sexless and mimics the mindless heterosexism of its rightwing adversaries, adding to the list of things on which they are in perfect consonance with the Right.

Consider this statement by the NFIW that same-sex communities in India are ‘an invasion of India by decadent western culture and a direct fall-out of our signing the GATT agreement (!)’ and their urging the prime minister ‘not to follow Bill Clinton’s immoral approach to sexual perversion in the US.’3 Or, more recently, AIDWA writing to The Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) that a lesbian banner would ‘cause confusion’ and agreeing with NFIW that there were other more pressing priorities. This shows a complete inability to see the integrated nature of sexual reality, how it is inextricably intertwined with other aspects of reality and oppression and needs to be addressed to change the status of women, perhaps especially, working class women.



The current predominant trend in feminist, same-sex movements and sexual discourses in general in India, deracinated from its constituencies, is to accept the terms on which globalisation and its internationalisation of certain types of identity and identity politics works uncritically. If Dennis Altman, for example, has triumphantly announced the internationalisation of gay identity and sees no great problems with globalisation and the bringing of an individualist rights discourse and understanding of identity to the Third World,4 he is echoed by same-sex activists throughout Asia and Africa.5 If Amnesty International, ILGA and international funding agencies are willing to unproblematically promulgate these notions of identity, the resistance to it is easily drowned out. It is important then to be aware of the violences of this internationalist discourse of which we so freely partake.

As Neville Hoad asks:

By attempting to transform participants in certain corporeal intimacies into homosexual persons, do we not do a great disservice to the vast majority of participants in same-sex acts in other places? To assert the universality of a specific historical agent can, and arguably is, closing down spaces for these participants without replicating the set of historical circumstances which allowed gayness to have historical agency in the West. This is especially so given the unevenness of capitalist development globally. The universalism that promises liberation ends up as oppression.6

Hoad is talking here of same-sex politics but this applies to sexuality in the non-West as a whole. The important phrase is ‘specific historical agent’ and it is only when we build a politics out of a close attention to the specific historical contexts of agents, both past and present, in their multiple contexts, that we can understand sexuality and sexual formations in India.



We need to use deep sociological and anthropological material from women and minority same-sex communities to question the ways in which dominant paradigms collapse complexity and difference even within the hegemonic community. We need to resuscitate this diversity for a more productive sexual politics at the levels of family, community and state and, ultimately, a more democratic and nuanced understanding of the role of sexuality in our lives.

We also, of course, should be aware that even robust notions of difference and diversity could easily fall back into fetishism, reification and a whole range of less than desirable othering processes. Configurations of minority and majority definitions in the US, for example, continually struggle with this sameness/difference conundrum. The facile multiculturalism of ‘Let’s celebrate our differences’ obscures the role of power in constituting those differences, yet the universal too is frequently implicitly white, male and bourgeois. We need to work through this philosophical impasse here too, to see through the facile plurality of globalising discourse as much as discern the homogenizing processes at work beneath the rhetoric of rights and identity politics as we know it. This can only be done by grounding representations of these contexts in their material bases and building a framework based on praxis more than anything else.



This politics may have to eschew a large part of received conceptions of identity even as it does not disavow totally the importance of strategically using the colonial machinery like the law and civil rights to demand a space. It will have to be sensitive to the particularities in the articulation of the location of any group (whether heterosexual women, hijras or women identified women) without falling into the easy and distortionate pleasures of western categories (western feminism, gay and lesbian rights) or nativist indigenism (Vedic lesbians, homosexuality as western vice). Reality, as we know, is somewhere in between these two.7

Most of all, then, it would need to be rigorously aware of and constantly interrogating the assumptions behind any of its own articulations and the institutions and frameworks it may use to further those articulations. It is only then that we can hope to forge a politics that is truly capable of imagining what we are in the process of becoming.


* for Nishit Saran.



1. I have in mind the work of scholars such as Uma Chakravarti, Tanika Sarkar, Kumkum Sangari, Janaki Nair and others. See Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (eds), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (Delhi: Kali, 1989) and Patricia Uberoi (ed), Social Reform, Sexuality and the State (Delhi: Sage, 1996).

2. Mitchell asks this in relation to the project of feminist criticism. If the feminist subject is not some pre-Oedipal irrational, plural dervish, nor simply a post-Oedipal victim determined by patriarchy and femininity, what is she? The question can be transposed to the Indian context quite effectively. If the Indian woman is neither pure agent nor pure victim, what is she? See Juliet Mitchell, ‘Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis’, in The Longest Revolution: Essays on Feminism, Literature and Psycho-analysis (London: Virago, 1984).

3. Praful Goradia, quoting from the NFIW’s press statement in a report in The Times of India, 9 November 1994.

4. Dennis Altman, ‘The Internationalization of Gay Identity’, Social Text, Vol.14, No.3, Fall (1996), 77-94 and ‘Talking Sex’ Postcolonial Studies, Vol.3, No.2 (2000), 171-178.

5. See, for example, the essay by Oliver Phillips, ‘Constituting the Global Gay Issues of Individual Subjectivity and Sexuality in Southern Africa’, in Law and Sexuality in the Global Arena (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2001). Originally published as Sexuality in the Legal Arena (Althone Press, 2000) and Peter Jackson, ‘Kathoey><Gay> <Man: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacific’, in Lenore Manderson and Margaret Jolly eds., Sites of Desire/Economies of Pleasure. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996).

6. Neville Hoad ,‘Arrested Development or the Queerness of Savages: Resisting Evolutionary Narratives of Difference’, Postcolonial Studies, Vol.3, No.2 (2000), 133-158.

7. For a nuanced reading of colonialism’s complicated legacy and how postcolonialism is necessarily inflected by a mixture of coloniser and colonised, which is neither necessarily debilitating nor involves the erasure of colonial violence, see Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government (Cambridge: Polity, 1994).