Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has claimed that lynching is a Western word. Yet, Hindutva brigades are freely appropriating another Western notion— “homonationalism”—to pinkwash Kashmir.
It started in early October, when a small group of five masked protestors entered the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London, and disrupted an ongoing South Asian Solidarity Group meeting. The meeting had been organised to discuss the conditions created by the government of India in Kashmir.
The protestors barged in, turned on the fire alarm and spread leaflets saying that they are “Gay for J&K”. They called the panel, which included Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) leader Kavitha Krishnan and Dipesh Anand, who heads the School of Social Sciences at the University of Westminster, “regressive Left’. The protestors claimed that revoking the protections of Article 370 from the former state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was a boon for Kashmir’s LGBTQ community.
According to the protestors, the special status of J&K had prevented it from implementing the Supreme Court’s 2018 directive to decriminalise homosexuality. The legal debate on whether the J&K High Court had an obligation to follow the apex court’s reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or whether the Ranbir Penal Code, operative in the erstwhile Kashmir state, had to undergo amendments to accommodate the verdict was immaterial to the protestors.
Surprisingly, after the SOAS protests, India’s Hindutva troll brigade on social media came out in full support of their newly-made LGBTQ “brothers and sisters” in Kashmir. This is an about-turn, for, the Hindutva brigade has consistently opposed anything but heteronormative as “unnatural” and “perverted”.
On August 6, the day after Kashmir was stripped of its special status, one Abhishek Banerjee wrote on a Right-wing platform: “...the abolition of Article 370 has finally given equal property rights to Kashmiri women, how are liberals fighting back? They say it is against the autonomy of J&K! Why was homosexuality still a crime in J&K despite the SC judgement last year? Because of Article 370... how are liberals trying to block them?”.
Nationalistic rhetoric, where the rights of homosexuals are privileged over the fundamental rights of others to a life of dignity is new to India but has long been practised in the West. The “Gay for J&K” protestors at SOAS were echoing this logic to justify stifling the voices of the marginalised in Kashmir. And they did so in the name of upholding LGBTQ rights.
Respecting LGBTQ rights is now a symbol of being a progressive nation state. In order to claim being modern, a nation must recognise the rights of the LGBTQ. So far so good, but nationalistic rhetoric floats the theory that a competition or conflict exists between the rights to a dignified life of homosexuals and other marginalised groups.
This strategy of the Right wing draws legitimacy from the global discourse that seeks to accord rights to freedom of sexual choice and a dignified life to the LGBTQ, by playing up the competitive marginality card. In Israel, for instance, the occupation of Palestine has been justified by citing homophobia in Palestinian society. Yes, dignity and human rights are what LGBTQ movements the world over seek and fight for. Yet, a number of ‘modern’ nations use the rhetoric of these movements to shield their violation of the fundamental rights of the other marginalised groups. Israel has stifled the voices of the marginalised Palestinians by privileging one marginalised group—the LGBTQ—over the others.
Clearly, this is done in many countries to detract from contentious issues. This is part of what queer theorist Jasbir Puar calls homonationalism. Herein, nationalistic slogans are floated in which a country claims that it is modern and progressive while suppressing dissent and differences.
In her book, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Puar defines the use of “acceptance” and “tolerance” for gay and lesbian subjects as the “barometer by which the legitimacy of, and capacity for, national sovereignty is evaluated”. She critiques the liberal rights discourse on progress and modernity that accords some populations access to cultural and legal citizenship “at the expense of the partial and full expulsion from those rights of other populations.”
In the post 9/11 context, Puar says, the liberals justified the United States “war on terror” and dismantling of West Asia by arguing: “Of course we oppose the war on terror, but what about the homophobia of Muslims? Of course, we oppose the US occupation of the Middle East, but the Iranians keep hanging innocent gay men. Of course, we support the revolution in Egypt and the Arab Spring, but the sexual assaults of women prove that the Egyptians are beasts.”
Feminist Lila Abu-Lughod says in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? that such justifications for war were manufactured by essentialising the conditions of Muslim women in these countries.
This is the kind of sexual nationalism that modern nation states are practicing and it is a project with echoes in today’s India. Consider a section of the Hindu men in India who celebrated the triple talaq Bill, which criminalises Muslim men. The same trope legitimises the arbitrary scrapping of Article 370 and detention of eight million Kashmiris in their own land.
Feminist critic Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak had identified “White men saving Brown women from Brown men”. Now we have Hindutva nationalism at its Hindu male adherents rescuing Muslim women from Muslim men.
Binding Israeli Occupation and US War on Terror
On December 18, 2010, the US government revoked the ban on homosexuality in its military. On the same day, the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, to permit undocumented students in the US to access higher education, failed on a procedural flaw in the US senate. The withdrawal of the ban on homosexuality overwhelmed public discourse—there were protests against the DREAM Act’s withdrawal, but few noticed.
In the fall of 2009, the US senate passed the Mathew Shepard James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, technically the first legislation that criminalises hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. Anti-race-discrimination queer groups such as Queers for Economic Justice warned that such criminalisation would affect people of colour the most; for it often believed in the US that members of non-White races are more homophobic. The QEJ warned that criminalisation of hate would bolster surveillance excesses, increase discrimination and foster violence, but nobody paid any heed.
It is Israel, the closest ally of the US, which is among the proudest campaigners for gay rights. The Brand Israel campaign talks about its LGBTQ-friendly environment and attempts to strike a contrast with the Palestinian people and Palestine in doing so.
Such a campaign closes off any counter-arguments on how securing LGBTQ rights can legitimise the oppression of another people. Israel thus denies the Palestinian LGBTQ subjects a voice. The Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and the Al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society (AlQaws), the two major queer collectives of Palestine, are fighting relentlessly against the Occupation and call it their main site of struggle. Yet, Israel pinkwashes them.
This is not all. On January 11, 2011, Tel Aviv declared itself the “World’s Best Gay City”. On the same day, Israel’s High Court of Justice endorsed a law that prohibited West Bank Palestinians from meeting their spouses in Israel. So, the country with the world’s best gay city, amends its citizenship law to blatantly stifle the sexual and physical mobility of its Palestinian citizens and residents.
Contrary to perception, the rights granted by homonationalists to LGBTQs do not give greater sexual freedom and rights. Consider the misconceived notion of ‘love jihad’ floated by Hindu nationalists in India: Like the homonationalists in Israel, India’s ‘love jihad’ proponents want to restrain sexuality and curb the intermingling of castes, classes and religions. It is such interaction which constitutes a nightmare for the purist Hindutva propagators, though it speaks the language of protecting women throughout its campaigns against inter-marriage.
Anti-Islam Rhetoric of Homonationalism
Homonationalists do not limit themselves to the boast that they are proud modernists and progressive nationalists. They justify Islamophobia and seek to disenfranchise Muslims of their right to being modern (as the West defines it).
In a conference on ‘Sexual Nationalisms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Belonging in the New Europe’, organised by the University of Amsterdam, Stefan Dudink, who teaches social anthropology and development studies at the Radbound University in the Netherlands, explained how homosexuals are constructed as a “race” against Muslims. “Whenever equal rights and respect for gays and lesbians are contrasted with Islam and Muslim culture, a series of oppositions is implicitly or explicitly mobilised: West-East, modern-backward, secular-religious, etc,” he said.
Hence, the inherent logic is anti-Muslim, the rhetoric is of self-claimed modernism and the weapon is LGBTQ rights. In this way, homonationalism has been deployed to delegitimise Palestinian rights, clamp down on Kashmiris and so on.
In India, Hindu nationalists may oppose Western liberal ideals on many scores but they seem to have learnt from Israel and the US that by raising the rights of the LGBTQs, and by spewing rhetoric on “protecting” Muslim women, they will gain the sanction to attack dalits, Muslims and tribals, and yet claim to be “modern”.
Consider the transitions in the stance of the Sangh Parivar regarding the rights of homosexuals. From wanting to exclude them, they turned to containing them, appropriating them and now they are using them to fulfil their broader Hindutva nationalist project. Minutes after the Apex court had read down Section 377, Bhagwat readily accepted the decriminalisation. Now, a new book, The RSS: Roadmaps For the 21st Century, by RSS theologue Sunil Ambekar says that RSS does not outright reject gay marriage either. That it is willing to discuss it at length.
For these reasons, the SOAS incident should be an eye-opener. India must invigorate its discussions on the rights of one marginalised community, which must not come at the cost of other’s rights. There is need for a larger consolidation of the marginalised against the rising tide of homonationalisation. Hindu elite-caste homosexuals are not responsible for rescuing Muslim homosexuals from Muslim heteronormativity.
The writer is a doctoral research fellow at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. The views are personal.