Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi*
February 20, 2021
"I would like my books to be a kind of tool box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area."
– Michel Foucault
NEW DELHI — On Feb. 14, Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old woman from Bangalore, was arrested by the Delhi police and charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy. We were told that she was participating in a global social media campaign to support the farmers protesting across India against the new farm laws and that this equaled attempting "to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India". Particularly, she was accused of modifying a document which is classified as a ‘toolkit" created for coordinating social media campaigns and protests to help the protesting farmers of India. We should note that "toolkit" may now appear to be an incendiary term for many Indians, however it is an ordinary document used by any organisation of people to coordinate and make their actions effective.
The worldwide dimension of the campaign for India's farmers — which received support from Greta Thunberg, Rihanna, and Meena Harris among others — should be understood properly. The contemporary crises of our world – climatic, democratic, technological, financial, epidemic – can no longer be understood or contained within the logic of nation states. Rather, everything is befalling everyone everywhere such that pandemic—that which befalls the demos (the people) of the pan (the whole)—is the name for the state of the world. Even to begin a resolution towards addressing these crises would require the beginnings of a democracy of the world, of which the movements led by Thunberg are a part. This is not the impossible utopia of ‘world government" but more simply a cause that is shared by everyone.
The global dimension of capitalistic exigencies is somewhat known to the rulers and their supporters who seem to work according to the ‘toolkit" of the day in television studios, newspaper columns and social media. After all, when it comes to the very farm laws, which will deprive the farmers of whatever autonomy and minimal existential assurances they have today, the supporters of the laws cite the globalised food market and American farming practices as examples. In India, the ‘urgency" which made the government dubiously bypass parliamentary procedures in order to bring in the new laws seems to point to the insatiable urges of just two corporations and soon, criticising them might constitute sedition, as is already being suggested.
However, our attention in India should be on a more important question—what is the name for the political arrangement that we are now in? To say that this is not democracy is not abominable to the high officials and the lowly trolls of the present dispensation, though it might be difficult to hear for those who continue to hope for a tolerable regime to appear in the near future.
There is a story which expresses the substance problem in philosophy, which is about that which makes a particular thing what it is. In the story, a man in Washington DC sells George Washington's axe everyday. One day, someone asks the salesman, "Sir, I'd like to buy this axe, but the blade seems too new to me. Is it really the axe used by George Washington?" The salesman replies "Of course it is the very same axe used by Washington, I just changed out the blade twice when it was rusty and the handle thrice because of termites'. The question then is what is it that we are selling to our young students and activists, increasingly women, who are languishing in our prisons?
There is never anything like a "democracy" in the sense of a political arrangement where the wishes of all individuals are fulfilled or even those of a majority of individuals. The former is ruled out by the finitude of existence and the latter is potentially the very abolishment of such an arrangement, for that is how democratic arguments are used in order to end democratic systems. Instead, democracy is a very young promise of a very young experiment in human history. It relies on mutually agreed protocols and rules for collective deliberations and actions with the additional protocols to criticise and verify these very rules of collective action.
A functioning democracy, which is always going to be an inadequate democracy, is made up of components which are more or less autonomous with respect to one another such as the legislature, judiciary, executive, the media, the universities, and electoral procedures. The components have their own laws. For example, in the house of legislature a member can speak that which cannot be spoken outside it, as shown by the Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra recently. An academic can critically comment on the component laws and functions of the judiciary unlike a member of the judiciary itself.
Democracies exist so long as they guard the democratic promise, which supersedes the democratic arrangements.
The law which comprehends all these components is not the constitution, but something that exceeds it towards the open and unknown concerns of the future, still guided by the very promise of maintaining this very system of collective deliberations and actions. In other words, the comprehending law of a political arrangement, as long as it is worthy of being called a democratic experiment, cannot be stated exhaustively.
Democracies exist so long as they guard the democratic promise which supersedes the democratic arrangements. However, the many laws, state actions and court judgments which we have witnessed in India over the past few decades have systematically betrayed this democratic promise by misusing the very democratic institutions and procedures. No political party in India can be exonerated from this crime against democratic promise.
When one of the components of the political arrangement seizes all the other components of a political arrangement, it initiates the end of the very system. The Greeks called it stasis, which is one of the designations of evil. That is, we continue to misname that in which we are. This condition of stasis – which can be specified as totalitarianism, authoritarianism, fascism, Nazism, dictatorship – certainly enables some business leaders. Legislation which is delayed and made uncertain by deliberative democratic processes are bad for their business. Now, many governments across the world are merely the market places for the laws.
We have found in recent years that the charges raised and the evidence presented against activists who are convinced of their critique, and who continue to adhere to the democratic promise, are almost always ludicrous. Recently we learnt of the planting of evidence in the computers of activists to arrest them under extraordinary provisions of the law. Last year, a young girl was made to suffer in prison for raising slogans, and several young women are languishing in our prisons without bail for attempting to break Brahminical patriarchal chains. When we look at the sickening anti-miscegenation laws brought by the states and the anti-miscegenation vigilante action against inter-caste and inter-religious relations across the country, something appears clearly. There is an attempt at ethnic/religious purification for which all societies have crushed the freedoms of women.
In India the non-governmental paramilitary ‘organisational famiglia", also known as the "Sangh parivar", is fantasising about the ideal Indian woman who will be the domestic goddess to those outside her homes and merely the devoted supplicant to her father, brother, husband and son inside.
The latest arrest of Disha Ravi too should be seen in the same light. It is no different from the incarceration of young women fighting for their freedom of movement and other rights. All these prisons reveal the true wall of democracy today – it bears the names Disha Ravi, Nikita Jacob, Loujain Al-Hathloul, Devangana Kalita, Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal, Hadiya, Nodeep Kaur, Ishrat Jahan, Rhea Chakravarty among countless others, and they are spilling over. The prison guards should know that women broke free of the oldest of prisons and these new ones are a day's work in comparison.
Democracy is a collective deliberation and action based on rules and protocols which are themselves open to perpetual examination. In a functioning democracy, the courts would have laughed at the officials and governments which parade these innocents under ludicrous charges and fantastical evidence. But in India, day after day charges which try to outdo one another in ridiculousness are brought before our judges and they continue to bring the hammer down on poor souls, abdicating their judicial duties. If sharing "toolkits' is a crime then Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and other philosophers might soon emerge as global conspirators who will then be charged by the police under sedition laws.
Notwithstanding the tolerable outcomes which emerge from the courts from time time – bail here, a stay order there – the fact is that each and every component of what was the Indian experiment in democracy today is competing to enable an extra-constitutional Sangh parivar to destroy the final remaining functions and institutions of the experiment. Which component will become the most rewarded arm of the fascist state is the question.
They fear anything which may weaken their ever-rusting iron fists.
In spite of all the examples of global authoritarianism, we know that human beings – with their desire for freedom, their ever-growing shared concerns in the face of global crises – cannot survive within totalitarian arrangements. Totalitarianisms are paranoid about the very thing which allows humanity to accrue the mutations through which it will meet the exigencies of the future –i.e. the creation of knowledge and freedom. They fear anything which may weaken their ever-rusting iron fists, especially this new generation of thinkers and activists who are able to acutely perceive the imminent crises of this world.
If the present turn away from democracy continues any longer it will indeed be catastrophic for all, whether in India or elsewhere – including for those who today defend this turn in the name of market efficiency and the so called ‘success' of the ‘Chinese model". The fact is that totalitarianisms everywhere are the most serious threat to the very existence of human beings today.
The ‘extinction rebellion" of Greta Thunberg and her friends correctly perceives in the ecological crises an impending disaster which threatens to extinguish humanity itself. However, it is evident that the ethos of Thunberg's civil disobedience model presupposes democratic conditions. Therefore, the concerns of the activists of extinction rebellion must necessarily expand, especially in this context of the hunting down of the young women and men who believe in the democratic promise.
The world needs as existential rebellion of all peoples everywhere against totalitarianisms of all kinds. The existential rebellion will then be the revolt everywhere against those who are attempting to shatter the democratic promise.
*Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi are philosophers based in the subcontinent.
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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